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Why do computer science students drop out?

August 4th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

It takes hard work to design a good survey – and more hard work to collect responses. But often the hardest job is not just analysing the data, but making sense of it. A new survey on student drop outs from Uk universities is a case in point.

The data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show that in 2011-12, 6.6 per cent of full-time UK students doing a first degree in England had quit after their first year.

This is almost one percentage point less than the previous year, and is the latest in a series of declines since 2003-04, when the dropout rate was 9.2 per cent.

Times Higher Education (THE) reports that the survey shows differences in dropout rates between subjects remain stark. “Eleven per cent of computer science students dropped out in 2011-12, according to the data. …..A detailed breakdown of the figures shows that software engineering has a particularly poor retention record, with nearly 17 per cent of students dropping out after the first year. Artificial intelligence courses, on the other hand, do much better.”

THE goe son to say thatDigital Skills for Tomorrow’s World, a report released earlier this month by the UK Digital Skills Taskforce, suggested that computer science courses are “extremely varied” and that “some students arrive at university to find that the courses do not match their expectations”.

They report that the data also show that “men (7.6 per cent) are more likely to drop out than women (5.9 per cent). Students from areas with the lowest levels of participation in higher education also had higher dropout rates than those from other neighbourhoods. Neither of these differences could be fully explained when controlling for age, subject and qualifications on entry.”

We have had a quick chat here in the office about possible reasons for the high drop out in computer science and have come up with a few possible explanations. One may be that computer science students tend to be socially isolated. But more likely is different expectations about the nature of such courses, even if they are extremely varied. Students expect the course to be practical and hands on, whilst often they are quite theoretical and involve a considerable amount of mathematics. That is not to say that these courses are not good. But it may be that many students enrolling on a computer science course would be far better off on a high class apprenticeship training, if such programmes were readily available to the UK.  University is not the only route to learning.

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