Materials in demand?

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2008

This summer saw the launch of the first UK National Subject Profile for Higher Education Programmes in Materials. In the first of a series of articles by the team behind it, Tim Bullough, Senior Lecturer in Materials at The University of Liverpool, UK, explores the development of this university discipline.

Restructuring within many UK universities in recent years has often left materials exposed as a taught discipline, especially where student numbers are relatively low. While materials research is buoyant, the bottom line in higher education is often undergraduate and taught postgraduate numbers.

The National Subject Profile for Higher Education Programmes in Materials 2008 is a snapshot of materials education at university level that was led by the UK Centre of Materials Education (UKCME). The profile reveals that about half of the 21 materials course providers have responded to declining numbers by developing new courses, as well investing in recruitment and schools liaison activities.

Companies have also been experiencing difficulties. Steelmaker Corus reported at the European Steel Companies-Universities Joint Conference, held in Warsaw, Poland, from 26-27 April 2007, that it only recruited 17 of the 33 materials graduates needed in 2006.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has identified metallurgy and materials engineering as strategically important and vulnerable, and over £1,000 additional support per student per year will be provided for three years from 2007/8 to support the teaching of these disciplines at five universities with the most related undergraduate students – Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds, Manchester, Oxford and Exeter.

But how has the status of materials-related provision come to where it is now?

Metallurgy takes off

Metallurgy as a subject in UK higher education started in the second half of the 19th century. Courses often had their origins in the chemical analysis of minerals and assaying for precious metals. The first example was in London at the Government School of Mines and Sciences Applied to the Arts, established in 1851 after the Great Exhibition and the forerunner of Imperial College London.

In a number of other UK cities, particularly in the Midlands and the north around steelmaking industries, local concern about technical training led to colleges that taught metallurgy and/or related materials disciplines. A significant increase in courses and distinct departments took place in the 1920s.

Making materials

The academic study of materials science and engineering, as opposed to isolated disciplines of metallurgy, ceramics or polymers, was initiated in the USA in the 1950s.

This was an attempt to broaden the attractiveness of ‘old-fashioned’ metallurgy programmes, which had suffered from declining recruitment. Northwestern University in Illinois became the first university to create a Department of Materials Science.

The Department of Materials at Queen Mary, University of London, UK, was founded in 1968 as the nation’s first materials department. Undergraduate degree courses developed more quickly in the less tradition-bound newer universities – Sussex, Loughborough, Bradford, Bath and the Open University.

In 1975, Sir Alan Cottrell of the University of Cambridge commented at a meeting at the Royal Society in London that ‘the total number of students admitted annually to degree courses in metallurgy and materials dropped, from nearly 700 [in 1969] to only about 530 in 1973’ (as reported in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1976), vol. 282, no.1307, p467). Of these students, he said, the numbers taking materials had increased from 110 to over 200, but those taking metallurgy had fallen from about 440 to 200. Only one-third of places were filled.

Cottrell ascribed this decline to the general unpopularity of science in schools, the negative ‘cloth cap and sweat rag’ image that school leavers had of the metallurgical industry, and to a preference for university students to study pure sciences initially, leaving the applied sciences for later in their studies.

He also commented that ‘there is still very little awareness of these subjects among schoolmasters’. It was acknowledged that the general materials engineering courses may be the way forward at undergraduate level.

Alternative routes

However, expansion in materials-related provision of the 1960s-70s was not matched by student numbers. The landscape had to change significantly, particularly following the general decline of the related manufacturing industries. By 2007, of the 21 universities offering materials-related programmes, only 12 provided materials science and engineering, and only one single discipline metallurgy course remains. The recruitment problems have forced a move towards interdisciplinarity, with a focus on, for instance, biomedical, aerospace and sports materials.

Over the last decade, less than two-thirds of the 400-plus graduates from materials-related undergraduate programmes have studied traditional materials science and engineering. The biomedical and sports materials courses also attract more female students.

Postgraduate Masters materials courses remain buoyant with just over 300 graduates each year from the 26 UK universities offering advanced materials qualifications. Many of the established courses, however, do rely heavily on overseas students, and university-industry collaborations have been a feature of recent postgraduate programmes.

Essentially, the National Subject Profile has highlighted that materials is widely
recognised as a discipline of critical importance to the economy. However, interdisciplinarity has become an important feature. Efforts directed at raising awareness among young people hopefully will encourage more students.

Further information:
The National Subject Profile for Materials 2008 report is available on the UKCME website,  Materials UK, the industry body, has also released Materials Education and Skills – A Wake-Up Call to lobby the UK Government.