Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Strategic science provision in English universities


  The following issues need to be addressed as a matter of urgency in order to safeguard the provision of undergraduate physics in English universities:

    —  The HE market must take into account the needs of employers and the strategic need for more scientists and engineers. There is already capping of course entry in some subject areas, such as medicine or teacher training; it is not unreasonable that this level of control should be introduced elsewhere.

    —  The HEFCE funding model must be adjusted to provide appropriate funding for physics, as their teaching funding method from 2004-05 will lead to a 1% cut in funding for university physics teaching. If the Government is serious about its commitment to world-class research, more money needs to go into physics departments. Physics is a subject that links with industry on a long time scale; it is difficult to attract direct industrial funding, since companies are usually interested in a 3-5 year payback. However, the equipment and staff costs for running a physics department are as high as for any engineering department.

    —  A realistic solution to the problem of the missing part of FEC for charity and EU funding is required. The principle of transparency in use of funds argues against using funding from one area to subsidise work in other areas. Charity support is not equally distributed over all sciences, but is concentrated in medical areas. It is good that universities have some freedom in deciding how to use their HEFCE income for strategic developments, but it should not be the norm that QR income "earned" by research excellence for example in a physics department could be used to fund the missing FEC for charity-funded medical research. The logical consequence of transparency is that if the Government wants to get the benefit of charity and EU funding, it should either work with those bodies to get them to pay the full FEC, or it should decide to provide explicit funds to top-up charity and EU grants.

    —  Schoolchildren must be provided with accurate careers advice at a sufficiently early age to allow them to make informed choices. Currently, careers advice tends to be reactive. For example, advisors will respond to a pupil's request on, say, how to become a doctor but they do not provide information on the relative career opportunities of different subject choices. If we are serious about persuading more students into science, we have to tell them explicitly that their career prospects will be better if they do. The Connexions initiative is useful in many ways, but does not provide any subject-specific information.

    —  We need more specialist teachers of physics. With only around 2,500 UK graduates in physics and astronomy each year, the shortage cannot be rectified from that source in the short to medium term. One small change that could help a little would be to allow physicists to teach mathematics as a second subject. However, we are faced with the situation that much of the teaching of physics will be done by people who do not have a background in the subject. There should be a subject-based, professional development obligation on all teachers of science operating outside their level of specialisation.

    —  The physics curriculum needs to be reviewed to ensure it is attractive and exciting, reflecting modern applications and advances. The Institute has developed an A-level, Advancing Physics, with this aim in mind (there are others). Although it is the second most popular A-level, many non-physicists find it too demanding to teach, due to the subject knowledge it requires.

    —  The solutions to the problems facing physics departments are of a medium- to long-term nature. However, if the situation worsens, then there may be a need for the Government to intervene with a short-term fix, by providing funds (possibly with strings attached to encourage change) to prevent several more struggling physics departments from closing.


  The Institute is extremely concerned about the level of funding for 4-rated physics departments in the RAE 2001, of which there are a significant number.

  The Institute notes that HEFCE has recently announced that they will increase the average unit of funding by approximately 4% for 5 and 5* rated departments, and maintain funding in real terms for 4-rated departments. This is pleasing, as the Institute understands that the £118 million allocated by HEFCE through their present formula for 4-rated departments was not initially linked to inflation. However, 4-rated physics departments in England received only a little more than half of the QR funding they had anticipated from HEFCE for 2003-04, with the threat of even less in subsequent years. As a consequence, the Institute is concerned about their future viability and the marginalising impact this would have on physics if 4-rated departments were unable to continue to teach and produce distinct physics courses. Despite HEFCE's announcement, additional funds are needed for 4-rated departments; otherwise, by the time RAE 2008 is underway, it may be too late to prevent a number of 4-rated physics departments from closing, or at least cutting back severely on their research activity. The position of 3a-rated physics departments of which there are a few, is even more precarious.

  HEFCE stated in its review of research funding consultation in 2003 that they propose to review the basis for subject weightings and to calculate new weightings to be used after the next RAE. This is something that the Institute would welcome, if it leads to an increase in the subject weighting for physics. The QR allocation per active staff member in physics in 2004-05 is: Grade 4, £10,376; 5, £28,981; and 5*, £34,886. Interestingly the QR allocations for physics are only marginally above the averages for all UoAs of £9,980, £26,346, £31,498, respectively.

