Small performers feel the student squeeze

July 17, 1998

Physics is healthy and yet university departments are closing or merging. THES reporters investigate


The proportion of undergraduates choosing physics is falling and is now less than 1 per cent of the total number of students. This has hit some physics departments hard, but others are flourishing.

The number of students has fluctuated, possibly reflecting the economy. But it has seen an increase from 2,821 in 1991 to 3,183 in 1997.

The Institute of Physics says that undergraduate physics courses overall are attracting their target intake and some are exceeding it.

"However, a particular set of local conditions may cause certain departments to experience a falling intake. Such departments will be vulnerable to closure."

Smaller physics departments, such as the University of East Anglia (right) are under threat partly because they cannot afford the expensive equipment.

Manchester Metropolitan University announced early this month that it was scrapping its degree course because of falling numbers. But at the nearby University of Manchester, applications are up. Fred Loebinger, undergraduate admissions tutor at the university, denied any poaching.

"We have a very different clientele," he said. The university had not lowered its entrance standards to attract more students, but it had launched a schools contact programme, whereby physicists from the university give ten to 20 talks to school students each year.

Robin Marshall of Manchester University believes that 100 students a year is the "level of viability" for a physics course. Below this, universities are unable to offer an attractive choice of options. "With 50 students we could not run our programme. We would lose between a quarter and a third of our syllabus. Size is crucial," he said.

The rating that a department achieved in the research assessment exercise is a contributory factor. Money from the funding councils is distributed according to this rating and departments with low scores get no money.


Recruitment of PhD students is healthy and all of the top universities contacted by The THES say they are satisfied with applicants' quality and quantity.

Peter Kalmus of Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, said: "There are still a lot of very good people going in for PhDs. The shortfall is not so much in the high-flyers but the reasonably good and the mediocre students."

One reason for the steady quality of the PhD intake is the introduction of a four-year degree course, taken by almost half of the physics students in England and Wales, that leads to an MPhys or MSci qualification.

The course was introduced in 1993 following concerns that too much material was being crammed into the three-year degree. The course aims to provide a firm basis for a professional career in physics or for graduate studies or research.

Roger Cashmore of the University of Oxford said: "We have had no trouble filling studentships with top-rate physicists. All our PhD intake is MPhys graduates."

But the time it takes to complete a thesis is of concern. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council drew attention to the problem at its strategy meeting last week.

Jim Hough, of the University of Hertfordshire, a member of PPARC, said: "I am concerned at the attention that PPARC is paying to research training."

It usually takes at least four years for a student to complete a PhD in particle physics or astronomy, and some students take more than six years to submit their thesis. After three years, a student's funding runs out and many are left to write up their work while working or claiming benefits.

"This is unfair to students," said Ian Halliday, chief executive of PPARC. "Students should finish their research and write it up within three years."

But this could hit quality and mean that a British PhD will not be comparable with a PhD from countries, such as Germany, where it takes about five years.

The meeting also discussed whether to call for shorter, more flexible grants to encourage high-flying researchers to develop their ideas. It was argued that large rolling grants can breed research boredom rather than creativity.

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