In his mid-fifties, at an age when many people start to consider early retirement, Rob Harriman has returned to university. After 30 years in computing, the data-storage consultant is pursuing a new interest: technology and crime detection.
It's a risk for someone of his age, but Harriman hopes his grey hairs will lend him authority as an expert witness once he graduates in forensic computing from De Montfort University.
The subject is one of the biggest growth areas in higher education: three years ago, only four UK institutions offered undergraduate degrees in it; now there are 23.
"The opportunities for criminals to abuse digital electronics are countless, from mobile phones to the internet, from identity theft to child pornography. Forensic-computing scientists help prevent such crime and track down perpetrators," says Tim Watson, the course tutor and principal lecturer in computing at De Montfort in Leicester. Big firms are increasingly employing experts in computer forensics and, after the Enron scandal, anyone dealing with a US firm is expected to have in place a "forensic incidence response" procedure.
Computers are also involved in traditional crimes. "Police might seize a jewellery thief's computer and find he had been planning the route on Google Maps," says Watson. "Sometimes universities can get carried away with a new area when there aren't jobs for their graduates, but it looks as if there will be more demand than supply in forensics for some time to come."
As part of the four-year course, students spend a year on paid placements within industry and law enforcement, but mature students such as Harriman can opt out of the sandwich element. He investigated courses at several universities before deciding on De Montfort. Some of the courses at other universities, he felt, were not sufficiently attuned to what employers would need in terms of up-to-date computing and legal expertise. "I was looking for a course where forensics wasn't just a badge on a straightforward computing degree but the main focus," he says.
Ibby Nevill, 35, turned to the course at De Montfort when she felt her career in mainframe programming was reaching a dead end. She is paying her way through the course – her first degree was in maths at University of Nottingham – and hopes to work for the security services. "I got interested in crime-scene forensics while working as a special constable and I've got the clearances through being in the Territorial Army," she says.
Ronnie Smyth dropped out of education before taking his A-levels and worked in IT for two years before going back to college to complete his exams and applying to university. "There are a lot of people doing computing courses – having a specialism makes it easier to find a good job," he says.
The popularity of forensics courses has boosted computer departments, which have suffered a 45 per cent reduction in applications between 2003 and 2006, according to e-skills UK, the sector's skills council. "These courses are helping universities respond to the demand of employers," says Karen Price, its chief executive. "Cyber crime is growing and the demand for experts is growing with it. Young people will also get useful, transferable skills."
The longest-running courses are at the Royal Military College of Science at Cranfield University, which has offered part-time postgraduate qualifications for 10 years under Professor Tony Sams and Professor Brian Jenkinson, who have appeared for the police and security services in many high-profile cases. The courses cost from £4,800 for a one-year postgraduate certificate to £8,500 for a three-year MSc.
Students must be trained not only how to detect evidence but to collect it and present it within the legal system in a way acceptable to the courts, says Marc Kirby of Cranfield's Centre for Forensic Computing.
The subject is hard work and demanding but the jobs are out there, he says. "There are positions advertised on appointments sites offering £45,000 for senior specialists in computer forensics and up to £85,000 for managers."
With specialists in high demand and able to command large salaries, the challenge for universities as more courses become available will be to recruit and retain their lecturers.