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University computer science admissions have risen 60 per cent in a decade – but the gender gap persists

The number of students enrolled on computer science courses at British universities has risen by more than 60 per cent over the last decade, according to new UCAS data.

The subject, which offers some of the best career prospects of any undergraduate degree, is now more popular than maths and physical sciences and on a par with engineering.

Some 21,130 students were registered for a computer science course on 16 August, just 830 fewer than every discipline of engineering combined and at least 8,000 more than in 2009.

The data may go some way to allay concerns about a shortage of coders, data analysts and security researchers in the UK, although this year’s 3 per cent rise in applications is likely to be cancelled out by the effects of Brexit. Applications for STEM courses have also flatlined, as IT Pro first reported.

Thursday also marked A-level results day for the first cohort of students who had taken the government’s new computing A-level and, previously, the overhauled GCSE syllabus. It showed a sharp rise in the number of both male and female students taking the subject.

But the gender gap persists. While female students outperformed their male peers in computing, they were outnumbered by a factor of 4:1. Around 2.5 per cent of all male A-level candidates took computing this year, up from 2 per cent last year. Meanwhile, just 0.3 per cent of female students took the course, up from 0.2 per cent.

Steve Furber, a professor of computer science at Manchester University, welcomed the “extremely healthy rise” in computer science admissions. “It would be good to think that we could move to a point where computing A-level could be a requirement for degree courses, because that could help us start from a higher level and go a bit further.” 

But he described the skew of gender balance as “discouraging”. “This is a particular concern because this is the last year ICT A-level will be offered,” he told NS Tech. “It has traditionally been more popular with female students.”

“To be something, you need to see something,” said Skillsoft’s chief marketing office Tara O’Sullivan. “These results are reflective of the lack of female role models in technology and STEM as a whole. The field is male dominated. Young girls often feel like they don’t have a place in STEM, so they don’t choose these A-level subjects.

“To make a change, we need women who have climbed up the STEM ladder to showcase themselves and their career choice,” O’Sullivan added. “They need to show young girls that working in STEM is cool and rewarding – and that women belong in the industry.”

Manchester’s Furber led a Royal Society review of the government’s new computing GCSE last year. It revealed a dearth of teachers equipped to teach the subject and found that 54 per cent of schools had not offered the course in 2015-16.

“What we’ve emphasised throughout is the need for the support for teachers,” he said. “The move from ICT to computing was a significant computing change and teachers need support in delivering it.”

A spokesperson for UCAS told NS Tech the gender breakdown of students enrolled on computer science courses would be published in January.