back to article Cambridge computing profs 'desperate' for applicants

The computer sciences department at Cambridge University has said it is "desperate" to attract more students to its courses, despite the fact that it currently turns down two applications in three. The Guardian quotes Jack Lang, a lecturer at the Cambridge computer laboratory, as saying that: "People seem to think computer …


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  1. Alan Paice

    Why bother?

    Most I.T jobs at blue chip fims don't go to us CompScis any way. Business skills (degree or other wise) is the way to go if you want to get any where in I.T.

    Cambridge is one of those places that still believes in pure computer science with a heavy mathematical bias and Dons are warey about change.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Not a great surprise

    It is not surprising why computer science is viewed as a less popular degree than it was previously. He are my viewpoints

    1) The large increase in computer science applicants in the mid to late 90's would have followed naturally on from the huge micro computer scene of the 80's. Subsequent generations had games consoles instead and were not exposed to any of the inner working of the machines they were using. Computers are toys.

    2) Those left interested in computing can now teach themselves using the Internet as a resource.

    3) Degree courses like 'Business Information Systems' are easier

    4) Writing sexy looking Web 2.0 applications is more fun and rewarding than actually solving computational problems.

    5) Computers are fast enough now that actually taking a scientific approach isn't worth the hassle

    6) Outsourcing of work to foreign countries will discourage people from entering an uncertain employment market.

    7) Employers in the UK are generally incapable of distinguishing a good computer scientist from a bad one, meaning its possible to get away without learning. As such the degree is worthless if nobody realises the amount of effort and intelligence required to obtain it, and can not subsequently realise the value of it in the workplace.

    8) The rise of 4th generation languages and very high levels abstraction can often lead to any idiot believing he is a computer scientist.

  3. Adam Johnston

    Business skills is the way to go?

    Eek! Show me a plane controlled by software written by a bunch of people with business degrees? More to the point, when I get to the airport show me one that isn't.

  4. Benedict


    "People seem to think computer science is for nerds... It's just not true"

    I think you'll find, it is.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Can't really blame them

    The best thing I got from my 'business orientated' degree in Computing was a year's work experience.

    I've never used JSP, SSADM (thank god), 8086 assembly or Ada. I've used a little C++ <spit>, at which point I realised my C++ course was more of a C course using C++ development tools. A waste of 3 years. Fortunately, I spent most of it in the bar eating hotdogs. Ada was fun too.

  6. Jon Press

    Back in the day...

    ... when I was an undergraduate, Cambridge had just expanded its Computer Science syllabus from one year to two, though you still had to enter the University to read a different subject and then swap after a year. After which you could learn the principles of programming in languages such as BCPL, Algol 68, Fortan IV, Cobol and a version of LISP that even then was unsupported by current machines. Computer time was so rationed that it was advisable to prepare your code on paper tape or cards to avoid wasting precious interactive CPU cycles typing.

    It was an old-fashioned course even then, with some very old-fashioned academics protected in their ivory tower by a diminutive elderly secretary with large boots and an evil stare.

    Having said that, not a lot has changed in Computer Science, it simply gets reinvented, relabelled and obfuscated by ornate UIs and there's a good case for teaching that isn't simpy Microsoft training in disguise and that will outlast the demise of Visual Basic in the same way it outlasted Fortran IV.

    Regrettably, it's not generally what employers want, though.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    low applicant numbers

    The real reason for low number of applicants is because everyone knows there aint gonna be any sexy girls on the course. Whats' the point of going uni if there aint any hot chicks to mess about with?!

  8. Matthew Joyce

    Computing Science at Cambridge

    I remember interviewing there many years ago ... back in the era when UCAS entries were in preferential order on the form. The usual three interviews, and each one acted mightily offended by the fact that I'd placed them second. And then even more offended when I pointed out that all my research showed that their BSc appeared in all respects to be inferior for me to the well-sponsored MEng I'd placed above their fairly new and poorly-written-up course. Their grade offer turned out to be inferior, too.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In total agreement with...

    "Not a great surprise"

    What attracted me to IT in the late 70's and early 80's was the fact that computing was a real science and cutting decent code was actually a skill. Applications and systems programming ran hand-in-hand and all coders worked close to the metal, down to bit shifting in memory locations. Some pretty clever algorithms grew out of these tight constraints.

