Science gets a tsar but no new protection

October 13, 2006

Minister names centre director but rules out stating minimum regional provision, Anna Fazackerley writes.

The Government announced the appointment of a new national science tsar this week, but it refused to stem a flood of university closures by defining how many science departments each region needs.

John Holman, director of the National Science Learning Centre, will be the first national director for science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem). He will lead a group engaged with co-ordinating measures to improve teaching and support in struggling science subjects.

But at an event announcing the appointment, Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, firmly ruled out setting a target for the number of core science courses the UK should have.

Mr Rammell, who also announced £18 million of funding for initiatives to boost interest in science in schools and universities, said: "It is important we keep an eye on the regional picture. But the idea that you can from the centre dictate which institutions have which subjects is not practical."

He added: "Despite all the closures that have hit the headlines, if you look at the overall level of provision it has been maintained."

The Government's reluctance to intervene on closures has caused anger in some circles, especially since Reading University last week become the latest to confirm its intention to drop physics.

Gerry Lawless, head of the department of chemistry at Sussex University, which narrowly escaped the axe this year, said: "Of course we need to decide on the number of chemistry and physics departments. Definitely."

He stressed that the problem was not a lack of demand from students but rather insufficient funding for costly science labs.

Peter Main, director of education at the Institute of Physics, said: "It is implicitly accepted that the unit of resource in physics and chemistry is not at the right level. Even successful universities are struggling to keep their heads above water. I would be surprised if we do not see more closures."

But David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, signalled that he was keen to step in to address the situation. He said: "I hope to take to my board a proposal that will enhance the funding to key subjects."

The initiatives announced this week include a physics-based science degree that will require students to have only one A at A level in maths or one of the sciences.

The integrated sciences degree, which is being launched by the Institute of Physics, will be offered from next September at the universities of East Anglia, Leicester, Surrey and London South Bank.

The Stem funding includes money for four projects.

The Royal Academy of Engineering and its partners get £2.85 million over two and a half years for the London Engineering project to encourage South London teenagers to study the subject.

The Institute of Physics gets £1.79 million over two years for its Stimulating Physics project. A consortium of mathematical societies receive £3.3 million to promote maths among young people from poor backgrounds.

The Royal Society of Chemistry gets £3.6 million over two years for its Chemistry for the Future project.

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

 

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