Threat to science student numbers

January 1, 1999

Physics and chemistry departments are under threat even though the number and quality of science students remains high, an Association of University Teachers' report reveals.

The interim report, by AUT researcher Ewan Gillon, warns that undergraduate science students are being too heavily concentrated in a handful of universities and calls for a central authority to oversee science provision at national and local levels.

It states: "There is a clear danger that subjects such as physics and chemistry may reduce to a point whereby it is only available in a few departments. This reduction may affect the capacity of the nation to provide physics and chemistry graduates in times of need."

A government report on the future of university physics earlier this year showed ten physics departments had merged or closed in the past two years, and another two were under threat.

Five chemistry departments have closed, merged or ceased undergraduate intake and at least another two are threatened.

But analysis by the AUT shows that in both physics and chemistry the number of undergraduate students is increasing.

This is caused by new four-year MPhys, MChem and MSci degrees, introduced to help students gain better transferable skills. Eventually this is likely to mean a 12 per cent increase of full-time equivalent undergraduates in physics and 13 per cent in chemistry.

While applications to study physics and chemistry have declined compared with other subjects, the absolute number has increased since 1986.

But while some departments have no trouble attracting high-quality applicants, others are struggling. Of the 70 UK universities offering undergraduate physics this year, less than a third had 60 per cent of the undergraduates.

Dr Gillon warns that this means a growing proportion of teaching funding will be allocated to larger departments, causing even more smaller departments to close. This will mean possible job losses and less access to physics for students unable to move from their local area.

But Peter Gacesa, pro vice-chancellor and dean of the faculty of science at Manchester Metropolitan University, which stopped recruiting students to main physics degrees this year, said students with A-level chemistry and physics had the choice of numerous other degree courses including engineering or medicine.

If they did want to study straight physics in the Greater Manchester area they had plenty of choice, he said.

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