Cuts will stifle new talent

February 9, 2007

Loss of core subjects undermines Britain's global input, says Anthea Lipsett.

"There are some subjects you can pull out off without repercussions but physics isn't one of them," said John Blackman, head of Reading University's soon-to-be-closed physics department.

"It will be two or three years before they sort out how to deal with it.

The most serious issue is the knock-on effect on interdisciplinary work in the university. It could weaken other departments because so much science is inherently interdisciplinary," he added.

The department is due to close no later than July 2010 to allow the most recent intake of students to graduate. Professor Blackman will retire then and he has a visiting professorship lined up.

But the closure would mean a much greater setback for younger researchers in the middle of projects that required specialised equipment, he said.

"For those who have to move elsewhere it's a major disruption of a year or two for them and their research."

The announcement of the closure of Reading's physics department is the latest in a spate of science department closures to hit the headlines in the past year. It is one of 20 to fold in the past decade.

The loss of departments and the ever-decreasing number of single-honours physics, chemistry and maths courses in parts of the country is highlighted as a major concern by the University and College Union in its report Degrees of Decline .

The loss will be felt most strongly by students, it says, who - with the introduction of higher fees - are increasingly looking to study while living at home, which is restricting them to study only what their local institution offers.

But the changes are equally likely to affect the academic community.

Michael Grove, director of the national maths subject centre, said: "Any decline in the nature or level of maths provision will have implications for other subjects. This clearly is a worrying trend if the UK is to compete with other countries in terms of its science knowledge base.

"The old saying 'prevention is better than cure' clearly applies here. If the level of provision drops or student numbers continue to fall, both of which are clearly linked, this could become disastrous for the future of the mathematical sciences in the UK. We must act now," he said.

Peter Cooper, executive secretary of the London Mathematical Society, said:

"This trend is leaving other subject areas that need maths exposed. They may not need cutting-edge maths but they need a good, solid base for maths and people who know its limitations and its power. Without those people in a university to advise on those courses it's very worrying."

Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, said: "We appear to be moving to a scenario of fewer but stronger departments through ad hoc closures, with no strategic planning.

"While it is arguable that expensive subjects such as physics should be done only in places that can be properly funded, if that line is taken, the process of choosing which ones survive should not be left to chance (or to) which vice-chancellors lose their nerve first."

For Ole Peterson, physiology professor at Liverpool University, the biggest problem is demand. "Higher education is market-driven, and universities have to respond to that. But it's a real worry that we won't have the people with the skills to solve global problems.

"The repercussions may take years to become clear, and it may be too late to turn things around at that point. The only way to solve global problems is by people with skills in maths, physics and chemistry. We need real skills and knowledge, not woolly courses.

"These are undoubtedly worrying figures. Even the biology situation is not nearly as rosy as many people would like it to be," he added.

The upturn of 9 per cent [from 64 in 1998 to 70 in 2007] in single-honours biology courses contrasts with the downturn in chemistry, physics and maths. But the fall in the other core science subjects affects it too.

Alan Malcolm, chief executive of the Institute of Biology, said:

"Biologists need a good grounding in chemistry and maths, and many need physics too. To tackle the major issues facing Britain this century, such as climate change, the ageing population, pandemic diseases and sustainable natural resources, we need strong, well-funded university departments covering all disciplines in science."


  • Chemistry BSc single honours courses dropped 31 per cent from 62 in 1998 to 43 in 2007
  • Physics BSc single honours dropped 14 per cent from 51 in 1998 to 44 in 2007
  • Maths BSc single honours dropped 8 per cent from 73 in 1998 to 67 in 2007
  • Science and maths BSc single honours dropped 10 per cent from 250 in 1998 to 224 in 2007
  • More specifically, science and maths BSc single honours dropped 31 per cent from 1998 to 2007 in the East of England, 30 per cent in the North East and 23 per cent in London.

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