The University and College Admissions Service says that applications for undergraduate physics courses have fallen by just 1.2%, compared with a drop of 4.2% in all subjects. It has received 17 377 applications for physics entry later this year, with each student making an average of 5.2 applications.

UK physics students can either do a three-year BSc course or one of the new four-year MPhys degrees. When the MPhys degree was launched, the intention was that most students who wanted to do a PhD would choose to do the four-year course, but it is not clear if this is happening.

John Edgington, a particle physicist from Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, is surveying all of the UK physics departments to find out. He points out that as long as the research councils continue to award PhD studentships to those who have completed three-year courses, "many able students will prefer not to take four years over their undergraduate studies".

Money is also an important factor. From next autumn, all undergraduate students whose parents earn more than £16 000 will have to pay tuition fees of up to £1000 a year, while grants to pay for living costs will be replaced entirely by loans. This could put potential students off the longer degrees and have a knock-on effect on PhDs.

Peter Main, who runs the MPhys programme at Nottingham University, is well aware of the problem. "What incentive is there for a student in debt to stay on a subsistence income for a three further years doing a PhD, when they could be earning a starting salary of £19-20 000?" he asks.