What the baroness foresaw

July 17, 1998

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

BARONESS Blackstone attracted a storm of protest last year when she suggested that the proportion of students studying science should fall.

The country needed top-class scientists and engineers, she said, but universities should not lower their standards to keep up numbers on science courses by admitting second-rate students.

The higher education minister's vision is becoming a reality. At least five smaller physics departments with low ratings in the research assessment exercise are closing, shedding staff or merging. But top universities are confident about the quality of their PhD students.

The country is not crying out for physicists. About half of the physicists who graduated last year went into full-time jobs. A third continued with their studies. Others were self-employed or working part-time or overseas and 5.7 per cent were assumed to be unemployed by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters said that employers are experiencing "significant difficulties" in recruiting, particularly for electrical engineering, computer science and information technology jobs. Although physicists often work in these, a physics degree is not essential. There are more vacancies in areas in which physicists tend not to work. For example, about 67 per cent of employers in the energy and water industries are expecting a shortfall in recruitment, but only 1.8 per cent of graduate physicists work in them. But the Teacher Training Agency says not enough physicists want to be teachers.

A Nuclear Electric spokeswoman also said there are lots of physicists about but Nuclear Electric has had problems in attracting the right calibre of graduate.

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