IT 'new gold rush' for varsities

Universities are being overwhelmed by the number of students wanting to take courses in IT, and are often unable to find enough staff to meet the demands of the education market.

IT and the internet are the new gold rush, says New Zealand's first professor of e-commerce.

Brian Corbitt, also the head of Victoria University's school of communications and information management (SCIM), says demand for the school's IT courses is stretching his department to breaking point. He says universities are being overwhelmed by the number of students wanting to take courses in IT, and are often unable to find enough staff to meet the demands of the education market.

Some, like the University of Waikato, are even "growing their own" staff, as well as engaging in worldwide searches.

Corbitt says a few thousand have already applied for the 300 places available for Victoria's new e-commerce course, which starts next month. The programme is intended to expand by 25% a year but this figure could easily be doubled if the Wellington-based university could get the staff.

"There seems to be an endless demand for electronic commerce places. We have difficulty finding room for all the students. Students know where the jobs are and are planning their studies accordingly," he says.

The universities say they cannot find the right staff as they cannot compete with the much higher wages in the private sector. E-commerce is also a new subject in New Zealand, only being introduced at Waikato, for example, this year, whereas other parts of the world have ran courses in it for seven to eight years.

Waikato this year took 25 e-commerce students. It plans to increase the intake to 60 next year and eventually to more than 100. Waikato vice-chancellor Mike Pratt reports at least three applicants for each place in its e-commerce course and confirms it is difficult to find the right staff as the displine is relatively new. The university is "fast tracking" PhD students who would be ready to teach in a year or two, he says. "We have to grow our own. It's difficult to buy them. It is a deliberate policy. We are creating our own future," says Pratt.

However, Victoria University prefers its e-commerce staff to have direct industry experience. Corbitt says suitable staff are beginning to appear. Victoria recently recruited from the UK, Germany and Singapore and four from Australia, and is about to take on another German and a Briton.

Auckland University of Technology, which in its various guises has run software development courses since the 1960s, also cannot get enough staff. It plans to increase its IT course places from 600 to 1000 within two years, helped by a new batch of e-business courses beginning next year. This is being driven by student demand.

"Students can get a highly paid job very readily and it is very hard to recruit staff in the academic world," says business faculty dean Des Graydon. It too recruits from overseas and while it has no specific programmes, it encourages existing staff to retrain in e-commerce. It is appointing a chair in e-business, part-funded by Microsoft for two years.

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