[Published originally in the September 2004 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 16/No. 4]
Canadian News and Views
By Gord McCalla
It is time for the annual update on issues and activities in the Canadian computer science community. This year I’d like to talk about student enrolment trends, the research climate, and the ongoing software engineering dispute. I would like to close with a personal view about some trends in computer science both north and south of the border.
As in the United States, enrolment in Canadian computer science undergraduate programs continues to tail off. The main reason seems to be the same as in the United States: students don’t think there will be a job waiting for them upon graduation. In Canada, this is mostly a result of perceptions in the wake of the dot-com bust. There seems to be much less concern about loss of jobs due to offshore outsourcing, in part because Canada has (so far) actually gained more than it has lost due to such outsourcing. A unique Canadian twist on the enrolment drop is the possibility that there may be a differentially severe drop in the number of undergraduates going into programs where French is the language of instruction and interaction. CACS/AIC is investigating whether this is actually true and, if so, what the reasons might be.
The situation at the graduate level is entirely different. The recent large growth in computer science faculty numbers across Canada has meant that there is a vastly increased capacity for graduate student supervision, thus enhancing the intake of graduate students each year. The length of time students spend in graduate degrees is also growing, due to increased expectations on the part of both faculty and students and the perceived lack of a job at the other end of the degree. The net result of these trends is that the number of students in Canadian computer science graduate programs continues to grow and is now at record levels. This is true in both the M.Sc. and Ph.D. programs.
The decline in enrolments at the undergraduate level suggests that the pressure for more faculty hiring will correspondingly decline. In fact, this was confirmed at a recent meeting of Canadian computer science Chairs, where the anticipated number of faculty to be hired in the near- and mid-term almost everywhere in the country is drastically down from the halcyon days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. With the record number of students in graduate programs, this sets up a potentially nasty situation where there will be few academic positions for an entire generation of young researchers graduating from Canadian computer science Ph.D. programs. In the short term this will likely lead to an increase in the demand for postdoctoral positions, resulting in consequent stress on research funding. In the longer term, the growth of interdisciplinary programs involving computer science may help to create some positions for faculty who have appropriately broad expertise. In any event, this issue is now being raised with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Canada’s science research funding agency, which, when faced with a similar situation for other sciences in the 1970s and 1980s, was able to respond with special programs to encourage universities to hire professors in these areas.
In the area of research funding, the trends reported in last year’s article continue. Canada’s government remains seriously committed to science and engineering, and has once again increased NSERC’s budget to reflect this commitment. The influx of new faculty into computer science over the past five years has created stress on the NSERC grant allocation system. Even this year, more than one-third of the applicants to the computer science funding committees were new faculty. However, this is likely the last year there will be such a huge number of new faculty, and the problem is now rapidly transforming from funding new faculty into how to fund these new faculty as they progress through their careers and seek increasingly substantial grants. With relatively few retirements among computer science faculty projected over the next ten years in Canada, the usual way of funding grant increases through redistribution of the grants of faculty who have left the system would seem to be inadequate, especially with the likely increase in demand for funding to support postdoctoral students. Once again, the Canadian computer science community is working with NSERC to find ways of dealing with this situation, which is unique to computer science (and possibly computer engineering). Throughout its history, computer science always seems to be out of step with the other sciences!
A substantial portion of my report last year dealt with the ongoing dispute in Canada between the engineering profession and the computer science community over software engineering, which the engineering profession claims to be an exclusive area of engineering practice. There have been a few developments in this dispute. The Alberta professional engineering association, APEGGA, sued a person advertising MCSE credentials for violating APEGGA’s ‘right to title’ in the use of the word ‘engineering’; APEGGA lost the case in both the lower court and on appeal. On the other hand, in a similar lawsuit in Québec, the courts decided in favor of the profession, and an appeal has been launched but not yet decided.
In academe, engineering schools across Canada continue to create their own software engineering programs and to get them accredited by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB). Currently there are eight such CEAB-accredited programs and an equal number of other programs awaiting accreditation. The computer science community has its own accreditation processes, managed by the Computer Science Accreditation Council (CSAC). To date, seven computer-science-based software engineering programs have been accredited by CSAC. The difference between the CEAB and CSAC programs is substantial. The CEAB programs are offered as part of a standard engineering degree, with students highly constrained in their options and with the focus heavily on specific software engineering topics. The CSAC programs are offered as variations of standard computer science programs, with more flexibility for student choice and with the focus on a wider range of applied computer science topics than just software engineering. Interestingly, in many (perhaps most) universities the actual software courses in both the CEAB and CSAC programs tend to be given by computer science faculty.
It is likely that over the next year more CEAB and CSAC programs will be accredited in the run-up to the end (in July 2005) of a five-year moratorium, imposed on legal action in the wake of the settlement of the lawsuit launched in the late 1990s by the engineering profession against Memorial University of Newfoundland for creating a software engineering program outside of the engineering school.
I would like to conclude this article with a personal view on the state of computer science. In both Canada and the United States, it would seem that computer science is entering a new, more parsimonious era after an unprecedented boom over the past five years or so. Enrolments are declining, academic positions are drying up, the job market for our graduates seems to be weak, and many other disciplines are starting to “invade” our territory. However, I don’t believe we need to be pessimistic. Although enrolments are declining, computer science still remains one of the most popular choices of students in science and engineering. The job market is actually likely to be much better (as discussion in CRN over the past months indicates) than the negative perspectives promulgated in the media, with many projections suggesting that there will actually be more jobs in information and communications technology than in any other area of science and engineering.
In any event, an era of more stable enrolments and reduced faculty hiring can allow us to spend time on more creative activities than just keeping up with demand. With the new faculty hired during the boom gaining in confidence and experience, we can watch exciting new research programs mature, we can encourage productive research interactions among new and existing faculty, and we can devise new and innovative curricula. Moreover, as others become interested in our discipline, we can find the time to work with them to forge new interdisciplinary programs. In fact, such programs represent a huge and growing trend both north and south of the border. It may well lead to another boom before too long, as new perspectives lead to new ideas, new research, new programs, more faculty, and the increasing influence of computational ideas across most academic disciplines. The future could actually be even brighter than the past!
Gord McCalla is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, and President of the Canadian Association of Computer Science/Association informatique canadienne (CACS/AIC). He can be reached at mccalla [at] cs.usask.ca.
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