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Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2006, 06:54 GMT
Computer industry 'faces crisis'
By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

The number of full-time IT undergraduates is falling
The computer industry faces a skills crisis, the president of the British Computer Society has told BBC News.

Unless steps are taken now, there will not be enough qualified graduates to meet the demands of UK industry, warned Professor Nigel Shadbolt.

Prof Shadbolt said there was increasing demand but decreasing supply of graduates in computer science.

"If we're not careful, the UK is going to lose its pre-eminent position as a knowledge-based economy," he said.

In his first major interview since taking charge this month, Professor Shadbolt warned that UK was in danger of no longer being a provider of "really major insights in the information age".

Nigel Shadbolt
It's a little bit like (the government) stating that to supply the requirements for doctors and medically trained staff in the country we teach increasing numbers of people First Aid
Professor Shadbolt
"We believe we have a crisis," said Mr Shadbolt, who is professor of artificial intelligence in the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton.

The British Computer Society is a professional and academic association which acts as a conduit to information for IT practitioners and works to raise public awareness of IT.

Professor Shadbolt has released previously unpublished research which shows that in the past four years demand for IT and computer graduates has doubled while at the same time the number of students studying the subject has declined by a third.

The government has boasted about the rise in overall numbers of people studying computer sciences since 1998. But more recently there has been a sharp decline.

Professor Shadbolt also said that seemingly healthy figures masked a lack of properly qualified IT specialists. Many of those counted in official statistics, he said, were taking computer science as an adjunct to their main degree.


"It's a little bit like (the government) stating that to supply the requirements for doctors and medically trained staff in the country we teach increasing numbers of people first aid."

He said he feared that any shortfall in skilled IT professionals in the UK would lead to a loss of highly paid jobs to the emerging economies of India and China.

"They are equipping their younger generation, their graduates, with substantial amounts of skills particularly in computing and IT and we do not want to be faced with the situation in which the major corporates who have traditionally sought skills of that sort in this country look to supply that demand offshore," he said.

Stamping out ageism will make a long term future in IT more attractive and will draw in more graduates, fixing both problems.
Michael Pearce, Bracknell, United Kingdom

"There is a real danger of a flight of jobs overseas."

Professor Shadbolt said that it was not just the IT sector that would suffer.

Computer skills are essential across a whole range of disciplines - everything from pharmaceuticals through to modern transportation systems depend on properly skilled IT specialists.


Without them, according to Professor Shadbolt "there will be consequences across our entire economic base".

So why are young people in the UK choosing not to study IT, one of the more lucrative UK industries?

Professor Shadbolt said it was partly due to poor teaching and called for a thorough review of the way in which it is taught in schools

The industry also had an image problem, he said, with computer scientists often portrayed on TV and in films as "geeky".

The UK has been among those in the vanguard of computer science and IT. But just at the point that the web is presenting new and exciting opportunities, Professor Shadbolt said he feared that Britain was at risk of losing its grip on a technology that would be crucial in the 21st Century. He said: "We now have an economy where information is one of the primary assets.

"So really understanding the consequences of the technology and the society on business is fundamental."

Bar chart showing figures for higher education students studying computing
Missing bars on the chart indicate where information is not available for that academic year

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