Science: Is the British system producing the right calibre of graduate?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Amid the fury over university funding in general and research funding in particular - and that crisis is by no means over - there is one question which is seldom asked. Is the UK education system producing enough trained scientists to meet the nation's needs? Surprisingly, given the acute difficulty in persuading enough science graduates to go back into the schools to teach the next generation, the answer is not always an unequivocal no.

In a paper on the supply and demand for scientists and engineers, Professor Alan Smithers examines the knock-on effect of the low numbers of students taking the physical sciences at A-level on the universities. The major growth in university science at a time of massive expansion in the number of university places available has been in "combined" courses, not in "pure" physics and chemistry, which have remained virtually static.

Some combined courses lead to interdisciplinary science degrees, or to science with management. But others, like chemistry and electronic music, or equine science and technology, or wide-ranging modular degrees which include a few units of science, only tangentially come under the "science" umbrella.

Attempts to expand genuinely scientific courses over the last decade have run into difficulties. Engineering and technology attract fewer good A-level students than they did in 1986 and the number of places on offer has been cut back. The statistics on university entry produced by UCAS show that the subjects in which applicants find it hardest to gain places are medicine and dentistry, which mop up many students with outstanding science A-levels; then come the creative arts and subjects allied to medicine. The easiest courses to get on to are combined sciences, maths, and the physical sciences and engineering. Inevitably, one of the worries for science departments is finding enough students of the right calibre to fill their places.

In international comparisons, the UK compares reasonably well in terms of the production of science graduates with Germany and Japan and even the US. But where the UK scores badly is in the proportion of science graduates who go into jobs as science professionals, something Prof Smithers suggests may be due to cut-backs in research and development spending in this country between 1984 and 1994.

So is it safe to conclude that, apart from teacher training, the market is being provided with as many science graduates as it can bear? Only, perhaps, if you set aside the issue of quality. And Dr Peter Cotgreave, of Save British Science, is not prepared to do that.

"One of our major concerns is about the quality of people in university science. Some departments have too few applicants and although we are a slightly lone voice in this, we would also argue that the 5 per cent of people taking science at university is not enough."

There are two reasons why some of the very best university departments are concerned about recruitment, Dr Cotgreave says, and the major one is funding. Scientific research needs money, and for many university teachers the real motivation is research. If you cannot compete with overseas institutions the staff become demoralised and the quality of teaching suffers. Teachers also feel oppressed at present by assessment and paperwork, Dr Cotgreave says. So sorting out the universities' long-standing grievances over funding is, for Save British Science, a top priority if standards are to be maintained - and a prerequisite if numbers of science graduates are ever to rise.

His second point brings the argument full circle to the schools again. It is no longer in the interests of the country's scientific future for young people to be allowed to give up science entirely at 16, Dr Cotgreave says. "At the moment when young people choose their A-levels there is a perception that chemistry or physics are harder than sociology. The only way to stop students taking decisions which lead some of the brightest young people away from science at 16 is to move to a system that postpones specialisation by a year or two."

It is a conclusion shared by the Royal Society, which called for long- term reform of post-16 education a year ago. The Society takes issue with some of the proposals of the Dearing Report but agrees that it is time to find a balance between breadth and depth of study post-16, and to insist that young people study a range of subjects. Having seen science become a compulsory part of the curriculum up to 16, there now seems to be a head of steam building to include science into a broad education to 18. For the universities, this would open up all sorts of new possibilities at degree level - and in the long term might help solve the science teacher training crisis too, so breaking the vicious spiral once and for all.