Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Do we really need more students in CS ?

Michael Stiber and Daniel Lemire ask the seemingly counterinituitive, but interesting question: "Do we really need to admit more students in computer science". The points they make are valid:
  • there isn't really that much of a demand for CS degrees, especially with outsourcing trends, and business leaders clearly have a vested interest in hyping a 'scarcity' of students (a glut in supply keeps wages low).
  • Much of the recent drop is a descent from the heights of the late 90s, when anyone who could type wanted a CS degree: this may reflect a natural 'return-to-normalcy' in computer science
  • Do universities really want to be in the business of training students in "IT", or giving them a CS degree ?
It's a good question to ask, and it at least seems that the downward trend in computer science is being counterbalanced by an upward trend in areas like biotech, reflecting the shift in perception of what is 'hot' right now.

However, from a strategic and tactical point of view, this question is a disastrous one to ask. As has been noted in many places in the last few months, we are now facing a significant funding crisis in computer science. Most traditional sources of funding for computer science are drying up, at possibly the worst time for this to happen, when American competitiveness in the global intellectual market is being called into question. If we convince ourselves that a drop in interest in computer science is part of the normal course of things, we will never be able to convince anyone else that they should allocate funding for our work.

As a computer scientist, I am of course biased, but I do believe that the technology revolution is not over yet; rather, we are at the end of the beginning. There is ample room for serious innovation and creative thinking in computer science, and if computer science enrollment (as indicative of a general lack of interest in the field) is dropping, the question to ask is not
Is this a bad thing ?
but rather
What do we do to rectify this trend ?
Daniel has argued in the past that it is our responsibility not to send Ph.Ds out onto a market that cannot sustain them, and therefore slowing down the pace of research is not necessarily a bad thing. In my view, this is a different problem, one that is better addressed by restructured funding at the grant level. Moreover, the steady decline in funding is being accompanied (paradoxically) by an across-the-board surge in paper writing, as academics struggle harder and harder to distinguish themselves from their peers in order to get the funding crumbs still available.

But CS enrollment decline at an undergraduate level is reflective of a deeper problem (as Michael points out, one of these is an increasing gender disparity) in computer science, a perception that the field is not interesting or vibrant any more. This perception directly feeds into political perceptions at funding agencies: if there is nothing interesting happening in a field, and people are not going into it, why fund it ?

I believe that computer science is going through a crisis of definition right now. The internet years caused an explosion in the field, and demand for CS majors was so high, that curricula became fairly fluid, and companies were willing to snag CS grads and train them in whatever skills they needed. But now, as companies are cutting back, they are less willing to take someone with no programming skills and training in real software development, and I have heard of at least some companies that are now leaning on university programs to tailor their bachelor's degrees to be more 'IT friendly'.

There is far more that can be said on this topic, and I had wanted to post a longer note about it. But it is something that departments everywhere must be pondering right now. On the one hand, you can make a degree program produce graduates that are more employable, but you veer dangerously close to the 'vocational training' edge of the cliff, or you make a degree program more grounded in rigorous training, (essentially what we have now), and continue to lose students to other programs because the CS degree they could get is not 'marketable'.
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