  The disparity in QR funds available to 4-rated departments relative to 5 and 5* means that 4-rated departments have been scrutinised closely by university managements with a view to either closure or investment to improve their grade. This was certainly the case with the University of Newcastle, which was constantly reminded of the strong correlation between their RAE grade and the size of its physics department. The average number of staff submitted by physics departments achieving a 5* grade in 2001 was 104, grade 5, 39 and grade 4, 19. We understand that it was then argued that with a Newcastle physics department submission of 14.5 staff achieving a 4B grade (which fell further following restructuring), the university could not afford the investment in physics staff and facilities required to achieve a 5 or 5* grade.

  Physics is a research- and capital-intensive subject that is dependent upon up-to-date laboratories and new pieces of equipment, and has suffered from under-investment and a lack of sufficient infrastructure funding for some considerable time. This is demonstrated by the fact that, despite their success in the RAE 2001, even 5-rated departments (especially the smaller ones) are experiencing difficulties and are facing tough decisions with regards to the number of permanent staff they can retain. One of the reasons for this is that physics members of staff in 5-rated departments are being funded from the QR associated with their RAE rating at much lower levels than chemists, and up until recently biologists, in departments with grade 5 ratings. This state of affairs is a direct consequence of the closure of the smaller and, in some cases, weaker departments over the last decade or so. Other subjects have much longer "tails" in their distribution of RAE grades. Paradoxically, the presence of a large number of weaker departments actually increases the funds given to the best, because it increases the size of the overall pot for the subject. Equivalently, even the strong physics departments are suffering from the closure of the weaker ones.


  There is no doubt that HEFCE believes that there are too many research-based physics departments. However, the much quoted "autonomy" of universities (the Government itself has created the environment that influences the decision making of many vice-chancellors) and the absence of any clear strategy in this area have meant that closures have occurred haphazardly, often resulting in regional deserts. It follows that there should be rational planning, identifying the number and location of the research departments. Undoubtedly, this will be a painful exercise but it should be done as openly and as fairly as possible.


  Recent changes in the weightings given to laboratory based science subjects in HEFCE's teaching funding formula have been disastrous; the funding provided was already seriously deficient, as a consequence of the overall support per science student having steadily decreased in real terms over many years.

  Having continually argued for HEFCE to monitor and review the price groups allocated to the laboratory sciences, in order to maintain the existing high standards in undergraduate physics, the Institute believes that physics, as well as many other science and engineering disciplines, will suffer further under the new weightings. As of 2004-05, the weighting of 1.7 for price band B, which includes physics, will lead to a reduction in real terms of 1% in the teaching resource (confirmed in a response to the Institute from HEFCE, February 2004).

  The rationale behind the new weightings is not clear. HEFCE initially recommended a split of price band B, to give five bands. The Institute understands that a decision was made not to split price band B, because the high unit costs of some laboratory-based sciences, including physics, were perceived to be a result of under recruitment. But this is far from obvious because:

    —  physics undergraduate numbers have not fallen (acceptances to undergraduate physics and astronomy were 3,102 in 1994, and 3,068 in 2003 (UCAS));

    —  departments have closed and large departments have become even larger leading to efficiency of costing; and

    —  deficit departments have severe limits on spending and so their spending will possibly have been lower than one might expect.

  At a time when the Government is trying to encourage more students into science and when several physics departments are struggling to survive, it is hard to see why there should be an incentive for universities to recruit yet more students into arts and humanities degrees. The potential impact of top-up fees appears not to have been taken into account—the broadly "flat" increase from fees could mean that HEFCE will need steeper bandings.

  Physics is by its nature a resource-intensive subject to teach, in terms of both teaching staff and laboratory provision. As industry's demands for graduates with a high degree of technical knowledge and expertise increases, it is incumbent upon universities to have modern facilities and equipment. The cost of providing such equipment has risen at a faster rate than inflation. Universities are under pressure for resources for undergraduate teaching, and in the Institute's experience over the past few years, the majority of physics departments have been operating at a deficit.


  The Government's HE white paper hinted of the establishment of a two-tier university system, where research would be concentrated in a few centres of excellence. This would undoubtedly boost research effort, but at the expense of separating more strongly than at present those universities with a strong research base from others that might become teaching only universities. Any such move would have to be planned in an organised manner, and it needs to be understood that this approach may not provide the undergraduates that the country so clearly needs.

