The number of computing students in universities and colleges has dropped almost 50% since 2001 to below 1996 levels, prompting fears that IT departments are on the verge of a new skills shortage.
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The shortfall, revealed in a study commissioned by IT professors and heads of computing of the UK's leading universities and colleges, coincides with rising demand from businesses for skilled IT professionals.
"CIOs will have to be more selective about where they deploy the skills they can get rather than the traditional IT approach of running as many projects as the business can fund," said Andy Kyte, research fellow at Gartner.
Academics claim that, without intervention, there will be a serious shortfall in the number of professionals with the computing knowledge needed to support the growth of the UK's knowledge economy in the next eight years.
Lachlan MacKinnon, executive committee member of the UK's Council of Professors and Heads of Computing (CPHC) which commissioned the study, said government investment between 1996 and 2001 almost doubled student numbers to meet industry needs, but since then funding had been cut back by almost £100m a year.
"We would like to see the government actively encouraging and providing the mechanism for more students to study computing to address the imbalance," he said.
Ollie Ross, head of research at The Corporate IT Forum (Tif), said, "The differentiator for the UK will be on the development of combined business and IT skill sets.
"UK educators must focus on providing businesses with high-calibre graduates who understand the commercial application of IT."
Lachlan MacKinnon, professor of information & knowledge engineering at the University of Abertay Dundee, said there was a desperate need to restore government funding. This should be used to attract people with other degrees into post graduate programmes in the short term and boost computing levels in the longer term, said MacKinnon.
He also called for the introduction of US-style tax breaks to encourage UK industry to invest more heavily in university qualifications.
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