    These days, all I do is glue bits of code together in the quickest possible time and I have never been so bored as I look at the n'th reinvented version of the wheel by adding yet another tyre to the original wheel. Everything connected with the IT industry these days is just boring monotonous work, trying to meet impossibly over-optimistic business plans.

    My advice to any IT wannabees is: Forget it and join the Army. You can do worse than getting your arse shot off in Afghanistan.

  10. George Brown

    Cambridge grads

    An IT company I used to work for had a penchant for employing only Cambridge computer science grads. Sadly however, although they have brains the size of planets, they're mostly completely incapable of human interaction, thinking for themselves or dealing with the real world. Graduates from 'lesser' universities with less high-level-IT-focused degrees are much more suited to life in the workplace and interacting with people. A good deal of Cambridge grads are great as long as you shut them in a room with lots to do and on no account let them talk to customers. Generalisation? Yes, but based on truth.

  11. Matthew Brown

    Absolute nonsense

    Skills shortage in the UK? No there's a shortage of companies willing to take on Graduates in the UK - unless you're willing to accept 15k pa to live in the most expensive places in the country or join some god awful graduate scheme as a trainee superstore manager and earn a bit more for a lot more stress.

    As has already been stated even companies who are willing to recruit specifically for I.T don't even look for CompSci grads - e.g. the Sainsburys Information Technology graduate scheme specifically asks for I.T _Management_ (you know, the lads who couldn't be bothered to learn OOP/OOSAD) and Business Management graduates.

    I graduated last year. I've loved computers since I was old enough to use a keyboard... and I'm getting out. I have plans to move into advertising/marketing and I know I'll make a hell of a lot more money in it than I ever could in I.T in the country. And it's the same for many people; I just feel sorry for the future generations since they're the ones who'll truly suffer - they're the ones who'll live in an Britain with no real Computing industry.

    To any young geeks out there, forget it - apply for Accountancy or Risk Management, you'll make more money, and have less jokes made at your expense.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Why Bother? 2

    Microsoft's proud comment recently that Silverlight was "coding for the MySpace generation", implying that any idiot could throw together some flashy pages, certainly made me disgusted at the devaluation of CompSci skills.

    And anyways, all my mates making loadsa cash are in finance, not computers.

    Sometimes I think the only thing CompSci gave me was the ability to understand geek jokes on Futurama.

  13. Anonymous Coward

    Outsourcing is probably the biggest issue

    Usually, young people starting a degree want to enter a career that can offer them rewards (not necessarily just financial ones) over their whole lifetime.

    But with the increasing tendency for pretty much everything to be made overseas where possible (because it's cheaper), opportunities in scientific and technical fields in expensive places like the UK are gradually decreasing.

    Unfortunately this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Students see high-tech and hard number-crunching courses as limiting, so they go elsewhere. Employers find it harder to recruit those skills in this country, salaries are driven up and this naturally leads to more work going overseas.

    It's a shame really, we used to be awash with engineering companies in this country.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: NHS

    Perhaps the NHS is not a great example to use when it comes to computing success stories!

  15. Keith T
    Paris Hilton

    Take another path

    What intelligent person wants to spend 3 or 4 years studying for a job where they will be considered obsolete or "too old" 10 years later?

    In the Canadian job market:

    For business based programming, which is most of the jobs, a certificate or diploma program that includes accounting and management courses is faster and more sought after by companies that a BSc (CS).

    For analysis and management, an Administrative Studies or Commerce Degree is preferred.

    For engineering and scientific programming, an engineering degree is superior.

    Really, the computer science degree is becoming obsolete.

    As for a skills shortage in IT, if we ever have a skills shortage we'll see wages in the field going up faster than inflation. You sometimes see spectacular pay in small specialties and geographic locations, but you can see that in any field. The number of people who benefit is limited, and they benefit for a limited time.

    Regarding IT companies being sold for large sums of money. Because IT people are terrible at bargaining and negotiating, the companies they work for (like Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Dell, EDS, whose executives are almost invariably primarily salesmen or lawyers) make a lot of money. We ask for peanuts, they pay us peanuts, and the companies make huge profits. If we ask for more, it is too easy to ship the work offshore.

