Metallurgy's shine is tarnishing
FALLING enrolments in the low-profile subject of metallurgy are causing concern for some British companies.
According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the number of applications for metallurgy dropped from 478 in 1994 to 136 in 1996, with the number of acceptances falling from 53 to just 21 during the same period.
Steve Fidgett, secretary to the minerals committee of the Confederation of British Industry, says that there is no great alarm about the recruitment of metallurgists.
However, he admits that the difficulty of recruiting tometallurgy and related courses is beginning to filter down to companies such as Tarmac, which remain reliant on a sustained supply of good, specifically trained graduates.
Metallurgy forms an important part of the larger subject ofmaterials science, another subject that attracts a small number of students.
But Robin Grimes, of Imperial College's materials department, is confident that job prospects for graduates are very good - his own department's postgraduate employment rate is almost 100 per cent.
"Materials is all about trying to engineer a material (including metals) to a particular engineering problem," Dr Grimes says.
"You can design anything you want - a bridge, an aeroplane, whatever - but if you don't have the materials which allow those engineering tolerances you're sunk."
Equally, an understanding of the properties of metals and other materials is crucial to improving the effective recycling of anything from nuclear fuels to cans and other forms of packaging.
Dr Grimes and Mr Fidgett agree that metallurgy's main problem is that few outside the field, including most teachers, really understand what it is.
They both stress the importance of raising the subject's profile among a younger audience.
In one attempt to address the problem, the Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, together with the British Geological Survey and the University of Leeds, has organised the Minerals '98initiative, to be launched in June next year.
The initiative, which will include a major educational thrust, hopes to encourage a range of activities for primary schools upwards.
It also aims to generate greater understanding of, and enthusiasm for, the subject.