less math for more students -- UK tackles student shortage

Nazrevaet "competitive advantage" na prostorah Byvshego.. :smile: UK tackles student shortage

[1 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

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 pp16­17, 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 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 14­19 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 pp8­9).

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