Study 'deserts' blight UK

February 8, 2007

Core science and language subjects are disappearing altogether from some regions, Anthea Lipsett writes.

Swaths of the country are at risk of turning into "deserts" in which the study of key academic disciplines will no longer be possible, according to an analysis exclusively revealed by The Times Higher .

The analysis, by the University and College Union, reveals the emergence of black spots where academics and students are increasingly denied opportunities to study and explore science and language subjects.

The UCU said that the potential terminal decline of the subjects would damage civil society and would impact on how the UK interacted with the rest of the world.

In the past decade there has been a 10 per cent reduction in the number of core - that is, single honours - science and maths degree courses offered by UK universities.

In both the East and North East of England, the number of single-honours science and maths courses offered has fallen by nearly one third. Chemistry and physics have been worst hit. At present, the North East and Northern Ireland have only one institution offering single-honours physics.

The provision of single-honours science and maths courses has dropped by 23 per cent in London and by 17 per cent in Wales. In Scotland, Yorkshire and Humber and the South East of England, provision has slumped by 10 per cent.

Alan Malcolm, chief executive of the Institute of Biology, said that the loss of departments could threaten Britain's ability to tackle problems such as global warming and pandemic diseases.

Martin Taylor, vice-president of the Royal Society, said: "Any development of 'regional deserts' may mean that the UK is failing to harness potential talent."

In the past ten years the total number of universities providing undergraduate courses in French, German and Italian has fallen by nearly 20 per cent. In London there has been a per cent drop in the number of French-language undergraduate courses offered.

Increasingly, single-honours language courses are taught only in Russell Group universities. In the coming year no Italian will be taught in Northern Ireland.

The Government's 2004 decision to end the compulsory study of languages at GCSE level could reduce still further the number of institutions providing courses in these languages, the report claims.

Malcolm Cook, chair of the Modern Humanities Research Association and a professor of French, said that fewer courses concentrated in fewer institutions would mean that "provision nationally becomes random and capricious, and parts of the UK will not have access to major languages".

Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the UCU, said: "The state of science and modern-language provision at university demonstrates the shameful gap between rhetoric and reality in higher education policy."

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