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Comment | Is physics A-level a civils prerequisite?

Mark Hansford

Much angst abounds around the dearth of skilled engineers in our profession. But there seems to be limited creative thinking around solving the issue.

One solution has leapt out at me over the last week or so - and through three completely independent sources. Our letters page is the first. There, Ruth Haynes explains how many girls are lost to engineering because they do not take physics A-level. Remarkably having no physics A-level pretty much excludes you from almost all civil engineering degree courses. Why?

In response to this oddity, Haynes is creating a scheme to enable young people who might not have the right A-levels to enter our industry and progress to EngTech through an apprenticeship. It’s a great idea. And I’d urge employers to lend her their support.

But I wonder if we can’t take it further and tackle the universities head on.

Curved spring

Source: Ingo Dierking

I really think it’s a bit of an easy win. Why? Well, here I bring in my second and third sources - the two superb graduate engineers who, in making it through to the final judging day of NCE’s Graduate of the Year Awards, were able to articulate how, were it not for University College London (UCL) and its progressive views on A-levels, they would not be in our profession today.


One told how her predicted A*’s in maths and chemistry would not have been welcome at any other leading civils university because instead of physics, she had chosen to study a humanities third subject. The second told a similar tale. He’d had the audacity to study geography instead of physics. I mean, heavens, an engineer who is numerate and understands the human impact of what we do too - why would we possibly want that?
UCL stirred up a bit of a storm of protest when it announced it was shaking up its admissions selection criteria back in 2006 . It’s view was that over a four year degree, any gaps in knowledge can be quickly made up by any genuinely numerate candidate. And based on what we Graduate Awards judges saw last week, it’s a move that’s worked.

The point is surely that at 18, 17, 16, or even 15 - when A-level choices are made - very few young people will have been sufficiently exposed to civil engineering or any other career like it that imposes such a narrow set of required subjects. One unknowingly wrong A-level choice and that’s it - you’re out and out forever.

And are these subjects “wrong” anyway? Our second graduate said he has found his geography A-Level hugely valuable in his career to date.

And, when asked whether he thought engineering attracted good communicators (he was a good communicator), his response: “What do you think? Just look at the subjects you ask for.”

It’s a fascinating topic and we’re keen to hear from any university that has quietly taken an approach similar to UCLs - or is maybe thinking about it.

Seems to me to be a relatively quick fix and I don’t see many barriers - or am I missing something?

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (2)

  • Does part of the problem lie not just with the need for Physics A level but to the ever increasing academic qualifications required by ICE for a graduate to become chartered?
    Could NCE analyse how this has changes say over the last 50 years?

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  • James Walley

    My A level physics did almost nothing that A level Maths Mechanics module didn't do and it just made me more aware of physics of small particles... (I reckon I used more chemistry in my Civil Engineering degree learning about BOD in rivers). If I could go back I would have loved to have done history or Geography alongside maths and further maths to understand human needs from the environment or geological processes. I'm also pretty certain several of my peers on my University of Sheffield course did not do physics at A Level when leaving school in 2009/2010 and came out with brilliant degrees!

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