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Education and outreach

UK tackles student shortage

01 Oct 2001

Ways of increasing the number of physics undergraduates in the UK, including the introduction of less-mathematical degrees, are contained in a new report being published by the Institute of Physics this month. Set up a year ago by Institute president Sir Peter Williams, the inquiry is the Institute's first major look at university education for ten years.

Fifteen recommendations designed to bolster undergraduate physics are contained in the report. The inquiry panel believes that more must be done to promote physics to young people and that the critical shortage of physics teachers in schools must be addressed at a national level. In the report, the panel says that MPhys and BSc courses must remain the primary source of highly qualified physicists, but it believes that there is a case for less mathematically demanding physics degrees. The report also states that the funding of physics departments must be addressed and the provision of physics courses throughout the UK safeguarded.

How much maths?

One of the central themes of the report is the shortage of physics graduates, at a time when their intellectual and practical skills are eagerly sought by employers. Since 1990, when the Institute published a report that led to the introduction of the four-year MPhys degrees, the total number of students entering higher education in the UK has increased significantly. The number taking physics degrees, however, has remained static – indeed only one in 20 students studying physics at A-level goes on to study the subject at university.

One physicist with direct experience of this shortage is Derek Raine of Leicester University. “I can’t remember a time when so many firms have come to me looking for physicists,” he says. “Physics has a great economic as well as cultural importance.”

One of the skills most prized by employers is students’ mathematical ability. The report recognizes the value of the current MPhys and BSc degrees in this regard, but points out that the mathematical skills of new undergraduates tend be weaker because of a less rigorous mathematical training at A-level. Indeed, many 18 year olds with good physics grades go on to study less mathematical courses at university, such as IT, engineering and biomedical sciences. The report says that there is therefore “an opportunity to develop courses that provide the intellectual education of physics, with its analytical, modelling and practical aspects, but in a broader context” (see Physics World October 2001 pp16-17, print version only).

“It’s no good moaning that we should go back to the old A-levels,” says Raine. “Universities should adjust their courses to suit the students coming in. We have to develop a degree for people not training to become researchers, such as those who want to work in financial services or management.”

The panel supports the idea of a new degree that would be open to students with limited mathematical training, which would allow students to build up their mathematical knowledge during the degree. It believes that such a qualification would meet the demands of employers looking to recruit graduates in shortage areas, including teaching. The panel recommends that a working group should look into the content and level of such a degree, and explore the demand and funding available for it.

“It would be a great benefit for the country if university physics departments could be a source of two kinds of graduates,” says Bob Lambourne of the Open University. “They would be differently skilled and differently schooled, but would complement one another and each could make an important contribution to the UK.”

Reversing the teacher shortage

In addition to discussing undergraduate shortages, the report also focuses on the need to increase enthusiasm for physics among younger people. It calls on the government to do more to promote science and science-based careers, and recommends that the Institute should set up a programme to encourage girls to study physics and women to take up physics careers.

Part of the problem when trying to interest young people in physics is the severe shortage of qualified physics teachers in schools, the panel believes. In fact, only about a third of people teaching A-level physics have a degree in the subject. “The critical shortage of physics teachers in schools and colleges is the greatest threat to the future supply of skilled scientists and engineers,” says the report. “It is crucial that it is addressed at a national level.”

The panel urges parliament to address what it considers to be the five factors that deter graduates from becoming teachers: pay, conditions, status, workload and technical provision. It says that the government must “accept and respond to market forces that dictate differential salaries for teachers in shortage subjects”. And, in particular, it thinks that the government should set targets for the proportion of science classes taught to 14-19 year olds by subject specialists.

The report goes on to say that university physics departments must improve their links with schools and teachers by offering support, advice and access to equipment. Ian Aitchison of Oxford University shares this view, but points out that departments will have to be given extra money to do so. “University departments have an obligation to be a resource to teachers,” he says, “but they cannot do it for nothing. A few hundred thousand pounds should allow a department to run a school liaison service, for example.”

Physics in the regions

Another area of concern to the panel is the provision of university physics courses throughout the regions of the UK. The report points out that since 1994 the number of universities offering degrees in physics has dropped from 79 to 58. One consequence of such a decline, it says, is the emergence of “deserts” in undergraduate physics teaching – regions of the UK not served by a local department. The panel is concerned about this because the introduction of student loans means that students are now more likely to study at home, as are the increasing numbers of mature students. The report points out that cutbacks also threaten contact between teachers and universities, and deprive local industry of trained personnel and access to research expertise.

The report also says that the Institute, together with the Standing Conference of Physics Professors, must use its influence with government and pan-European educational bodies to ensure that the MPhys degree is recognized as a masters qualification in a more integrated European education system (Physics World October 2000 pp8-9).

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