Leading Article: More science teaching is worth the cost

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE STAFFING crisis in university science departments predicted in our home news pages today is less surprising than it may seem. As Britain's higher education system has expanded over the past generation, more lecturers and professors have been hired. But thanks to tenure and the rarity of movement between universities and industry, turnover in academic posts in higher education is small. To new graduates looking for jobs, promotion in academia seems to take place mostly by filling dead men's shoes. University teachers as a group have grown older and older.

The problem is particularly acute in science subjects that have been less attractive to new recruits. In chemistry departments, for instance, one quarter of the academic staff are likely to retire over the next six years. This is a symptom of a more serious underlying malaise: the undervaluing of science and engineering degrees. When companies do not want to hire specialists in a discipline, and students do not want to learn it, it is hardly surprising that few people want to teach it.

In an attempt to reverse this trend, the Government has already begun to change the financial calculations facing university departments and students. Undergraduates can now receive pounds 500 a year more for studying engineering than French literature; universities are now offered more than twice the subsidy for each science student as for each arts student.

But these reforms are not enough. What is required is a fundamental reform of A-levels, removing the pressure to specialise that encourages 16-year-olds to study either arts or sciences but not both. Once that is done, the Government can turn its attention to the task of changing attitudes. It should seek to encourage managers in industry to pay more respect to science and engineering qualifications, and more money to those who hold them. It should also help university lecturers, for their part, to take heed of industry's main complaint: that science graduates are too narrowly trained, and sometimes inarticulate to the point of illiteracy.

The large number of new science lecturers that will be required over the coming years may provide an opportunity to achieve this aim. The changes required in university departments will be more easily accomplished with an infusion of new blood - but it must be blood of good quality. If higher salaries are needed to attract talented graduates into teaching sciences, so be it. The cost to the Exchequer will be repaid many times over in better performance by British industry.