The decline in students studying Physics

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2006

Friends ring me up or stop me in the street to tell me how pleased I must be that nuclear power looks as though it’s in for some sort of renaissance. In fact, I am not in the least elated. I simply mourn the destruction of the UK’s uniquely large atomic infrastructure – its nuclear laboratories and nuclear companies with an army of qualified personnel who would be only too happy to pass on their knowledge to a new cadre of nuclear specialists.

If nuclear is to take off in a big way, or even if it isn’t, we desperately need more physics graduates, and our chemists, engineers and material scientists need to continue to be taught physics to a high standard at university level.

The Royal Society has urged the Government to adopt a strategy which would ensure that all of the nation’s secondary schools have a dedicated teacher in each of the sciences, but this is a long way from being achieved. In the case of physics, only one in three of state educated secondary school pupils are taught by a physics graduate. What happened to ‘Education, Education, Education’?


The increase and decrese of interest in science 'A' Levels

A University of Buckingham, UK, study indicates that the number of ‘A’ level exam entries in physics has halved since 1982. As a consequence, since 1994, a quarter of universities which had significant numbers studying physics have stopped teaching the subject.

This year, although 2006 ‘A’ level entries for all subjects increased by 2.8% compared with 2005, physics entries reached a new low with 2.7% fewer UK students. This hardly seems compatible with the Government’s target to increase, on 2005 figures, the number of students in England taking ‘A’ level physics to 45.3% by 2014.

Chemistry did rather better with a 3.1% increase over last year, but it is still 9.1% lower than in 1991. Mathematics and further mathematics recorded increases of 7.5% compared to 2005, but remained 4.5% down on 2001, when the substantial drop in student numbers caused by the restructuring of ‘A’ levels resulted in many students taking ‘A/S’ level mathematics but not continuing to the full ‘A’ level (a good illustration of how well-intentioned innovations can have unwelcome outcomes).


The closure of the University of Reading's Physics department

I have been prompted to devote this month’s column to the plight of physics by news from the University of Reading, UK, that it plans to close its physics department – the final decision will be made shortly by the University Council. This has come as a great shock as the department was one of only ten physics faculties to score maximum marks, 24/24, in the most recent Teaching Quality Assessments.

The department also has a strong record of research in polymer physics, theoretical solid state physics, and atomic, molecular and laser physics. A review completed as recently as March 2006 concluded that the faculty should remain open and indeed new staff be appointed.

My own memory of the Reading department goes back to the time when Sir William Mitchell was Head of Department. Among his many accomplishments were the strong and fruitful links he forged between academia and the nuclear industry, a tradition carried forward to the present time.

Physics is the foundation stone for all pure and applied scientific disciplines and the cornerstone of industry and technological innovation. Its plight is a matter of national concern – our scientific standing, even our prosperity, is threatened. Clearly the Government must find more money to give physics time to recover. The waiving of tuition fees may have to be considered. In the meantime, the physics department at the University of Reading should certainly not be closed.


Further information

'The Big Question: Does it really matter if the number of students studying physics is falling?', The Independent, 11 August 2006



The University of Reading Department of Physics




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