Minister's vision

October 17, 1997

A DECLINE in the proportion of students studying science and engineering at British universities in the future is inevitable according to Tessa Blackstone, minister for higher education, who adds that "handwringing" is "out of place".

The comment has caused a furore among some scientists. Nobel laureate Sir Harold Kroto has called for her to be sacked.

In an article in today's THES Baroness Blackstone outlines a radical vision of lifelong learning in the 21st century. The extract from The State of the Nation, a collection of essays published this month, was written when she was still master of Birkbeck College, London. But the picture she sketches squares with the government's ambition to end higher education's social exclusivity. This week a spokesperson for the Department for Education and Employment said it seemed to be "bang on government policy".

Universities, she predicts, will be open 50 weeks a year, will be driven by distance learning and will cater for more part-time non-traditional students. The nature of universities will change, with people dipping out of other careers to teach part-time. David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "We want accredited teachers to teach, not an assortment of people from other professions."

Andrew Ramsay, at the Engineering Council, said he was "disturbed" at her views. "The true situation is the demand for engineering graduates is high and rising".

But John Krebs, chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, said he did not see her statement as a threat to traditional scientific education, believing science can be delivered via vocational courses without eroding its importance.

Open all hours, pages 22-23

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