Memorandum from Professor Brian Fulton,
University of York
This inquiry is, perhaps, somewhat overdue,
but very welcome. The high and continuing rate of closures of
science departments over the last decade has been very worrying
and those of us involved in Higher Education have long believed
it will lead to future problems for the UK.
I will not dwell on the reasons for the closures
as this will no doubt be well documented in other submissions.
Briefly, it results from two pressures from government, the push
for universities to be self sustaining businesses and the push
for "excellence" without regard to the consequences.
These two recent factors, coupled with a long term underfunding
(the unit of resource allocated for science student is manifestly
too low) has brought about a situation where many universities
can no longer afford to run science courses.
I would like instead to illustrate the danger
of these continuing closures by drawing attention to the threat
to our future provision of people trained in nuclear skills. My
interest in this, and the reason for drawing it to the Committee's
attention, is that I served on the cross-department government
working group which looked at this recently. Our report was published
by the DTI two years ago (http://www.dti.gov.uk/energy/nuclear/skills/nsg.shtml)
and drew attention to the looming shortage of personnel with expertise
in nuclear physicsthe "nuclear skills shortage".
The reasons why this is a problem for the UK are detailed in the
report, and include the need for people to enter nuclear medicine
(20% of us will have a nuclear medical treatment at some point),
the power industry (25% of our electricity comes from this sources
and defense (we still maintain a nuclear deterrent).
One important contribution to meeting the UK's
nuclear skills needs is to provide a steady output from universities
of students who have covered nuclear physics in their degree courses.
If students have not encountered such material in the final years
of their course, they are unlikely to consider the field for a
career. In most universities the final year, advanced courses
are provided by active researchers and so reflect the research
activities in the department. However there are now only eight
universities in England which have active nuclear physics research
groups. Consequently the number of graduates who are likely to
consider nuclear related employment is small, and a threat to
our efforts to avert the impending skills shortage. This diminished
number of departments is the result of years of underfunding and
contraction of research in physics departments to those areas
which are "in vogue" at any given time and hence likely
to bring in the most research funding. Any Vice-Chancellor in
the country will have no truck with arguments that continuing
a research area is important for the UK's strategic interestsin
the present climate he or she is solely interested in the financial
viability of each department.
We are in fact about to see an immediate worsening
of the nuclear skills problem as a result of another physics department
closure. It appears, and the Committee may be able to verify this,
that Keele University is in the process of withdrawing its Physics
degree course. Keele is one of those few departments with a nuclear
physics research group, so within a few months we may see a reduction
to just seven universities in England with active nuclear physics
research, and so giving advanced undergraduate courses in the
field. This loss of another of the few places where graduates
can be interested in nuclear science has not come about by any
conscious act, it is simply another fallout from the financial
pressures which continue to cause institutions to close physics
departments. In the extreme, if such unplanned actions continue,
it is possible that the UK could end up with no active nuclear
physics research in universities (which would have serious consequences
for UK national security) and no advanced nuclear physics being
taught to undergraduates (with serious consequences for the already
grave nuclear skills issue).
Although I have chosen to highlight the serous
consequences of unplanned, ad-hoc closures of physics departments
in terms of the nuclear skills issue, it is possible that similar
problems may be developing in other specialist areas. I hope that
the Committee will be able to raise the very serious problem which
has been allowed to develop through the long-term underfunding
of science departments. The country will continue to need a steady
output of students trained in nuclear science, but without some
action it is possible that universities will fail to provide this.