Physics faces age crisis

February 28, 1997

THE INSTITUTE of Physics has warned in its submission to the Dearing inquiry into higher education that the age profile of academic staff in university physics departments presents serious problems for the future of the subject, writes Julia Hinde.

Without a significant rise in the rate of staff recruitment, there will be a dramatic decline in the permanent academic physics population over the next decade, the institute says.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, a record .3 per cent of full-time physics lecturers are aged 55 or over. Phil Diamond, higher education and research manager at the institute, said half of physics lecturers are due to retire in the next 15 years.

The institute says it would not want to see a funding system in which students from families of modest means were discouraged from entering higher education by the introduction of fees, adding that it is essential that a charging scheme does not financially disadvantage those studying more costly subjects such as medicine, engineering and laboratory sciences.

It rejects the idea of separate research and teaching institutions, saying excellent research should be funded wherever it occurs and calls for lecturers not involved in research to be given time and resources to undertake scholarship.

The submission supports four-year undergraduate courses for the more able physics students, with a three-year reduced syllabus degree for the majority, but rejects the idea of accelerated two-year degrees.

The submission raises concerns about the competence in physics and maths of university applicants who have followed General National Vocational Qualification Advanced Science courses, but praises greater modularisation, believing that the flexibility it allows may encourage more women to study physics.

Dr Diamond added that the institute was happy to note this year's increase in University and Colleges Admissions Service physics applications. He said: "It is impossible to say whether this is a one-off, or whether we have turned a corner. We have no real idea why this has happened, but it's a percentage which is too high to put down to experimental error."

* Scottish submissions to the Dearing inquiry from the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department shows that student numbers are expected to continue to grow in Scotland despite funding cuts, writes Tony Tysome.

Expansion is likely at all levels, from part-time and distance learning undergraduate courses through to full-time postgraduate programmes, according to the Scottish Office evidence.

More flexible access to higher education will be needed in terms of the type of courses offered and where they are available if the needs of students and employers are to be met, many respondents to the inquiry said. Alternative entry routes with non-standard qualifications and accreditation of work-based learning will be needed.

Many respondents, including the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, argued for a closer partnership between higher education and FE institutions.

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