Fading appeal of IT courses sees many teachers lose jobs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2006, 12:00am

Australian universities are downsizing departments as students enrolling in the subject drop 60pc

Dozens of academics have lost their jobs teaching information technology courses at Australia's universities following a massive drop in enrolments by foreign and local students.

Faculties and departments of IT have suffered a collapse in student numbers of up to 60 per cent over the past five years as the subject's popularity has evaporated.

High unemployment in Australia's IT sector means almost one in three new graduates are still looking for work four months after leaving university.

Researchers at Monash University in Melbourne say that the thousands of foreign students who obtained permanent residency after completing IT courses have created a massive oversupply of qualified professionals.

Uncertain employment opportunities, coupled with increased fees and changing attitudes among many Australians and Asians, have profoundly affected applications for IT courses.

Universities hardest hit by the downturn have imposed staff redundancies, while others are not replacing academics who leave or renewing contracts, or are employing casuals instead.

Many universities have had to restructure IT departments, absorbing them into mega-faculties and effectively downgrading IT's status and influence.

Student numbers in Australia's largest IT faculty - Monash University - have plunged nearly 50 per cent since 2001 when more than 5,000 students were enrolled. Following a review, undergraduate courses have been cut, while 24 academics have taken voluntary redundancy.

The University of South Australia has the biggest IT department in that state but it has lost 40 per cent of its 1,150 local undergraduate students since 2001. Only a sharp rise in overseas student enrolments prevented course closures and staff lay-offs.

The university's pro vice-chancellor Professor Robin King said South Australia had 'preferred immigration status'. As a result, the state's three universities had enjoyed stronger international enrolments in IT than the other states.

But universities elsewhere have experienced a marked fall in overseas student numbers. At Curtin University in Perth, domestic and foreign enrolments are a third of what they were in 2001.

'The dot-com crash in 2001 and 2002 reverberated not just in Australia but around the world,' said Curtin's executive dean for engineering, science and computing, Professor Peter Lee. 'Our international marketing team now receives few inquiries from international students for computing in its broadest sense, hardware or software.'

Associate professor David Wilson, associate dean of the IT faculty at the University of Technology, Sydney, refers to a 'golden glow' that students believed once enveloped IT - a glow that seems to have disappeared. The question is how universities can restore that golden lustre when the popularity of particular courses is out of their control.

'The current generation have seen their baby-boomer parents come home from their IT jobs consumed at night and at weekends and they don't want that,' he said.