BA fair helps put Exeter on science map

September 10, 2004

Finding replacement skydivers when the Royal Air Force's Falcons pull out of the opening ceremony at the last minute, organising hundreds of lectures and entertaining the country's science press corps are just some of the headaches that go with hosting the UK's largest science festival.

But Exeter University views this week's British Association Festival of Science as a key plank in its strategy to position itself as a major science player in the higher education sector.

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter, said: "Inviting the festival here is a public statement that we are making a commitment to strengthen science at the university. We want to raise the visibility of the sciences and get away from the image of a pretty campus for the arts and humanities."

Despite 45 academic staff giving lectures and demonstrations as part of the week-long event, the festival has had surprisingly little impact on day-to-day operations on campus. In fact, non-science staff were conspicuous by their absence in the university's corridors, with many lecturers choosing to work at home during the week. Senior academics in the humanities declined to be interviewed about the impact of the festival, which aims to engage non-scientists with the latest research developments.

The university said that the staff "wouldn't know what to say".

Yet those organising the festival believe that the media spotlight will help raise the profile of Exeter as it plans to expand across the sciences and humanities.

Exeter has decided not to reduce the 37 subjects available to students.

"That would not be in keeping with our aim to become one of the top ten universities in the UK," Professor Smith told The Times Higher .

Exeter is in the process of recruiting 26 professors, including 17 anniversary professors, to celebrate 50 years as a university in 2005.

The festival has also coincided with good news on student admissions in the sciences this year.

Student numbers for science subjects are at an all-time high with the chemistry department not entering clearing. Physics courses were in clearing for only a day.

At a time when some university chemistry departments are threatened with closure, David Smith, lecturer in physical chemistry, put Exeter's success down to the dynamic youthfulness of the department. "The majority of our staff are under 40, and undergraduate recruitment is a good barometer of what people really think of us," Dr Smith said. "Having the BA festival here is a great way to raise the profile of science at Exeter and to reinforce that we are passionate about education as well as science."

The first students will also be admitted this October to the £51 million University of Exeter in Cornwall campus at Tremough near Falmouth, offering courses in biology, geography, environmental science and mining engineering.

Regional links, meanwhile, are also part of the future strategy for Exeter.

The university is engaged in discussions with Bath and Bristol universities to create a critical mass of expertise in the South-west to better compete with university clusters elsewhere in the country.

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