Physics and chemistry are in trouble. Physicists blame falling student numbers and cuts, while chemists finger the research assessment exercise
At least five universities are threatening to shut down their undergraduate physics courses because of recruitment difficulties.
Coventry University will stop taking physics undergraduates from September 1998, while the University of East Anglia senate was expected to vote this week on a university committee's recommendation to shelve undergraduate physics, making physics a research-only department.
The future of physics at Manchester Metropolitan University is also under review, and applied physics and chemistry departments at De Montfort University have been merged because of falling rolls. Physics at Birkbeck College, London, is also in trouble (see box).
Mike Goldstein, Coventry University vice chancellor, said recruitment and funding difficulties led to the physics degree being axed. Some of the university's nine physics lecturers are seeking early retirement, while others will continue to research and lecture on courses such as engineering.
A UEA spokeswoman said the proposal to end the courses reflected "the national situation with fewer students applying to undergraduate courses in physics". The number of physics applicants to UEA fell from 255 in 1992/93 to 136 in 1995/96, with 34 and 18 enrolling each year respectively. She added that the university aimed to make no compulsory redundancies.
It is believed that 64 offers have so far been made to potential UEA physics students for October 1997. The university says that if undergraduate physics is axed, those with offers will be helped to find alternatives.
Second-year UEA student Mark Pullen, 33, is trying to rally student support against the move. "How will our degree look to industry and outside business?" he asked. "Will we lose options?" Trevor Randall, head of maths and physics at Manchester Metropolitan, said: "The faculty of science and engineering is under review. The school of physics is small and as such vulnerable."
National entry figures have remained steady at 2,930 in 1994/ 95 and 2,912 in 1995/96 according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Philip Diamond, Institute of Physics manager for higher education and research, said: "In absolute terms we are holding our own. Universities are under financial pressure and physics is expensive."
Alan Smithers, director of the University of Brunel's centre for education and employment research, said that science provision in universities has been expanded beyond demand.
"In 1988 there were 45,716 entries at A level physics," he said, By 1996 this figure had dropped by 28 per cent to 32,801. "The expansion of higher education has been fed by A levels. But A levels in science have not grown with other subjects. The proportion taking science and maths has remained at 5 per cent of the age group in the last 30 years."
Mr Smithers said the subject's perceived difficulty, poor salaries and fewer job opportunities, the difficulty in recruiting teachers and expanded universities offering a greater variety of courses all contribute to the problem.