Universities cut sciences as student numbers fall

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The Independent Online

Science teaching has hit its lowest point in a decade, with two of the country's leading universities discontinuing courses this week.

Queen Mary College, University of London, is the latest to stop offering chemistry degrees, whileKing's College London has cut three of its sciences courses and decided to phase out its world-renowned chemistry department.

The number of sixth-formers taking A-levels in physics and chemistry has plummeted over the past decade. In 1992 41,301 students sat physics A-level; this summer it was 30,583, a decline of 26 per cent points. In chemistry, entrants have fallen from 42,697 in 1992 to 36,110 in 2001, a 15 per cent drop. Only biology has seen an increase: rising from 48,742 in 1992 to 51,716 this year.

The number of chemistry undergraduates has also dropped by 29 per cent in the last five years. In 1997, there were 4,003 new undergraduates, but this number had dwindled to 2,836 last year.

Dr Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science, said: "If this is a trend, it is very disturbing."

One reason for the cuts is that a dearth of qualified science teachers in secondary schools has led to a decline in students taking up science subjects at A-level. This year the number of candidates studying chemistry at A-level declined from 36,648 to 36,110, those in biology from 52,132 to 51,716 and in physics from 31,543 to 30, 583.

Headteachers say that teachers without a qualification in the subject have had to teach science lessons, resulting in uninspired pupils. This also results in fewer children opting to become science teachers. But there are signs that the numbers are beginning to pick up again with the offer of £4,000 "golden hellos" to would-be science teachers.

Official figures from the Government's staffing review of secondary schools show that science is being taught by an ageing workforce. The percentage of chemistry teachers over 50 has risen from 23 per cent to 35 per cent since 1996, and of physics teachers from 24 per cent to 34 per cent.

The number of chemistry lessons taught by a teacher without a qualification in the subject has risen from 3 per cent to 10 per cent in the same period; in physics the number went from six per cent to 11 per cent.

Another reason for the closure of courses is a more ruthless targeting of research grant funding after a decision by the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE), the government quango responsible for university funding, to cut any funds for departments that fail to get the highest ratings for their work.Queen Mary's chemistry department got a 3A rating, out of five. Adrian Smith, Queen Mary's principal professor, said: "This has not been an easy decision but we feel that it is the right one in the circumstances. We must take account of the very clear message from HEFCE not to fund departments at 3A grade."

Queen Mary and King's College London have stressed they will continue to teach the students already on courses they have scrapped.

But about 100 King's students who applied for biological science, microbiology and environmental science courses - which have been cut - will have their applications forwarded to other universities. King's College will also no longer recruit candidates for its chemistry department,at a time when the university is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its pioneering work leading to the discovery of the DNA gene.

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