Leading Article: A crash course in short-term solutions

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The Independent Online
AN ANALYSIS of the places available at universities and colleges, published today, confirms the frustrating news that many would-be arts students have been led to expect. They should not despair, because opportunities still exist. But while there are more places available overall, competition for the most sought- after places on arts courses is fiercer than ever. Even those with fairly good grades are finding it hard to get on to their first- or second-choice course.

Some admissions tutors are therefore inviting students with a clutch of arts A- levels to consider switching to special four-year conversion courses, in, say, physics or engineering. The idea looks attractive, because the nation needs scientists and engineers. But are these courses the answer - for students, or for the country as a whole?

At least they provide students with a real option: candidates can choose between switching to science or engineering at a prestigious university, or accepting an arts place at a less well-regarded institution. They will hardly need to be told that science subjects offer a mental training every bit as rigorous as they would find in law, or philosophy.

Science is much more intrinsically interesting than many young people appreciate: they need only talk to their arts graduate elders, who find themselves in later life regretting their limited understanding of, say, the workings of the universe, or genetics, which are among the most intellectually and emotionally challenging issues of our time. The behaviour of sub-atomic matter or the investigation of DNA may seem to have little relevance for someone wanting a well- paid career in accountancy; but that kind of learning is certainly no less relevant than an intimate understanding of Beowulf, or styles of portraiture.

For society in general, the short-term argument in favour of 'converting' arts students into scientists is compelling. It makes the best use of our present educational resources. But many scientists would share the scepticism voiced yesterday by Sir David Weatherall, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He and others argue that a student who is committed to the arts at A-level will not necessarily turn into a dedicated science student one year later: they point to some conversion courses having suffered high drop-out rates in the past.

Many students have chosen to specialise in the arts because, for whatever reason, they find science difficult. It is not at all certain that a year's foundation study after A-levels will qualify every type of student to grapple with complex scientific concepts. The lesson from experience is that conversion courses must be designed to widen post-A-level choice, not to act as a dumping ground for less able candidates.

Conversion courses, however, do not provide a long-term answer: they are a short-term palliative of limited effect. The central factors are that pupils specialise too soon, schools are struggling to hire well-qualified and inspiring science teachers, and that graduate recruiters place too low a premium on scientists and engineers. Those problems demand deeper and more durable solutions.