  However, assuming that the Government decides to limit the number of research departments, there could be two models for producing the graduates. One would be simply to increase the intake for the remaining universities. This approach has several problems. It may not be possible to accommodate the students in laboratories and classrooms without substantial new build. In addition, it does not address the problem of regional deserts. The alternative is to create a new class of physics departments that do not carry out research competitive in the RAE but that can teach physics at the undergraduate level. The problem then would be to find a way of sustaining such departments. One way would be to make them teaching only, possible as part of a larger, multidisciplinary unit. Another would be to give them a role working with regional or national industry, with the support of the RDAs. In either case, these departments could offer three year Bachelors degrees in their own right, while acting as feeders for the students who wished to complete 4-year MPhys/MSci degrees at the research departments. Such students could spend the final two years of their programmes at the research departments. But, this model (and any other model that requires teaching-led departments) will have to be adequately sustained.

  The US is an example of a successful mixture of types of institutions. There are several highly esteemed undergraduate colleges (eg Dartmouth, Swarthmore) where faculty may conduct some research in the summer months, but the emphasis is on teaching. Most universities do both teaching and research, with a range of weightings. The US example leads us to think that there is no one "optimum" and it is preferable to let each institution determine its own balance. The current funding system in England doesn't seem to allow such a choice, with departments dependent on research income for survival.


  Large areas of the population and industry now have no convenient access to a local university physics department offering teaching or research. As the proportion of students living at home increases (a THES survey undertaken in April 2004, revealed that a quarter of students live at home while studying, a higher proportion than estimated for previous years), and as industry becomes more dependent upon high-technology knowledge, these regions will suffer from a lack of proximity to university physics. The Government, rightly, is keen on increasing the number of women, ethnic minorities, lower social classes in science and engineering. Among these groups there is a greater likelihood of students wanting to live at home. But, if they live in the East Anglia region, where will they go to study physics? There is no undergraduate provision for physics at the Universities of East Anglia or Essex, and the University of Cambridge would not be a realistic proposition for many.

  As another example, in the North East, there are substantial distinctions between the physics intake to the Universities of Newcastle and Durham, for example, in terms of geographical and social backgrounds. Newcastle has more locally-based students, many of whom perceive that they would feel socially less comfortable in Durham. Through a foundation year, Newcastle's access has also been substantially broadened by admitting students whose background has contributed to entry grades that would prohibit direct entry to the first year. The withdrawal of Newcastle physics programmes will lead to a net loss of physics students in the region. It will send out a negative message to schools regarding physics and serve to degrade further the already weak science base in most regional schools.


  To state the problem, physics departments are closing principally as a result of an inability to attract sufficient students to make ends meet, exacerbated by cuts in research funding in some cases. There are two reasons why some departments have found it difficult to attract enough students. One is that, although the number of physics entrants has not fallen dramatically in recent years, there has been no increase to match that of the total number of students in all subjects. The relative number of physics entrants, therefore, has fallen by around 40% in the last decade; the expansion in HE has largely been in subjects that do not require a specific skill or knowledge base on entry (eg psychology, drama, media studies etc). The second reason is that, without doubt, the HEFCE unit of teaching resource for physics is too low, as previously discussed. As a result, to maintain the level of their funding, the more popular departments have increased their student intake, sometimes by huge amounts, squeezing the smaller units, in many cases causing them to close.

  One of the worst aspects of the closures is that they are occurring just at the time when analysts are predicting that the country will need an increase in science, particularly physical science, graduates. There is a need to stimulate a higher demand for physics degrees. Note that there is no shortage of demand from employers; indeed, that is part of the problem because so few of the graduates enter the teaching profession. In 2003, only 8% of the PGCE entrants covering science had physics degrees. But the HE market is not driven by employers, it is driven by student choice and there is no evidence to suggest that the choice is being made rationally. Somehow, careers advice to school students has to be made much more pro-active. The Institute would never want to prevent students from taking, say, history or media studies degrees, but it must be made clear to them that, by doing so, they will be severely hampering their career opportunities, both in terms of flexibility and pay. It would help enormously if the Government were to track graduates of various disciplines, possible via devices such as the census, to provide valuable, independent data on career prospects.

