Microsoft is working with a number of universities in several countries to set up courses that teach students how to write secure code, the company said Friday. The University of Leeds in England is the first to announce such a course.

As part of an 11 week module that will start in January next year, third-year undergraduates at the University of Leeds will be asked to hack into software and fix any security bugs they find, Nick Efford, senior teaching fellow at the School of Computing, University of Leeds, said.

"We are going to get our students to think about software in a different way and look at software with a different perspective. We will give them examples of software and will ask them to perform a security audit of it and identify things that are insecure and then ask them to fix the problems," Efford said.

Students will be confronted with security vulnerabilities such as buffer overruns and taught how to prevent those when writing software. That focus on security in software engineering and the hands-on experience makes the course different from most existing security classes, which typically focus on network security and cryptography, according to Efford.

Microsoft is partly funding Efford's fellowship and is helping with the curriculum's content. The Redmond, Washington, software maker is in talks with other universities on similar programs, Stuart Okin, chief security officer for Microsoft in the U.K. said.

"We are talking to a number of universities in the U.S.," he said. "I hope of a world where in a few years' time every computing course is teaching some part of writing secure code."

Microsoft's university program is closely linked to its Trustworthy Computing initiative, a Microsoft-wide focus on securing its products that was launched early last year. As part of that initiative, Microsoft halted the development work of thousands of software engineers for 10 weeks to train them to look at software like hackers do. [See "Gates calls for 'trustworthy computing'," Jan 17, 2002 and "Microsoft takes a break to clean its code," Feb. 4, 2002.]

Okin would like to see all software vendors share their knowledge with academic institutions so future programmers have better security knowledge. "The software industry as a whole will want to take on people who have this skill set," he said.

That Microsoft is sponsoring the course at the University of Leeds does not mean students will only work with Microsoft's technology, Efford said. "We are not focusing exclusively on any one vendor's technology. We have to equip our students with broad knowledge," he said.

Okin agreed: "We need to get input from others as well. Clearly there is no point in these undergraduates learning only about Microsoft technology. We need a broad approach.