UCAS Listings: Physics fails to flourish

Neither students nor teachers seem interested, writes Diana Appleyard
While the national Institute of Physics remains optimistic about the viability of physics as a separate degree course, the sad reality is that a number of physics departments have now closed down - and others may be forced to follow.

The number of students applying for physics has failed to increase over the last ten years which, coupled with the explosion in the number of university places available, means that for a growing number of universities the subject is no longer financially viable.

At Brunel University, for example, the physics department will close in the year 2000.

An administrator in the department says that students were just not coming through in the numbers applying for, say, media studies or sports sciences.

Manchester Metropolitan and East Anglia have already closed their physics departments, and post-graduates from East Anglia are now being moved to Bath.

Last year the number of applications to study physics through UCAS were down 2.8 per cent from 18,622 to 18,104.

There are currently 65 departments still offering physics - and if you choose this as an option, the chances are you will be given a place.

Pippa Senior, the spokeswoman for the Institute of Physics says: "The perception is unfortunately still that physics is a `difficult' subject. Certainly the students who do choose to take physics as an A-level and then go on to take the subject at university do tend to achieve high grades - the problem we have is attracting students from the middle ground, who at present, are looking elsewhere."

The Institute of Physics is currently embarking on a massive project to redesign the physics curriculum for 16 to 19-year-olds - hopefully this will soon encompass study from 14-year-olds upwards. Pippa Senior says: "The problem is that a lot of the physics we are teaching is physics from the last century, whilst students want to be learning the cutting edge of, say, particle physics. It has to be relevant to the modern-day world."

Interestingly, there is also a dearth of teachers wanting to specialise in physics, which has a knock-on effect of motivating students to become enthusiastic about the subject.

Increasingly universities are offering physics with other subjects to try to make the courses more attractive. Brighton, for example, offers physics with management, computing and chemistry. De Montfort is offering the subject with business studies, and at East Anglia, chemical physics comes with a year in Europe or North America attached. At Kent, students are enabled to defer their choice between physics and other degree programmes within the faculty until the end of the first year.

A number of universities report that physics students often decide to swap courses after the first or second year, or take up the option of combining the subject. Pippa Senior says: "Some of the most significant barriers to achieving a significant increase in the take up of physics relate to a lack of knowledge about what the modern-day subject encompasses and what the opportunities are for employment after future study. These are far wider than are generally appreciated."

She says that employers are crying out for the kind of skills many physics students possess.

The graduate who had studied physics to university level is generally able to command an extremely competitive salary in industry. Physics students also score very highly in applying for sponsorship through university - the success rate of those applying for sponsorship is a healthy one- third. Typical sponsors of physics students are British Aerospace, GEC, National Power, Northern Telecom and Nuclear Electric PLC.

"There is a market out there for physics graduates - if only students could be persuaded this is an attractive option," she says.

What does put off some students is the degree of maths needed. Certainly maths to A-level standard is a prerequisite of most universities to study physics, and the first year of all physics degree courses will contain one or more courses or modules in maths.

If you have not taken maths or not done as well as you had hoped (most institutions expect at least a C grade in maths it is possible to catch up with a foundation year.

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