    For young people, especially young men, looking for a good paying job, I suggest the trades, carpentry, machinist, plumbing, etc. That will provide a better chance at landing a date with Paris.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Maybe the fear of rejection is putting too many people off from applying at Cambridge?

    I got into Computer Science because I thought it was challenging, I want to do all the hard calculations! but somewhere down the line I've ended up as a web developer which to be fair isn't the most challenging thing in the world.

    I also think that software engineering is in a process of "dumbing down". what with new languages and frameworks provided for you, all the hard complicated stuff has been encapsulated for you into neat little boxes.

    if (!heisenberg.isCatAlive())




  17. John

    @ Matthew Brown

    I read (the other week) that there are 150,000 graduates just working in call centres, not doing anything that their degrees qualify them to do. Education, education, education.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Shortage of computer science graduates?

    It's always the professional academics who make this claim and the data never backs it up.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    In Oxford, there are currently no female second years studying computer science, a couple doing maths and computer science, but that's it.

    My course is highly theoretical and mathsy. I love it, but do worry about job prospects. Right now further study sounds appealing.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I was at the annual Cambridge University Computing department's exhibition last week.... People like Apple, Dell, HP, BT iNet (or what ever they call themselves this year), and loads of complicated maths software vendors etc... show up to flog their wares to students and staff on a one 2 one basis. I've been going for the last 4 years ..this year was a fairly crappy turn out.

    Talk about freaks! It's smelly nerd central. But weirdly the occasional hot girl wanders around. There are ugly one's as well of course, just the ratio seems off.. either hot.. or dog. The hot ones also seemed to be following around some strange aspergers inflicted types.

    Weird place. They get all kinds of neat freebies thrown at them as well.

  21. Derek Hellam


    Yes John, I know. When I'm interviewing for Electronics engineers, that where most of them are too. However I'm not impressed with the level of teaching these people suffer, as I've had one applicant in 4 years who can tell me what happens in a circuit made up of a battery, switch, resistor and capacitor. None of them seem to have heard of a "time constant" or an exponential curve. Poor sods don't even know the basics. If they are not in a call centre then it's Northern Rock (God help em) or Subway sandwich bars. I've often found that the young one always expect to be working on some "NASA space program" type project and don't want to to do any of the mundane stuff that ensure a reliable design. So I find that the more mature candidate often has the right attitude and education. I've seen university educated people with Degrees and MSC's who can't write a report, can't even string a coherent sentence together, and are so dumb that they don't even bother to use the spell check. sigh.....

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    SPS != PPE

    Back in the 80s SPS was what people did when they realised Engineering or NatSci was too much like hard work and / or that they were never going to meet any girls, let alone get laid.

    But Jack Lang is a top bloke.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    various comments....

    I agree with Matthew Joyce above re: Computer Science at Cambridge in the mid 80s - it was a 'ginger haired stepchild' of a subject and the interviewers actively deterred me from wanting to take two years of it. In fact they suggested that the correct thing to do was get a Nat Sci degree and take the PG Dip...

    I later thanked them for their interest. turned down their offer of a place and went off and did four rigorous Engineering-based years at York and have never looked back.

    And to those who are looking to computer science departments to slake their sexual thirsts - try a bit of exogamy, guys. There's a heaving surplus of crumpet in most Arts departments. Ok, a lot of it used to be hand-staple-forehead drama queens who smoked like chimneys rather than nerds who wanted to discuss the samizdat edition of the Lions Book, but did you ever of a male historian or Eng Lit student not getting his custard cleared and his socks stiffened on a regular basis? ;)

  24. Matt Bryant Silver badge

    COUGH*nursing colleges*COUGH

    Make sure there's one near bye... ;)

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Ba in Indian

    Your job will o to india, eventually, becvome a dentist/doctor get £120k for a 9-5, dont waste your time on comp sci.

  26. David Urmston Bronze badge

    BSc IT @ Oxford

    No one in the industry knows what it is !

    It changes shape so fast, business people glaze over when you engage them, maths heads yawn.

    And the kids have moved on before you get to sequential anything.

