An unbalanced equation

October 11, 1996

Vocational courses do not prepare students for a computer science degree, argues Matthew Huntbach.

Those responsible for promoting the idea that vocational qualifications should have "parity of esteem" with academic qualifications ought to realise that esteem has to be earned. One cannot simply confer it. As an admissions tutor the esteem I give to any qualification depends on the success of applicants holding it on my department's degree courses. While the traditional route to computer science has been through science and maths A levels, in recent years there has been an increasing number of applicants offering vocational qualifications in "information technology" such as BTEC National Diplomas, and now GNVQs.

These applicants have been led to believe their qualifications are ideal for a degree course in computer science. It is notable that many come from families without a tradition of higher education. The idea that admissions tutors are snobbishly rejecting such applicants is nonsense. I have a quota to meet, and with demands to take on greater numbers, the decreasing proportion of sixth-formers taking science and maths A levels, and the problems of working at an institution which sometimes struggles to maintain a profile in the competitive London market, I will take able applicants from wherever they come. I have become skilled in discerning the potential of people with the most obscure qualifications.

However, students coming in with vocational qualifications have often disappointed. Many who have merit or distinction grades in information technology cannot cope with even simple programming exercises. In practice we have found performance in maths and related A levels is by far the best predictor of performance in a computer science degree. As a result we have been forced to introduce our own tests in mathematical and logical reasoning skills for applicants with vocational qualifications in the hope that they will tell us which of them has some innate ability. If a qualification which is supposed to be vocational appears to confer no advantage in practical skills on those holding it and cannot be used as a reliable indicator of underlying ability, then what is the point of it? Are those taking it just wasting their time?

Part of the problem appears to be that, ironically, the increasing presence of computers in our lives seems to have led to a decreasing understanding of what computer science as an academic subject entails, even among those whose job it is to advise university applicants. It is not about mastery of whatever is this year's market leader in spreadsheets, word-processors etc. There are commercial courses that can do a far better job at training people in these things than can academics. Had the computer science degree I gained 15 years ago been about training in the computer artifacts of the day it would now be almost redundant. In those days, however, schools careers advisers accepted, correctly, that the subject had close links with maths. Applicants and their advisers seem astonished to learn that mathematical ability is still the first thing a university selector for computer science will look for, to the extent that a good grade in A-level maths will be more valued than an A level in computer studies.

Academic computer science uses the underlying skill in abstract reasoning taught in A-level maths. Computer science is about formal systems for knowledge representation and problem-solving. A person with these skills can apply them to building and understanding computer artifacts and will be better able to adapt to technological change than someone who has only superficial skills in today's technology.

Vocational education must be education which prepares for a job. If it is being used for entrance to a university it is not being used for its defined purpose.

It may be that some, intending to use a vocational qualification for a job, decide, while taking it, that they would prefer to go on to higher education. If so, admissions tutors should treat them sympathetically, but as exceptional cases. However, anyone who is taking a vocational qualification under the assumption that it is as suitable a preparation for entrance to an academic course as one designed for that purpose has been misled.

Matthew Huntbach is admissions tutor, department of computer science, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

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