Students return to science...

February 21, 1997

University science courses have escalated in popularity, according to figures released today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for 1997 entry.

Record numbers of applications for undergraduate courses in physics in particular have astonished university admissions tutors. Some are reporting increases of as much as 25 per cent over last year, prompting severe criticism of universities like Coventry and Birkbeck, which are threatening to close or move physics departments because of lack of demand.

Overall applications appear to be 0.9 per cent up over the same period (to December 15) 1995. Between 1994 and 1995 there was a fall in demand for university places of 0.7 per cent.

Science has struggled to meet student targets over recent years and the unexpected upturn has taken admissions experts by surprise.

Physics applications were up by 8.7 per cent, and biochemistry was up 9.3 per cent. Chemistry was up by just 16 applications on last year. A total of 53,748 applied for computer science, 6,423 more than last year, making it one of the largest subjects in higher education.

At some universities, once hugely over-subscribed humanities courses have suddenly become problematic while science courses have taken off. Dick Collins, Lancaster University admissions officer, said modern languages and philosophy were suffering declining numbers but physics and biological sciences had never been more popular.

At Manchester University physics was up 8 per cent and chemistry up 4.5 per cent. At Central Lancashire chemistry had grown by 16 per cent.

UMIST has seen an enormous unanticipated upturn in chemistry applications and physics was up 25 per cent on last year, according to Rachel Brealey, admissions officer. "In recent years we have been worrying that science numbers have been falling but overall our applications figures are up 16 per cent."

Computer science was extremely popular with prospective students nationwide, up 13.6 per cent according to UCAS. Derby University was deluged with maths and computing applications, up 87 per cent on last year. The university put this down to niche marketing.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Brunel University, said A-level physics entries had declined from 38,000 in 1983 to 28,000 in 1996 and that this had been driven by the falling number of 18 year olds. Physics candidates have been a fixed proportion of the age cohort, at 5 per cent, for many years. This was because physics was an unusual discipline and only attracted students with a particular type of intelligence, according to Professor Smithers.

However, he said the cohort had grown this year by almost 9 per cent and would continue to grow until the end of the century. This could mean 14 per cent more university applicants by the year 2000.

"The explanation of the popularity of physics could be merely that there are more 18 year olds," Professor Smithers said. "This makes the recent announcement of closures of university physics departments seem very short sighted."

The UCAS figures also show that engineering has suffered badly again, with electrical down 14 per cent and civil down 10 per cent. Media studies has also taken a tumble, down 14 per cent. At the other end of the scale, marketing has grown by almost 20 per cent on the previous year.

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