We're in the middle of a chain reaction

The number of students opting for degree courses in 'difficult' subjects like chemistry is nose-diving. Is this the Government's worst long-term problem?

By Lucy Hodges
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:08

Click here for Top Ten/Bottom Ten subjects studied at Degree Level Britain is fast becoming a nation of film buffs and would-be journalists. The latest figures on university admissions published last week chart the inexorable rise of media studies and cinematics in our universities and the decline of core sciences and languages.

Click here for Top Ten/Bottom Ten subjects studied at Degree Level Britain is fast becoming a nation of film buffs and would-be journalists. The latest figures on university admissions published last week chart the inexorable rise of media studies and cinematics in our universities and the decline of core sciences and languages.

Year on year, we see increasing numbers of students opting for soft subjects which allow them to waffle and interpret to their hearts' content, while the hard subjects requiring what most scientists and linguists regard as serious study and knowledge suffer. The area which has seen the biggest jump is humanities with arts, a ragbag of a category permitting you to combine history, say, with film. General science has also benefited from the desire by today's youth to broaden and lighten the academic load.

Chemistry, in particular, has taken a big knock, showing a drop of 11 per cent in the number of students enrolling this year, but engineering combined with technology is also down, as is double languages, physics, biology and engineering. Subjects which have seen increases are the trendy ones - drama, sports science, film, media studies and computer science.

None of this surprises experts, because it is a continuing trend. It does, however, depress them. There is concern about chemistry, because the chemical industry, particularly pharmaceuticals, has been Britain's big manufacturing success story. What will happen to it if numbers go on declining? "The drop matters, because ultimately the advances that we see in health care, in the environment, in better and alternative uses of energy come down to understanding the world at the molecular level," says Tony Ashmore, registrar of the Royal Society for Chemistry.

Why are students turning their faces away from chemistry? The answer seems to be that, like physics, it is a difficult subject - more so than a degree in a humanities discipline. Modern languages are also regarded as difficult because you have to memorise vocabulary and get your head round awkward sentence structures. For obvious reasons, students would rather take a subject that is rather less demanding intellectually, such as politics or the ubiquitous media studies - particularly as the latter is seen as more glitzy.

"A lot of young people want to work in the media," says Dr Richard Howells, admissions tutor at the institute of communication studies at the University of Leeds. "They see it as interesting, glamorous and exciting - and, of course, to an extent it is. They think that studying the media is goingto set them up for an interesting career."

Leeds has 1,387 applications for 130 places on its communication studies degrees and asks for high A-level grades. Its courses are in demand, because they are practical - giving training in television, news and communications - and are offered by a highly regarded university.

For the cognoscenti, of course, chemistry does have glamour. As the life sciences have become more molecularly-based, chemistry has come into its own. The Human Genome Project, for example, which is mapping every gene in our bodies, will open up new areas of biotechnology and ensure that chemists are in demand. They will help to explain how life works and how, if it goes wrong, we will be able to put it back on track.

The problem is that chemists are the backroom boys working behind the scenes in the laboratory on drugs and gene therapies; they are not the people who deal with the public. Thus their work is largely invisible. "It's the chemists who make the drug that make you well," explains Mr Ashmore. "Unlike the journalist or the doctor, they do not meet the public so people don't know what they're doing."

But glamour is not the only factor. The media are so central to today's society that studying them means students are learning about the world in which they live and the democratic process. "Students are beginning to realise that the study of the media is much more of a necessity than a luxury," says Dr Howells.

The decline in admissions to chemistry degrees is also linked to another educational crisis - the teacher recruitment shortage. It is difficult to entice graduates of physics, chemistry and maths into teaching because they can do so much better in the City or accountancy. Therefore, numbers signing up for PGCE courses are declining. The numbers are worse for maths and physics than for chemistry, according to the latest figures.

This year, for example, fewer than 200 people enrolled for a PGCE in physics. The result is that many state schools do not have specialist teachers in the core sciences. That can have an effect on the subjects that young people choose to study at university, because they have not been fired up by an expert and committed teacher. It is a vicious circle: fewer and fewer graduates go into teaching, which means that there are fewer specialists to teach in the school which results in fewer students wanting to study the science subjects at university.

"Unless you are in the private sector, it's quite possible you will be taught physics at A-level by a biologist," says Alan Watson, a physics professor at Leeds. "There is all the difference in the world between being taught by an enthusiast with a degree in the subject and by someone who has a different science background. It is one of the issues that the Government should be taking seriously. Any successful industrial country requires people who are taught well in the sciences. This is the most serious crisis the Government has in the long term."

The decline in admissions to chemistry is linked to the jobs market in another respect. Apart from pharmaceuticals, the chemical industry does not have good job prospects, according to Mark Weller, professor of chemistry at Southampton University. During the last decade the chemical giants such as BP, Shell and ICI have stopped funding research. And the word has got out. But more jobs are coming on stream, because increasingly, venture capital companies are recruiting chemistry graduates. These companies take on small numbers of graduates at a time, compared with the thousands employed by the giants, but altogether they may end up hiring the same number of people in total. So eventually, job prospects may improve.

Other higher education experts argue that the decline in traditional subjects is only to be expected, given the new subjects which have arrived on the scene. Students who are strong in science might prefer to take environmental or computer science. More students are taking combined subjects, says Rick Trainor, Vice-chancellor of Greenwich University, and that trend towards a broader higher education will continue.

"It's possible that people who in the past were going in to physics and chemistry are now going into computing or psychology," he says. "You would be very hard-pressed nowadays to find a subject association that is not re-assessing itself."

New developments are taking place all the time. Greenwich - together with the University of East London - is putting in a bid for one of the new two-year foundation degrees and has chosen, appropriately enough, to offer it in the creative industries. Multimedia technology will be combined with landscape design and entrepreneurship, and possibly e-business, to entice local people into higher education.

Another university, Southampton, is launching programmes at its New College for lifelong learning which will offer degrees in sports management and leadership, and political communication and media management. It is an attempt by an old university to cash in on the new interest in vocational subjects, but in a way that maintains Southampton's excellence in research.

And it should probably be seen as an example of enlightened self-interest. "The University of Southampton is the first élite university in the country to develop this kind of initiative," says Sir Howard Newby, its Vice-chancellor. "Following the implications of the Laura Spence affair, I'm sure we will be followed by many others."

It is the kind of development that may have the chemistry and physics professors crying into their tea as they watch the core subjects contract and physics departments close. The contraction looks inevitable. The question is whether anything can be done to halt it - and whether it really does matter.


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