The great science explosion

In a year when controversy raged over the closure of courses, applications for physics, chemistry and biology degrees boomed.Tim Walker finds out why
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The Independent Online

There has been plenty of talk of a general decline of interest in the sciences among young people; of the controversial recent closures of chemistry departments at Exeter University and Kings College, London; and of the 18 universities that have done away with their physics departments in the last five years, but the number of students confirming places on physics degree courses has gone up by 10.8 per cent to 2,793; on chemistry courses by a whopping 16.5 per cent to 3,247; and on biology courses by a more modest 9.0 per cent to 4,509.

"Paradoxically," says Tony Ashmore, head of education at the Royal Society of Chemistry, "the furore surrounding the closure of the chemistry department at Exeter, and the subsequent House of Commons select committee report on the provision of "strategically important" subjects such as chemistry and physics, may have brought science's importance to people's attention."

Well, it's a theory. But there are other possible explanations.

"There have been quite a few major scientific events this year," says Dr Fred Loebinger, admissions tutor at the University of Manchester's School of Physics and Astronomy. "It's Einstein Year and the European Year of Physics, and astronomers have had some popular projects, with the Mars landings and comet landings."

Ashmore agrees that science has been in the spotlight. "At a political level, there has been recognition of the importance of the sciences and of the fact that too few youngsters are getting involved in them," he explains. "The Government is pushing towards a knowledge-based economy, and climate change, for example, has raced up the agenda in the last year."

Loebinger's department has been lucky enough not to suffer any lack of interest from applicants in the last few years, although, he does admit, there are still fewer science applications than universities would like, and fewer graduates for jobs than employers would like.

The increase in application acceptances for the sciences is somewhat greater than the national average, but it reflects a trend across the majority of degree courses this year. The number of students with their applications successfully confirmed by 31 August, when the figures were published, was up by 27,288 compared to the same moment in 2004. UCAS and the universities have reportedly struggled to keep up with the surge in demand for places, with many Russell Group institutions closing their books to Clearing early. For most, the looming spectre of top-up fees is the obvious explanation, and while students race to catch the last pre-fees bus this autumn, the worry for many universities must be that 2006 will see a slump in applications.

"The story that's got out is that the new fee arrangements will be much more expensive," says Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham. "Actually, top-up fees will be a far more painless system than the current one of paying for university up-front. People still think that this year is like the last day of the sales, and they're rushing to get a bargain."

The other mitigating factor is this year's A-level results, the best ever, which may explain why so many students have been so quick off the mark in accepting their degree offers.

The languages community have, like their scientific colleagues, been concerned by a lack of interest from students in recent years, for which the National Centre for Languages (CILT) has blamed insufficient provision for language teaching in schools. Despite a significant rise in the popularity of French degree courses this year (by 15.2 per cent), most modern languages have not performed spectacularly, and the University Council of Modern Languages fears that top-up fees will only make things worse, most language degrees being four years long instead of three, thus generating a extra year's worth of debt for any language students.

CILT are encouraged by the fact that, while single honours language degrees continue to decrease in popularity, there is a growth in demand for combination courses - double honours degrees in a language with business, say, or with politics. "Most graduates from elsewhere in the EU who are competing with UK graduates in the workplace have at least two languages," says Tamzin Caffrey of CILT, "so we encourage people to look at the importance of languages outside 'pure' language degrees."

The vast range of young degrees - be they combined courses or simply trendy subjects such as design, marketing or tourism and travel - are responsible in part for the decline in traditional subjects, and have continued to expand their numbers this year. Applications in media studies, for instance, has increased by 17.5 per cent, to 4,540. Sally Feldman, dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster, says of the course's appeal, "It's very seductive, not only because of the subject matter, but also because A-level media studies, which is now widespread, involves a lot of group work and team-building. That means the students develop an appetite for the kind of work that would be required of them in the media. It's a varied learning experience, which is attractive."

Another sector picking up more students is construction. Cambridge University mooted and then thought better of closing their architecture department this year, but again this appears not to have affected students' enthusiasm for the subject. Architecture numbers have increased by 13.4 per cent. Here, too, it is the younger degrees that have had the greatest success, with planning attracting a further 20.3 per cent and building courses a suitably monolithic 24.3 per cent, growing to 2,679.

Carlton Robert-James, head of skills for the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, has spent the past year promoting a schools-based initiative to encourage young people's interest in the discipline. "We'd like to think this very welcome increase is, in part, a result of our hard work," he says. "Over the next ten years, there's will be a significant investment in housing, so the construction industry can expect to be buoyant for some time. The Government's sustainable communities' plan is the biggest investment in infrastructure for a generation." And, as with so many things, it is popular culture that attracts students. "People see good quality design making the news, they see the design programmes that proliferate on television, and it all raises the profile of the industry. People are taking more notice of their local environments and going to do courses, and hopefully careers, as a result."

The 2012 London Olympics will provide the construction industry with countless employment opportunities, and it will also open the door to graduates of sports science degrees, another of the year's success stories, with a 17.3 per cent rise in numbers to 7,548. "Competitive sport has been on the political and public agenda," says Dr Ken Van Someren, course director of sports and exercise science at Kingston University. "The increase in the number of sports science courses and students reflects the growing number of career opportunities in sport and the political movement to combat obesity and improve the nation's health. The Government sees that getting people to be fit and healthy will save them money."

Van Someren thinks that the recent nationwide decline in pure sciences shows that students now want more vocational courses. "There are great prospects for good graduates from sports science, because they learn practical skills such as communication and teamwork, which makes them employable in other areas." He does not believe that sports science has stolen many students who might otherwise be doing, say, biology. Sports science has benefited more from the Government's drive to widen participation and get a more diverse range of people into university. We get a lot of that new crop of students who might not otherwise have gone into higher education."

The one area of science that has appeared to suffer is IT. Degrees in computer science and electronic and electrical engineering have haemorrhaged numbers at rates of 0.5 per cent and 5.6 per cent respectively. "It could be that physics has attracted students who may otherwise have taken computer science," says Fred Loebinger.

Alan Smithers remains confident that top-up fees will have a positive effect. "One reason why I'm in favour is that people will think more seriously about what they want from university," he explains.

"University has simply become a rite of passage for many young people - one that's funded by the taxpayer. If going to university involves a serious personal investment, they may think more about what the three years will do for them. It will give them a more discerning and realistic point of view. Because students will be funding the courses that they really want to do, student wishes will shape the future of the higher education system."