Teaching of languages and science at university suffers

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The Independent Online

Evidence of a dramatic decline in the provision of key science subjects and modern languages at university was revealed in a report published yesterday.

As a result, university lecturers' leaders claim, there will be parts of the UK that can no longer offer students the opportunity to study close to their home. "Such limited choice will force many students to give up on their preferred university option - especially those who cannot afford to move far from the parental home," concludes the study by the University and College Union (UCU).

The report, which compares university provision in 2007 with a decade ago, reveals that chemistry has been the worst hit, with a 31 per cent decline in courses from 62 to 43. The number of physics courses has been reduced by 14 per cent to 44. Of the sciences, only biology has increased, by 9 per cent to 70.

In languages, German has suffered the most with a 25 per cent cut to 65 - and a 58 per cent cut in London, where the number of courses has fallen from 12 to five. French has dropped by 15 per cent to 79, and the number of maths courses has also dropped by 8 per cent, the research adds.

One of the problems identified by researchers has been the shortage of qualified science and maths teachers, which has meant fewer pupils taking single science subjects as an option at GCSE and A-level.

In languages, the union argues, the Government's decision to make the subject voluntary from the age 14 - currently under review as a result of an inquiry into language teaching by Lord Dearing - has sent out a signal to youngsters that it is not an important subject. The report warns there may be further language course closures as a result of this.

Sally Hunt, UCU's general secretary, said: "We simply cannot afford to have areas of the country where local students do not have access to the courses they want to study.

"How have we allowed a situation to develop where potential Nobel Prize winners are unable to study in their field of expertise because they cannot afford to, or are unable to move to the other end of the country?"

The biggest drop in maths and science courses has been registered in eastern and north-eastern England, where provision has dropped by about a third. In the West Midlands and North-west, provision has actually increased. In languages, London has fared worse - although the survey says that, as far as Italian is concerned, not a single institution will be offering the subject in Northern Ireland.

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England said it had committed £235m to support "strategically important and vulnerable subjects" - such as science, maths and languages.

"There are encouraging signs that the recent decline in demand from students wishing to study science, technology, engineering and maths subjects is stabilising and the numbers are picking up," he added.

The Government is in discussion with the Open University to help more students study these subjects online.

Courses that have been cut

Course closures include:

Chemistry: Anglia Polytechnic University, Dundee, Exeter, Kent, King's College London, Swansea

Physics: Newcastle, Reading

Languages: Durham, Glasgow, Kingston

Maths: Hull