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A-level blacklists and the Computer Games industry

Interesting announcement from the UK schools minister, David Willetts: from 2012, UK universities will be legally required to publish their exam blacklists.

This is something I desperately hope comes into practice (apparently it’s just an “aim” right now, no telling if it’ll actually happen).

It’s especially interesting given the rich and powerful games-companies that keep banging the drum of “There’s not enough qualified IT professionals in the UK” (which, IMHO, is bullshit: they know there’s plenty, but the companies in question have a poor reputation and not enough people *want* to work for them). So far as their claims are genuine, a large contributory factor is students taking “the wrong” A-levels, and then failing to get into “the right” degree course.

For instance, when recruiting graduates for development jobs, we’d often see people with the “IT” (Information Technology) A-level, or some variant of it. Most professional programmers know that that A-level is worthless – it teaches next to nothing, and demands next to nothing. If someone included it on their list of A-levels, they were immediately downgraded in the CV/Resume pile – it begs the question “were you too lazy to do a real A-level? Why should we even consider you when there’s 2 other candidates who did a “full” 3 (or 4) A-levels – are you going to have the same attitude (work-shy) if we employ you?”.

This is not fair: many people chose that subject without realising what it signifies. I suspect the root problem is that teenagers aren’t encouraged to read the curriculum of their chosen subject BEFORE starting the A-level, and judge it for themselves. Analysis, suspicion, and appraisal (in the UK) is now banned until the age of 17: the GCSE syallabus for most subjects in the UK punishes any kind of critical thinking. Shocking, tragic, sad, but with enormous momentum of its own. In reality, changing that would be massively difficult – and anyway, there *should* be other checks and balances.

…One of which is the universities, who look at those A-levels in detail each year, and “judge” them carefully. Unlike critical appraisal of A-levels, sixth-formers considering university tend to look in great detail at anything the university has to say about entrance requirements – no cultural or educational shift is required to get their attention at this point. So, if more universities publish this info, I’m sure it’ll be seen by a great many more of the people who need it.

Incidentally, this is one of the few areas where a move to a USA-style “commercial” university system may be a big improvement over the traditional UK system. Because students would have to pay vast sums of their own money to go to uni, they’re “likely” to be a lot more critical and a lot more demanding up-front, before they spend their cash. Maybe.

Yet my own small experiences of USA undergrads suggest the opposite. There are a couple of “universities” (and I use the term very loosely) in the USA that specialise in “Computer Games Design” courses, or similar, where the students learn … nothing. They just spend the time playing games, making shitty models in Max/Maya (donated to the “university” by Autodesk’s aggressive marketing/sales team, keen to do a loss-leader and capture future users), and having the sunshine blown up their ass by “professors” with little or no qualification in the subjects at hand.

We know this for two reasons: firstly, we see the CVs/Resumes that come out of them, and they’re so bad it makes you want to cry. “Portfolios” that look like the scribbles of a 4-year-old child; self-important monologues on game-design that would make even Molyneux blush and declare “oh, how pompous!”; “code samples” of students *failing* to implement space-invaders, or tetris.

Secondly, there’s the increasing bitterness and anger of the students that have been through that system, come out the far end, and realised how much they’d been ripped-off. I won’t name names – no need: if you’re considering a college, just google it with the word “sucks” or “waste of money”, and see what happens. The guilty colleges have websites dedicated – probably even whole youtube channels – to bitching about how bad they are, from current and former students.

In those cases, even the prospect of going 10s of thousands of dollars into debt wasn’t enough to spur the students into critical appraisal before heading to uni. Which leaves me unconvinced that “paying for your degree” will solve such problems – although it will excuse the responsble authorities from taking responsibility in the future. For good reasons and bad, universities, lecturers, schools, and government are all keen to pass the buck here – and the pay-as-you-go education seems a neat way out.

So … yes; bring-on the blacklists! Share this info, info which the (arguably) morally bankrupt Examination companies would like kept buried forever (because it directly reduces their profitability). Info which successive governments had no interest in revealing (because it would draw too much attention to the severely ****ed teaching of some subjects – and lead to public demand for the government to fix something enormous it had neither the money nor the will to achieve).

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