Demise of computer science exaggerated

Light bulb glow Keith Mander, chair of the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing, responds to Neil McBride's article 'The death of computing'.

Suggestions that the teaching of computer science in universities is about to fade away are premature. While it is certainly true that applications for undergraduate courses in computer science have fallen by about 50 per cent since 2001, its value to the graduate remains as strong as ever, and will be so for the foreseeable future.

Computer science is part of a diverse and complex subject concerned with the understanding, design and exploitation of computation and computer technology, combining theory with the solution of immediate practical problems, combining scholarly and professional activities, underpinning the development of both small scale and large scale organisational systems, as well as helping individuals in their everyday lives. 

The pervasive nature of computing, and its wide application, produces a complex employment market for computing graduates, from industrial sectors concerned with the production of foundational hardware and software technology, through stand-alone hardware and software products, industrial applications (particularly, for example, in the financial services, media and telecommunications sectors) and finally to the business solutions deployed in the majority of entrepreneurial businesses serving real human needs throughout the developed world. 

While computer science courses produce graduates that are able to enter any of these employment sectors - and most do so, sometimes with multiple job offers - demand for such graduates is likely to be concentrated in those parts of the industry for which the deep technical knowledge of hardware and software is a prerequisite (i.e. that part of the industry concerned with the production of foundational components) and in parts of the industry where analytical and logical skills are at a premium. 

This part of the industry will have a requirement for fewer graduates than those parts of the industry concerned with business solutions (which will recruit no less satisfactorily from a broader range of disciplines, including computing, information technology, often combined with other subjects such as business and management, as well as many other degree subjects outside the computing discipline).

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was a strong economic advantage to studying for a degree in computing. This advantage was eroded in the public's perception from around 2001 when the dot.com bubble burst, but is now returning to its former levels as reported in the recent UUK/PWC report (The economic benefits of a degree, February 2007), and as evidenced by salary levels, employment levels and international competitiveness. 

The economic advantage of studying for a degree in computing also remains very strong in countries like China and India, which are at different levels of their economic development from the UK, and these countries are producing many thousands of graduates per year, fuelling a strong offshoring business in the development of computing applications. 

The perceived erosion of the economic advantage of studying computing in the UK has been brought into sharper focus by the introduction of variable fees into the higher education system. 

While UCAS data show that since 2001 the number of students applying to read computing in UK universities has dropped by about 50 per cent, graduate employment data shows that the number of computing graduates entering employment within the UK has risen. Many reports claim that the demand for computing graduates will increase, perhaps dramatically, in the next few years. 

If the current trends continued into the future, by about 2009 the number of computing graduates produced will be wholly insufficient to meet demand. This is an unfortunate fact, since the computing graduates of 2009 were recruited in the Autumn of 2006.

The UK derives significant competitive advantage from its computing industry. For this to continue, it is important that this industry remains strong, and that universities produce graduates - particularly those with the high-level design skills from which the UK derives much of its prosperity - in sufficient numbers to meet the national need. 

University computing is therefore a subject of major strategic importance to the UK.

Fortunately, the EPSRC's recent International Review of ICT Research (February 2007) shows that computing research remains strong - second only to the USA on many academic metrics, but notes the worrying decline in the supply of future researchers as undergraduate numbers fall. 

Despite the relatively large numbers of students still studying the subject, computing may be vulnerable as universities down-size their computing departments as demand from undergraduate applicants declines. 

If academic computing feels vulnerable at the moment, it is not out-of-touch, it is not dying, and it will not die while it continues to innovate. Over the next few years, we shall see new alliances emerging, particularly over the funding of higher education, particularly insofar as it relates to the more vocational subjects like computing. 

Public funding will continue, but private funding (through students paying variable fees), funding from industry (in the form of bursaries, salaries for industrial placements, golden hellos, and the write-off of student debt) and funding from HEIs themselves (in the form of bursaries to facilitate participation) will feature much more in the higher education landscape.

The emerging market in higher education, and the simple laws of supply and demand would, for many subjects, see graduate salaries influencing application trends, with HEIs adjusting staffing levels to cope with increased demand. 

But computing is not quite like other subjects: the subject evolves quickly; the industry is truly global, with the capacity to move its operation from one country to another at the press of a button; and its lingua franca - English - has become increasingly widely spoken throughout the world, reducing the competitive advantage of highly-salaried native speakers. Market forces will regulate this in the long-term.

In the short- to medium-term, the academic computing community needs an alliance not seen in the UK since the earliest days of the subject involving HEIs, the wide spectrum of the computing industry, the professional bodies, the government and the funding/ research councils, working together to safeguard the fundamental contribution that computing occupies in the UK economy and in the wider society, and particularly to inspire young people to recognise that role and want to be a part of it. 

Although many are already engaged in this activity through varied links between universities and industry, through professional accreditation of courses, and through the active promotion of the subject in schools, the scale of the problem should not be underestimated.

There are no silver bullets, no magic paradigms and insufficient 'guru lectures' to sustain a whole degree programme - but a shared enthusiasm, commitment and sense of adventure that still characterise the breathtaking range of applications that computing facilitates - and will continue to facilitate for the foreseeable future - will be a good starting point.

This article first appeared on the BCS website in February 2007