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Colleges could lose every IT lecturer within 20 years

John Kavanagh
The BCS has warned the Government of an impending crisis in universities. A survey by the society suggests that UK higher education could lose all its computing lecturers and researchers within 20 years.

BCS chief executive Judith Scott has made representations to MPs and briefed higher education minister Margaret Hodge with Ian Watson, chairman of the Conference of Professors and Heads of Computing, which helped the BCS carry out the biggest ever survey of university computing departments.

The survey, which drew responses from 67 institutions, found that most academics in computing departments are aged between 35 and 54. More than 90% of departments have unfilled positions, with 13% reporting at least 20% unfilled. Student/staff ratios are significantly higher than the 12:1 norm, with 30% exceeding 30:1. Almost 75% of respondents say working conditions have got worse in the past five years.

Issues include workload, bureaucracy and career prospects, with academic salaries seen as the major problem.

The BCS has also been working with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on a separate study, which suggests the UK is already showing signs of decline in research quality - quality which the report says has traditionally been of the highest standard. It too identifies academic salaries and conditions as uncompetitive.

Scott says, "IT salaries have risen in the open market to the point where IT graduates can leave higher education to start jobs earning the same as or more than their lecturers.

"Computing courses are attracting growing numbers of school students as a route to well-paid employment, while academia is increasingly unattractive as a place of employment. All departments report difficulty recruiting PhD students, and post-doctoral students are leaving academia at an increasing rate. Some departments have research and teaching vacancies which remain unfilled for months, if not years."

The BCS and the Conference of Professors and Heads of Computing say the worsening position is a serious problem, because national economic success depends on the ability to apply technology to competitive advantage.

In meetings with MPs and the minister, the organisations expressed very clearly the belief that "the UK is in grave danger of losing its competitive edge".

"The changes in higher education over the past five years, plus the explosion in demand for skilled IT staff, has created a looming crisis in higher education computing departments, the effect of which may be felt for many decades if nothing is done," they warn.

Scott believes this is a vital issue on which the BCS must maintain pressure. "It is too late to avoid all the issues now before us, but the longer we leave it, the harder it will get to solve the growing problems," she says. "This cannot be ignored: the risks are too great. The UK risks throwing away its essential IT capacity, both for fuelling high technology growth and for competitive leadership across the economy."

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