Sciences shrink again

May 2, 1997

The future of chemistry and physics is under threat at a number of universities.

Brunel may become the first United Kingdom university to stop all undergraduate physics and chemistry teaching following the departments' poor research ratings and recruitment record.

The University of Kent is also considering cutting 12 jobs across the two departments to help cope with a Pounds 2 million funding shortfall.

Manchester Metropolitan University's faculty board has passed plans to disband the department of mathematics and physics, with the school of mathematics joining computing. The school of physics, which teaches four undergraduate courses and an MSc, will stop teaching all but one of its undergraduate courses from September, and lecturers will be transferred to other schools.

Leeds Metropolitan University is shutting its chemistry department and transferring provision to Huddersfield University. Current chemistry students will transfer to Huddersfield from September.

The universities of East Anglia, Coventry and Essex have cut undergraduate physics and chemistry courses, blaming falling numbers. De Montfort University merged its physics and chemistry departments because of falling rolls.

At Brunel a university working party has recommended that the departments close in their present form after gaining disappointing gradings in last year's research assessment exercise. Physics was awarded a 2, having dropped from a 3 in the 1992 RAE, while chemistry was awarded its third 2 since 1989.

Brunel, which was founded as a centre of technological excellence in 1966, has 145 physics undergraduates across all years and 153 in chemistry. A total of 22 academic posts are potentially under threat, eight in physics and 14 in chemistry. No redundancy plans have been announced yet.

The working party also recommended setting up a new grouping formed from the nucleus of the staff in the two departments. This would oversee the running down of the undergraduate courses and look at ways of developing post-graduate teaching and research in the two sciences. Existing undergraduate provision would end after all those enrolled complete their courses.

A final decision on physics and chemistry will be made by the university council at its July meeting. The university is also reviewing the entire science faculty following its recent merger with the West London Institute.

* A radical restructuring of the 16-19 physics curriculum is on the cards as the Institute of Physics attempts to update the subject and increase its attractiveness, particularly to girls.

The revamp, expected to take three years and cost around Pounds 500,000, will bring universities, schools and employers together to discuss the future of a subject which has seen falling A-level entries and department closures.

John Ogborn, professor of science education at the University of London Institute of Education, is to head the revamp. "We need courses which offer students more of what they want, universities and employers more of what they need, and which demonstrate the variety and excitement of physics as it is today," he said. "We have to reverse the potential downward spiral which starts with fewer young people choosing to do A-level physics and results in reduced numbers of physics graduates, even fewer physics teachers and still more students abandoning the subject at school."

The number of A-level physics students fell from 46,000 in 1988 to 33,000 in 1996, with the ratio of boys to girls studying physics increasing.

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