NUS computer courses enter elite domain

Once shunned by top students, computing degrees are now finding favour, with applicants being attracted by better job prospects and working in technology firms.

Higher demand for courses offered by the National University of Singapore's School of Computing pushed up the grades of students it accepted last year, putting it on a par with other competitive courses like law, medicine and business.

Last year, 90 per cent of the A- level students accepted into the school's courses, in areas like computer science and information security, had at least three to four As, up from Bs and Cs in 2013.

Professor Lee Wee Sun, vice-dean of the undergraduate programme at the school, said it has not seen this proportion of high-scoring students in a decade.

NUS also recorded a 28 per cent rise in applications for its 450 to 500 undergraduate places in computing programmes.

"Potential students are finding computing an interesting area, with good prospects," said Prof Lee, adding that tech start-ups and firms such as Google coming to Singapore have made the field an exciting one.

Technology is also increasingly "part of firms' main strategies to gain a competitive advantage" and is a core function in a range of areas from data analytics to designing solutions, said Prof Lee. The Smart Nation push here, to use technology to make daily living more convenient, also helps to boost the image of and recruitment in IT fields, he added.

According to a survey, NUS computing graduates enjoyed a 5 per cent rise in employment rates and a 6 per cent rise in median starting salaries last year, compared with 2014. In particular, those with a computer science degree saw a 9.1 per cent jump in their full-time permanent employment rate last year, while computer engineering graduates had the biggest pay jump among those who took NUS courses, from $3,500 in 2014 to $4,000 last year.

By next year, another 15,000 specialists may be needed in Singapore, to work in fields such as cyber security, data analytics and application development.

To meet this need, NUS launched a new degree in business analytics in 2013 and a new degree in information security last year.

The first course takes in about 60 students a year, while the second admitted about 20 students last year and hopes to enrol 30 students in the new academic year in August.

This year, NUS is introducing a new data science and analytics degree - offered jointly by its School of Computing and science faculty - to groom more data scientists.

From this year, some NUS computing courses, such as information security and data science, will also be open to other faculties' students to pursue as second majors or minors.

NUS provost Tan Eng Chye said the aim is to make computing subjects more accessible to all students so that they are exposed to this fast-growing industry. "You name any business sector - the role of data science is there," he added.

Prof Lee said: "We don't want students to do (computing) just because of the money, but more because of their interest and because they find it fulfilling."

It helps if companies value them and their skills, the way society respects lawyers and doctors for their work, he added.

Mr Tham Shi Yuan, 21, a business analytics student, said: "There's a lot of innovation involved in figuring out better decisions using data."

The first-year student, who scored five As for the A levels, added: "I like that it's on the front line, and we're making decisions that directly impact businesses, and can be applied in many industries."

For first-year student Lee Yan Hwa, 20, who scored five As and a B for the A levels, computer science was a clear choice as her fascination with it started in primary school where she learnt simple game programming. "I like creating things and solving problems. The mathematics and statistics can be challenging but it's more fun that way," she said.

"Programming seems to be a skill in demand these days; even my seniors have taken up summer jobs to teach kids coding."

This article was first published on March 12, 2016.
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