    Anyways, I'm now a cheery chimney sweep, occaisionally pissing about with BT Business Broadband software and a motley roll out of Windows boxes. The intricacies of burning wood in stoves is far more intrigueing than MS Office's excuse for productivity tools, anyday.

    The BSc in IT got me the job 'cos my boss doesn't want to deal with any of it, not even eMail.

    But whether or not there is a future in IT, who knows.

    My daughter at 15, wants to be a hair dresser and will probably make more money than me.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Different view

    I seem to have a very different perspective to most posters here.

    I work as a team lead in one of the UK’s most successful fabless semiconductor companies where I manage a group of engineers who write C code for deeply embedded devices. Their software runs directly on the metal with hard real-time constraints. The devices are fairly complex but resource-constrained and so the code has to be well optimised. A large part of the work of the group is thus designing and implementing efficient algorithms that take full advantage of the capabilities of the hardware and the C language.

    Finding engineers in the UK who are up to this task is surprisingly difficult; for this kind of work, there really is a skills shortage here – in part, I think, due to the mentality of bloatware and abstraction that pervades through much of modern teaching and programming. For us, we increasingly recruit from abroad and periodically consider moving more work away from the UK (mainly to continental Europe) but would really rather keep it all under one roof.

  28. Anonymous Coward

    Fuck the BSc's!

    If you think you can really make due with a bachelor degree and presume to be "high-tech", then you are certainly asked to get screwed! We don't need more half-arse nerds around! We need fully fledged masters and phd's who can put some awesome but terrible complex systems together!

    Yes, the indian MSc's are probably a lot better than the domestic BSc's, but that is hardly a equal comparison... The "western" MSC's are ALOT better than the indian!

    (I don't buy, it is a cultural difference! We are generally equally capable!)

    And to all the old geezers who are complaining about how the values have been corrupted - stick it in! There has gone massive of hard-core CS research into creating the tools of a modern IT developer! And there will go even more into the development of the next generation of tools.

    The complexity of systems is generally exploding, thus we need all the help we can get from these tools, if new projects are to succeed without getting outrageously expensive or simply fail!

    For the same reasons is it only natural that professionals needs to know more about "project management" - whether that is a business subject is left as an exercise for the reader. ;)

    Yes, there are challenges to be met, but the job prospective of IT graduates haven't been this good in ages!

  29. Paul

    keeping it exclusive?

    My mother was a nurse, she loved being a nurse and helping people - she gave up being a senior relatively well paid teacher (about 30 years ago), and only retired when health and poor hearing meant she couldn't continue. Many of her colleagues were also nurses because they enjoyed the job, despite the long hours and poor pay; many of the skills were learned doing the job back then, with a slow/steady rise from menial to senior to staff to matron or whatever it became.

    Nurses are now much better paid in comparison, and it's much more of a "career" than a vocation.

    When I first started in embedded s/w about 20 years ago (ouch! I'm getting old), most people were self-taught and did it because they enjoyed it. Pay was fair for an engineer, some contractors got rich often by being either specialist or working longer hours or being willing to do the jobs noone else wanted.

    When pay began to rise during the boom, especially during the dotcom rise, all manner of idiots jumped onboard, many were crap, they could barely write working HTML (no wonder Microsoft didn't care that IE was broken, so many web sites were too) let alone actually understand machine architecture.

    Maybe the good thing about the dotcom bust is that now only those who actually enjoy computers, programming and diving under the hood will make the effort to get some qualification? Not sure. I still have to set some stiff interview questions and a practical to sort out those who have good CVs from those who can actually do the job!

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "I read (the other week) that there are 150,000 graduates just working in call centres"

    And did it say exactly how many of these graduates were from real red brick universities as opposed to jumped up former polytechnics or how many had real meaty degrees in a proper subject? I suspect the figure would be close to if not zero on both counts.

  31. Derek Hellam

    @Different view

    In my field there is a real shortage of experienced engineers too. However when you look into it, you will find that there is only a shortage of good engineers who will work for peanuts! Some employers just won't pay the salaries required, because they don't really see the value in their skills, (but can't do without them?) as the mind set is still of engineers with greasy rags or boffins in back rooms.

