Wednesday, December 01, 2010


In the Guardian, Stephan Collini imagines an alternative world where the British government is proposing to withdraw all financial support for the teaching of sciences, as opposed to humanities. Meanwhile, a recent flurry of email on the CPHC mailing list1 addresses the status of Computer Science as a STEM field. (That's “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”.) The background being that these STEM subjects are the ones that in fact benefit from favoritism2 from Government due to their economic importance.

In more detail, STEM subjects will continue to receive a fee premium from Government. CS is STEM, right? Well, maybe not, if STEM is a shorthand for “HEFCE band A or B”; CS narrowly misses out on band B, as a result of reductions in the cost of computing facilities. The Browne review hints that “priority programmes” are primarily bands A and B, with a bit of representation from band C.

The email was about lobbying for recognition as a STEM subject, or alternatively, as “strategically important and vulnerable (SIV)”. Quoting UUK report Changes in student choices and graduate employment
The strategically important and vulnerable (SIV) subjects are chemistry, engineering, mathematics, physics and some area studies, quantitative social science and modern foreign languages (HEFCE, 2010a). They are considered so in relation to the anticipated demands of the economy rather than the exercise of student choice.

While CS is not sufficiently “vulnerable” to classify as SIV, one email argued that computer programming in particular should maybe qualify, and gave some anecdotal evidence of a decline of computer programming in schools in the UK, blamed it on the teaching of ICT in schools, and contrasted it with a relatively high interest in programming in India. ICT, as currently taught here, tends to evade the interesting technical challenges and is an example of the bad driving out the good.

One lesson we should learn: if we really care about our STEM status, it's not just a matter of lobbying to retain that recognition. It's a matter of ensuring that the intellectual content justifies the claims. We need to keep both programming and rigorous mathematics right at the heart of CS.

1Council of Professors and Heads of Computing. I sometime consider getting myself demoted so that I don't have to be on the mailing list.

2Relative, not absolute!

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