Physics network launches second phase

The South East Physics Network, created five years ago to counteract a decline in the subject in the English region, has launched its second phase.

July 14, 2013

Running to 2018, the next step of the project will be funded with £2.75 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and £10.3 million from its university partners.

The University of Hertfordshire and the Open University will join the network’s seven existing institutions - the universities of Kent, Portsmouth, Southampton, Surrey and Sussex, and the University of London colleges of Queen Mary and Royal Holloway.

Speaking at a launch event at the Houses of Parliament on 8 July, Sir William Wakeham, the chair of SEPnet, said that the network had been a “tremendous success”, with undergraduate numbers at member physics departments increasing by 90 per cent since 2007.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that UK-wide, the number of undergraduates studying physics rose by just 21 per cent between 2007-08 and 2011-12.

Sir William said that the network had been born “out of a sense of crisis” in physics in the mid-2000s, with one department in the region having closed and a number feeling under threat.

“It was acutely worrying to see in the UK, and South East in particular, declining numbers in physics,” he said.

The collaboration between departments was formed in 2008, supported by a grant of £12.5 million from Hefce, with funding and resources also provided by the Science and Technology Facilities Council and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

The purpose was to grow graduate intake, postgraduate teaching and research in physics through programmes of outreach to schools and public engagement, later expanding to include employer engagement and collaborative research.

In its new phase the network will establish a regional programme of training for postgraduate research students in order to boost their employability, as well as work to address diversity and widening participation issues and expand employer engagement programmes.

“Physics is bad not just on gender but ethnic minorities and low socio-economic groups,” said James West, executive director of SEPnet, explaining the reasons behind one of the next priorities of the programme.

He put the lack of diversity largely down to poor physics teaching in some schools and cultural barriers, adding that “there’s a huge talent pool not being tapped”.

Continued funding from Hefce will provide for the network’s expansion and new activities, while universities themselves will fund staff and on-going activities, including internships and PhD studentships.

David Sweeney, director of research, innovation and skills at Hefce, said that the council did not believe in “propping up” universities, but that it was proud to have been able to support the network.

“I think there are lessons to be learned from the success of SEPnet and about how to balance collaboration and competition, but the reason we were able to support it was the enthusiasm of partners at the start,” he told Times Higher Education.

He added that for the council to support such a project it had to be distinctive, have the potential to become self-sustaining and tackle a problem that can be overcome by collaboration.

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