Physics degree courses axed as demand slumps

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The University of East Anglia yesterday became the fourth English university this year to end or wield the axe over physics degrees, prompting renewed concern over the subject's decline in Britain.

UEA's governing body voted to shut all its pure physics degree courses - so the present intake will be the last - blaming a fall in applications and rising costs in the department.

The move marks a growing trend among universities seeking to weed out less popular and more expensive courses to save money - with physics increasingly becoming a target.

Like UEA, Coventry University will axe its applied physics degree after September following a steady decline in the number and quality of applications. At Birkbeck College, part of London University, proposals for wholesale closure of its physics department as part of a package of cost-cutting measures have provoked angry opposition from students and unions. And De Montfort University in Leicester is to merge its physics and chemistry departments in the light of a "sustained national decline in demand for physics education".

The Institute of Physics, the professional body for physicists in the United Kingdom, yesterday described the trend as "enormously worrying", and said smaller departments were becoming increasingly vulnerable as budget pressures increased.

Many colleges already cross-subsidise science subjects, bailing out physics with money from other areas, but with projected cuts of 7 per cent per student across the sector over the next three years they may no longer have the flexibility to do so.

The number of physics undergraduates has stayed steady in the last few years at around 2,900 annually, but expansion in overall student numbers means that they have declined as a proportion of the total. The decline is more marked at A-level, where numbers taking physics have fallen in 10 years from 50,000 to just over 30,000.

Philip Diamond, higher education and research manager at the Institute of Physics, said the subject suffered from a low rate of research funding. "That means there are many departments in deficit and universities have to make pragmatic decisions. Small departments are particularly vulnerable."

UEA has18 first-year physics undergraduates this year - down from 34 in 1992-93 - while Coventry University has just 11 full-time first-year physics students. A UEA spokeswoman, Anne Ogden, said the university had seen a steep decline in physics applications, and had been cross-subsidising the subject. However, it will maintain physics post-graduate and research work, highly rated in recent research gradings.

Recent research into A-level physics trends by Professor Alan Smithers, of Brunel University, suggested that students taking the double GCSE science - now more common than separate sciences - were put off by the scale of the leap to A-level. Pupils at independent schools, where separate science GCSEs are still the norm, are more likely to pursue the subjects after 16, making the sciences increasingly the preserve of the middle classes, Professor Smithers said.

Degrees of value?

Around half of physics graduates go on to use their expertise in their chosen career.

The most popular field for physicists is information technology, where many are involved in computer programming and electronics. Many also choose careers in finance and management, manufacturing, defence, telecommunications, the nuclear industry, medical physics and meteorology.

Graduate physicists' starting salaries average pounds 14,000 - about average for all graduates. Afterwards, pay varies widely according to career, though a doctorate guarantees higher earning power.

Job-seekers with a PhD in particle physics and astronomy have among the best employment prospects in the country. Nationally, unemployment of particle physicists is less than 2 per cent.