The number of graduates from Dalhousie University’s Computer Science program has jumped by more than one-quarter in the past year, driven by rising enrolment and an insatiable demand for tech talent.

The Faculty of Computer Science awarded just over 260 degrees at the recently held convocation for its 2020 Winter Term – a 26 percent increase over same period in 2019.

The rising number of undergraduate and graduate degrees comes as companies in information technology and other fields continue to hire more programmers and developers. The Atlantic Provinces Economic Council last year issued a report detailing the tight labour market for tech talent, and projecting Atlantic Canadian employers would hire about 2,000 IT professionals annually over the next few years.

“There’s a dynamic where you grow the [talent] pool, and it satisfies your demand,” said Computer Sciences Dean Andrew Rau-Chaplin in an interview. “But it also creates more demand by attracting more companies and more growth in the companies that are here, which is great for Nova Scotia.”

His faculty estimates that it accounts for about 90 percent of university-level computer science enrolment in the province, and possibly as much as half of Atlantic Canadian enrolment. As well as the 260-plus students that just graduated, the faculty will grant more degrees at the end of the fall term.

The larger graduating class is the result of first-year enrolment levels that grew at over 20 percent annually for several years in a row, and Rau-Chaplin said that based on current class sizes, coming academic terms are likely to produce even larger pools of graduates.

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He added that the strong job market for programmers has been instrumental in recruiting new students. “A degree in computer science… offers this very persuasive package of an intellectually rich discipline that is economically well-rewarded and is in high demand,” said Rau-Chaplin. “Part of how we grow is by getting out there and articulating that to high-school students and to parents.”

The most recent batch of 260-plus degrees included both undergraduate and graduate-level students, with the undergraduate qualifications being divided into bachelor of computer science and bachelor of applied computer science degrees.

The bachelor of computer science is the older of the two programs, and its curriculum is almost exclusively technical. The applied version – which graduated fewer students than the “classic” version, but is growing faster – includes much of the same curriculum, but also incorporates business training.

It aims to prepare students to apply their learning in real-world situations, where it is important for them to understand how their work interacts with other, non-technical considerations.

“A business’s capacity to take on technology really governs a lot about how it can grow, how it can reach its customers,” said Rau-Chaplin. He cited the effects of COVID-19 and the increasing digitization of healthcare as examples of the business world’s ever-increasing reliance on computing.

In preparation for resumed expansion, Rau-Chaplin said the faculty needs additional instructors to ensure students can continue receiving sufficiently personalized attention.

Simultaneously, the faculty is in the midst of upgrading and modernizing its curriculum and teaching techniques.

Beginning a few years ago, for example, many courses switched to a “problem-of-the-day” format. Conventional programming assignments were supplemented with small, daily tasks to build students’ comfort levels with the subject matter – an approach that Rau-Chaplin likened to practising the piano.

Part of the modernization process has also involved a push to recruit more female students.

In November 2018, Dalhousie said it had increased the number of women enrolled in computer science programs by 144 percent compared to 2016, partly by offering an additional $320,000 of scholarship funding for female students.

The latest 2020 graduating class was 30 percent women, compared to a historical trend that once saw classes that could be almost exclusively male.


Disclosure: Dalhousie University is a client of Entrevestor.