  32. David Cottingham

    Computer scientists & car mechanics

    Computers have become a little bit like cars. I'm sure that when motor cars were first invented, constructing or maintaining them required very specialised engineers. Nowadays cars are a commodity, and we have lots of mechanics at garages, who essentially swap "broken" parts out for new ones, requiring relatively little engineering knowledge.

    That doesn't mean that we don't need (ever more) specialised engineers to create the next generation of cars.

    Computers have become a commodity. There are lots of "mechanics" (people who glue bits of code together) who are a necessary link in the chain. However, there is also a need for "specialised engineers" (computer _scientists_, rather than _engineers_) who will design the next generation of programming languages, cope with making compilers that will use SMP machines effectively, figure out how to run huge distributed systems, write packet switching code for backbone routers... All of these are _hard_ problems which have real economic significance. Cambridge (among a few others) is training up the people who (hopefully!) will be able to solve them. The fact that there are few applicants of good enough quality should be worrying people nationwide, not just university dons.

    Real Computer Science is about theoretical principles, rather than teaching people particular programming languages. Cambridge undergraduates are expected to pick up programming languages as they progress (and are required to use them for their dissertations), but are not taught individual ones in depth. Why? Because individual languages grow obsolete very quickly. Knowledge of algorithms, of the internals of compilers, and of how concurrency is managed lasts for decades (how many updates has Dijkstra's algorithm had?). The vast majority of computer scientists educated this way have no problem picking up any programming language, and using it well. That's not to say that people who've been educated in specific languages won't be able to: just that it's probably harder. Oh, and who's going to create the next compiler...?

  33. Matthew Brown
    Thumb Down

    @Chris W

    Er, sorry for the double post...

    Chris this kind of crap is why we have a problem with employability in this country: I went to a former PolyTech (Glasgow Caledonian University) and I worked just as hard as anyone at Glasgow or Strathclyde, and am just as capable. Go back to the 80s, they miss you mate...

  34. Matthew Brown

    @F*** the BSCs

    "We need fully fledged masters"

    By your standards some bored business grad who goes back for one year and does MSc Computing is better qualified than a BSc grad who spent four years studying the subject.

    Equally, do you think it's easy (even up here in Scotland) to afford uni? Another year is a lot to ask, especially since you have to fund your own masters project. And all for what? You're talking a good game but I don't see many job opportunities behind this theory of yours...

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Different view

    "In my field there is a real shortage of experienced engineers too. However when you look into it, you will find that there is only a shortage of good engineers who will work for peanuts! Some employers just won't pay the salaries required, because they don't really see the value in their skills, (but can't do without them?) as the mind set is still of engineers with greasy rags or boffins in back rooms."

    The level of salary being offered by my company is certainly not the problem; engineers are very highly regarded within the company, we have few complaints about pay, have high staff retention and the vast majority of candidates to whom we make offers accept. The problem is just finding those candidates who are good enough for us to want to make them an offer.

  36. Keith T

    Do you guys in the UK not distinguish between between an engineer and a computer scientist?

    Do you guys in the UK not distinguish between between an engineer and a computer scientist?

    There is a big difference here in Canada between a BSc(CS) and a BSc(EE) P.Eng.

    The engineering degree is a big advantage for imbedded code and control systems, and yes, there is probably a bit of a shortage of those people from time to time. It might also be an advantage for gaming engines.

    The computer science degree is an advantage working on languages and compilers, but that kind of work is pretty rare.

    So the CS folks end up trying to business programming jobs, and there they are up against people with 1 and 2 year certificates and diplomas, which employers seem to prefer.

  37. Anonymous Coward

    55 companies recruiting 70 graduates

    The Cambridge story arose because they have 55 companies coming next week to recruit from amongst their 70 graduates. Given that most of those companies will want more than one graduate, this would appear to be evidence that there is a shortage of Cambridge Computer Science graduates.

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Do you guys in the UK not distinguish between between an engineer and a computer scientist?

    "Do you guys in the UK not distinguish between between an engineer and a computer scientist?"

    For my company (see "Different view"), no - we just recruit people from whatever background gives them the skills they need. In actual fact, most of our embedded software engineers have physics degrees.

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