Unis tackle student shortage catastrophe

Today 38 Australian universities held their first joint meeting to tackle what some have described as a "catastrophic" drop in the numbers of Australian students enrolling in information and communications technology courses.

Today 38 Australian universities held their first joint meeting to tackle what some have described as a "catastrophic" drop in the numbers of Australian students enrolling in information and communications technology courses.

From 2001 to 2007, domestic student ICT enrolments across the country have fallen 50 per cent, while the demand for talent by industry has climbed.

In response, the universities have founded an action group, the Australian Council of Deans of ICT, to stop ICT students becoming an endangered species.

"A 50 per cent drop in students is catastrophic," interim president of the council, University of Wollongong Professor Joe Chicharo told ZDNet.com.au, adding that it wasn't only the volume of students that had dropped, but also the quality, as IT was passed over by the best and brightest.

Janet Verbyla, dean of sciences at the University of Queensland, and interim executive of the council, said that without a rise in the number of students, increasing skills in Australia into a knowledge economy would stumble.

"We're going to become a country that imports innovation and IT services," she said. "If you're just a nation of others' products it becomes a matter of national debt ... and national pride."

But the new council, with representatives from 38 Australian universities, wouldn't stand aside as this happened, according to Verbyla. She said it would speak on behalf of ICT as the universities underwent the federal government's Bradley higher education review, announced in March, and actively pursue funds for the discipline.

Chicharo didn't say how many students the council wanted to draw to IT, but said he hoped to move the universities away from "boom and bust" where they had a glut of students in one period of time and a severe shortage in others.

In the last glut, Verbyla said the universities could have done with a united body, but everyone was so strapped for funds with the extreme numbers of students that it wouldn't have been possible. However, in the shortage, industry figures like IBM, Accenture and Google has pushed the universities' hand. "We were kind of told we had to do it," Verbyla said.

In its first meeting, the council proposed to elect a permanent chair and executive team as well as talking budget, constitution and forming an action plan for the coming year.

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