Desperate for a spark to ignite student interest

December 3, 2004

The future of chemistry and physics departments is in jeopardy unless the straight sciences can pull off an image overhaul. Anna Fazackerley reports

"It can be lonely being the head of a physics department under financial pressure," according to Anne Tropper, head of physics and astronomy at Southampton University. "With all these closures, it is hard to maintain morale, and it is also a struggle encouraging young staff."

This week, Newcastle University confirmed its decision to abandon pure physics and last week Exeter University announced that it would close chemistry and "disinvest" in many of its other 4-rated science departments.

But they look unlikely to be the last casualties.

The physical sciences are caught in a double bind of falling student interest and inadequate funding. Indeed, some key figures in the sector suggest that there is not a single university physics or chemistry department in the UK that is not in the red.

The Royal Society of Chemistry reports that 28 institutions have dropped undergraduate chemistry courses in the past nine years. The picture is similarly stark in physics, where 30 per cent of departments have been axed since 1992.

Student admission figures suggest that lack of demand is one of the central problems. Numbers of applications to study straight chemistry at university fell from just under 4,000 in 1997 to just over 2,700 in 2003. Numbers applying to study physics fell from 3,526 in 1997 to 3,165 in 2003.

These are low figures compared with other more sexy science-related subjects: for instance, more than 15,000 students applied to study psychology last year.

The plummeting application numbers prompt a key question for government officials and vice-chancellors alike: is lack of demand enough of a reason to drop the fundamental sciences - in effect allowing sixth-formers to dictate what subjects universities offer?

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, is vehemently against the Government spending money to prop up physical science.

He said: "It is an inefficient, ineffective way to spend money. I think the Higher Education Funding Council for England should spend money where the students are."

Professor Knight dismissed the claim that there must be a chemistry or physics department in every region to serve the increasing number of students who live at home while studying. "Universities are national institutions and students are mobile."

But this is a minority view. Many in the sector are anxious to find ways to stimulate student interest in the physical sciences, before physics and chemistry disappear from non-research-intensive institutions.

Tony Ashmore, head of education at the RSC, said that there had been no major change in the number of sixth-formers studying A-level chemistry, but it was becoming harder to persuade them to do a chemistry degree.

His research showed that virtually all A-level chemists go to university, but they are increasingly choosing subjects such as medicine, sports science, business and law.

"What that says to me is the traditional path of 20 years ago, where if you were doing chemistry you were doing the sciences, no longer applies."

Dr Ashmore pointed out that these students might be choosing vocational degrees because they could not see where a chemistry qualification would take them professionally. Persuading them that a chemistry degree would equip them for anything is a key aim at the RSC.

Paul Cullis, head of organic and biological chemistry at Leicester University, said that this should be an easy argument to win. He is leading a Hefce-funded project to use chemistry as a vehicle for widening participation in universities.

Professor Cullis said: "If you had a choice between doing psychology or chemistry, we feel we can demonstrate more career opportunities and greater earning potential (with chemistry). These are the things that are going to influence a working-class family with no experience of university."

But Professor Cullis admitted that chemists urgently needed to spice up their image. "We are still seen as aloof white-coated boffins and we must show how we are relevant to the public," he said.

In physics, the student numbers problem is different. There has been a dramatic fall in the number of students taking physics at A level. In 1990, about 45,000 people took physics A level, but last year fewer than 31,000 did.

The Institute of Physics said that no one quite understood what had put students off.

But Peter Main, director of physics education at the IOP, speculated that the perception that it was more difficult to get a high grade in physics than in other A levels was hitting the subject hard.

Professor Main was also convinced that many students were making decisions about what to study at A level and beyond - and deciding to abandon physics - based on "almost zero knowledge".

He said: "We've done some focus group work and found that at the age of 16 most kids just don't think about their career. When they do, they are often unrealistic - they all want to be vets for example."

Getting girls interested in physics is proving to be an even tougher task.

For the past decade the proportion of girls studying it at A level has stalled at 20 per cent.

Gillian Gehring, who is based at Sheffield University and who became the second ever female physics professor as recently as 1989, argued that the lack of female role models in physics was one barrier. But she said that girls were also responding to strong social pressure. "Far more girls in single-sex schools take physics because they do not feel they have to prove their femininity."

Another massive obstacle, for both physics and chemistry, is the lack of properly qualified secondary school science teachers.

The figures are most shocking in physics: in 2002, 7 per cent of people training for a PGCE qualification to teach science had a physics degree.

Academics worry that if physical science teachers don't have real affinity with their subject, they are unlikely to ignite passion in their students.

The major problem is that teaching salaries are relatively low compared with those available to physics graduates elsewhere.

Professor Main said: "The great paradox is that because physics graduates are in such high demand they can pick and choose what job they do."

At a time when universities are struggling to make ends meet, Professor Main stressed that it was vital to address all the problems related to student demand to ensure the survival of costly science departments.

He concluded: "One has to be realistic and accept that no one is going to do us any favours. Many vice-chancellors are pretty hard-nosed accountants and they see these subjects are losing money. Higher education is student driven and if there aren't enough students that is a serious problem."

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