  A recent report commissioned by the Institute and the Royal Society of Chemistry, The economic benefits of higher education qualifications, reported that the return of public investment for physics and chemistry graduates, and their earning potential was significantly greater than for a number of other, more popular subjects, and that only medics and lawyers are financially better off. The monetary value[21] of completing a degree level qualification in today's money terms stands at approximately £129,000. At the higher end of the scale, physics and chemistry graduates achieve additional lifetime earnings benefit (in today's money terms) of between £185,000 and £190,000. In addition, it currently costs the state approximately £21,000 to provide education to degree level for the average graduate. However, the value to the state in terms of tax and national insurance associated with earnings following qualification for an average degree is approximately £93,000—for physics and chemistry, this figure is between £130,000-£135,000. Despite the fact that they are more expensive to teach (between £4,000-£6,000), the net income to the Exchequer is still much higher than for arts or humanities degrees. This message needs to be spread far and wide.

  The shortage of physics teachers is undoubtedly already a matter of great concern and the situation will only get worse in the short-term. The situation certainly won't be helped by the recent announcement that trainee teachers will be charged up to £3,000 a year in variable top-up fees from 2006, which will effectively reduce the £7,000 bursaries being offered to graduates who become teachers in physics, mathematics, etc The Government should consider increasing the bursaries on offer to take account of the extra cost of training to become a teacher once variable fees are introduced, or give teachers help with their (tuition fee) loan repayments while they remain in teaching, so that the bursaries on offer remain as effective as possible in recruiting teachers into subjects, such as physics, that urgently need them.

  Anyway, the number of trained physicists entering teaching will not be large enough to repair the damage for the foreseeable future. We have to live with the fact that the vast majority of people teaching physics at GCSE levels and below do not have physics degrees and need subject support.

  The Government has recently introduced a number of initiatives to try to improve the situation with regard to the teaching of physics and the take up of university places in science and engineering. In the, Science & innovation investment framework 2004-2014, plans were unveiled for an increase to the aforementioned teacher training bursaries and golden hellos and, encouragingly, an intention to instigate a series of surveys to find out exactly who is teaching science in our schools. As the Smith Report, Making Mathematics Count, pointed out in the context of mathematics, this is an absolutely essential first step. One needs to know the full extent of the problem before one can solve it. Also on the teacher education front, the Teacher Training Agency, in collaboration with the Gatsby Foundation, has financed a scheme designed to encourage more teachers into certain shortage areas, including physics, mathematics and chemistry, by offering subject support to those who have the potential to teach but who do not have sufficient subject knowledge. In the physics scheme, the Institute is also involved, offering tutorial support and mentoring to the participants. In addition, there are various other schemes to help them, not least the Institute's own SPT Project, and the National Network of Science Learning Centres has put the infrastructure in place. What is now required is either a very effective carrot or an equally effective stick to ensure that the people most in need of this support actually take advantage of it. It is our experience, and that of comparable organisations in cognate disciplines, that the teachers most in need of help are the slowest coming forward. There is also a profound reluctance on behalf of head teachers to release staff for subject-specific INSET. Further Government intervention is absolutely necessary if we are to make a significant difference to the skills, knowledge and confidence of teachers of physics.

  Finally, it is worth noting that, despite the recent decline, physics is still the third most popular A-level for boys. However, only one in five A-level students are female. Were we able to increase the number of female applicants to physics degrees, we would solve most of our problems immediately. Not least, it is known that women are more likely than men to become schoolteachers. On the other hand, an awful lot of people have tried to solve this problem; what is required is a hard-headed look at the problem based on solid research. The Institute is going some way along the road in this area but our limited resources place restrictions on the impact we can make.

  The Institute of Physics is a leading international professional body and learned society, with over 37,000 members, which promotes the advancement and dissemination of a knowledge of and education in the science of physics, pure and applied.

January 2005

21   The monetary value of a degree is defined as the difference in the present value of the after tax employment adjusted lifetime earnings of representative degree level holders compared to representative individuals in possession of two or more A-Levels. The monetary value incorporates earnings and employment effects in a five-year age band across the entire working life of graduates (as opposed to an overall snapshot). The monetary estimate is also discounted to provide an estimate of the value of a degree in today's money terms. Back

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