Why science is a formula for success

In five or 10 years there will be a shortage of scientists – so sign up for a degree now.
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The Independent Online

From motorway bridges to mobile phones, computers to car engines, our everyday lives depend on the graduates from university science departments. However, the numbers of those graduates have been falling in recent years. Between 1996 and 2000, there was a decrease in entrants to chemistry degrees of 20 per cent, civil engineers of 23 per cent, physicists of 10 per cent, mechanical engineers of 12 per cent, general engineers of 14 per cent and electronic engineers of eight per cent. Last year, although the number of students taking up places on full-time undergraduate courses was the highest ever, entries to mechanical engineering dropped by a further 5 per cent and chemistry by more than 7 per cent. But the outlook for science in higher education isn't all gloomy. Last year, computer science entries went up by 12.5 per cent, general science by 12 per cent, and sports science entries also increased by nearly as much – some of the biggest rises on the list of all subjects.

From motorway bridges to mobile phones, computers to car engines, our everyday lives depend on the graduates from university science departments. However, the numbers of those graduates have been falling in recent years. Between 1996 and 2000, there was a decrease in entrants to chemistry degrees of 20 per cent, civil engineers of 23 per cent, physicists of 10 per cent, mechanical engineers of 12 per cent, general engineers of 14 per cent and electronic engineers of eight per cent. Last year, although the number of students taking up places on full-time undergraduate courses was the highest ever, entries to mechanical engineering dropped by a further 5 per cent and chemistry by more than 7 per cent. But the outlook for science in higher education isn't all gloomy. Last year, computer science entries went up by 12.5 per cent, general science by 12 per cent, and sports science entries also increased by nearly as much – some of the biggest rises on the list of all subjects.

According to Professor Richard Joyner, dean of research at Nottingham Trent University and chair of the pressure group Save British Science, the Government has recognised the importance of investing in science in its last three spending reviews. "There is increased investment in science and technology in British universities," he says. "But right across the western world we are finding it hard to make sciences and engineering as attractive to undergraduates as a range of other subjects."

Part of the problem, explains Professor Joyner, is that today's students tend to favour subjects with apparent clear career paths ahead of them, such as business studies. "In fact, science can be intensely rewarding, very exciting and can also open up a very wide range of career options – even if you decide, in the end, you want to do something else careerwise." A science graduate, he says, has strong analytical skills which are in demand everywhere.

Universities are making big efforts to attract more students by devising courses that combine direct career relevance with solid academic achievement. "We move with the market," says Professor Ray J Paul, dean of the faculty of technology and information systems at Brunel University, the university with the largest engineering and technology intake in the south of England. "We are a modern university with an old-university pedigree, and as well as quality teaching, we offer degrees that make our graduates highly employable."

New this year at Brunel are a degree course in mobile phone technology and computing, developed in close collaboration with BT's incubator fund Brightstar, and another in financial computing, designed to prepare graduates for top-flight jobs within the square mile – both available just in time for this year's Clearing candidates. Next year the university will be adding aerospace engineering and computer simulated product design courses.

As the mix of A-level subjects becomes broader, university entrance requirements are starting to reflect this. Some of Brunel's technology courses no longer require A-level maths: information systems and computing, for example, which has an intake of 300 undergraduates a year. "The A-level maths pool has remained static for 10 years, and this year it has crashed, so fishing in that pool isn't necessarily of benefit to us. We have found that a good student with any A-levels is better than a weak student with maths A-level," says Professor Paul. "I see our business as teaching students to learn how to learn, to think creatively, to solve problems and to behave professionally. Our science graduates go on to any professional activity in business and commerce."

John Senior, dean of the University of Hertfordshire's engineering and information sciences department, says that new courses that cover music technology, media technology and digital broadcasting are proving particularly attractive to students. "Over the last three years we have introduced a number of new programmes that have proved very popular; for the music technology course we receive 300 UCAS applications for 50 places."

James Hough, Senior's counterpart in the university's natural sciences department, says that the downturn in the number of science degree entrants is "a worry" and that any future government investment will need to address resources for science from GCSE level in schools upwards. "However, if anyone who enjoys science is hesitating over studying further because they fear they won't get the career or the prosperity they want, they are wrong. It's a rewarding career as well as intrinsically satisfying. We try very hard to deliver employable skills and we have a policy of consulting employers to make sure that what we offer is up to date and desirable in the marketplace."

Dr Steve Tonge, lecturer in chemical engineering and applied chemistry at Aston University, believes that this is an excellent time to consider a scientific career. "Yes, there has been a drain away from science towards computer science and business studies. But five or 10 years down the line, there will be a shortage of scientists, particularly applied scientists. The current trend away from basic science and engineering is going to hurt this country; we simply won't be able to make things. The effects will be dire – and then scientific skills will be at a premium. A unique skill-set gives you the edge."

Dr Tonge adds that specialist knowledge will always command a premium. "If you have a more general degree, you can be replaced. But if you are a scientist with a particular field of expertise, companies will always pay for specialised knowledge." Starting salaries, he says, are around £15,000-£16,000. "Even without qualifications, our students are getting £11,000-£12,000 on their year out, and that's a very attractive feature of a science degree. Many of them can use their year out salary to fund their final year."

Students who do a year out, Dr Tonge says, tend to get a better final degree. "They are better able to cope with the world in an adult way, they've learnt how to organise their life and then they can organise their academic work when they come back."

Careerwise, Dr Tonge says, science graduates end up in all kinds of fields. "Our students don't come back and complain about not getting a job. They are very numerate, so some move into accountancy; others go into management consultancy or pharmaceuticals or biotechnology. The days when science meant a white coat and a strange haircut are long over."

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