UK CS degrees rising while secondary school CS testing drops: Result is too little computing literacy

September 4, 2012 at 9:08 am 2 comments

Fascinating blog post and analysis from Neil Brown.  The UK secondary school top test in CS (consider it like the US Advanced Placement Exam) is the A-level.  Fewer people are taking the CS A-levels in the UK, but more people are applying for degrees in CS and more people are entering the CS degree program.  That means that fewer people are seeing CS in high school, while there’s still rising interest in the degree. What’s the cost of fewer people studying CS at the secondary school level?  Less breadth, fewer people who know CS but don’t go into CS, fewer people who are computing literate for their careers and daily lives.  That’s not a good thing.

A-Level Computing looks like it’s on the verge of dying out. This is not good news for the discipline as a whole — even though our degree numbers seem to be doing fine in spite of the A-Level decline, ultimately it would be good to see computing strong at all stages of the educational system. As it stands we face a sort of polarisation: those with computing degrees know computing, but almost no-one without a computing degree will have done any computing. (Compare to maths, where lots of students have maths A-Level, despite not doing a maths degree.)

via Computing A-Level Statistics | Academic Computing.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  September 4, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    I think that graph needs to have a logarithmic y axis, so that we can see the ratios of entrants to A-level finishers more clearly.

    Why are so many students are applying for degrees without an A-level? Is it a supply problem (students would take the A-level if courses were available)? Is it a demand problem (degree programs don’t ask for A-levels, so students don’t bother with the extra work)?

    Another curve that would be useful is degree finishers. Even more useful would be what fraction of A-level finishers end up with degrees compared with the fraction of those without A-level that finish degrees. (That is, does the A-level help predict who will finish their degrees?)

  • 2. Neil Brown  |  September 5, 2012 at 10:05 am

    (Disclaimer: I wrote the original post).

    The original blog post (linked to at the foot of the post) has the graph without degree finishers, so you can see the ratio of entrants to finishers much more clearly there.

    It is more demand than supply, as you describe it, but it’s some of both. A-Level computing is not needed to enter university. (You can see why numerically: 65000 applications, and only 4000 students with computing A-Level, it would be suicide for a university to require computing A-Level.) Since it’s not needed, students are often advised to not bother with computing A-Level, as it has a high opportunity cost (physics A-Level or further maths A-Level would keep their options more open) for no gain — they’ll be part of the 61000 without computing. This pattern has then led to some schools dropping computing A-Level, because there’s no gain in it. As I say in my post, to fix this, computing and other subjects need to start valuing computing A-level, which may first require a revamp.

    As for the last bit, yes that would be interesting. The data on that is not made public as far as I know — individual universities would know that, but I don’t think UCAS keeps that data. I should also point out that not necessarily all of the A-Level finishers are applying for computing degrees, but I don’t have the data to tell how many are.


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