Submission from the Institute of Physics
The proposed support for strategically important
subjects, including physics, is insufficient and lacks coherence
with other government policies. The government should make it
clear to HEFCE that a full and permanent exemption is required
for all learners in these subjects.
The proposed funding withdrawal will have a
disproportionate impact on the Open University (OU), which is
the only UK institution offering specialist part time, distance
learning physics. Further, the proposed support for strategically
important subjects cannot be applied effectively to the OU, due
to its unique system where students do not register for a degree
programme at the start of their studies.
1. The IOP is concerned at the government's
proposal to withdraw funding for the majority of students in England
and Northern Ireland who are studying for equivalent or lower
qualifications (ELQs). We oppose the proposal for the negative
impact it will have on a range of individuals, higher education
institutions (HEIs) and employers. ELQ learners represent a relatively
small part of the student cohort, and are already exempt from
receiving statutory student financial support for their course
fees and living expenses, regardless of their household income.
The stated aim of the withdrawal is to raise skills and widen
participation in HE, but it is difficult to see how the financial
saving, amounting to 0.2% of HE funding, will actually open up
new opportunities or encourage more non-ELQ learners or first-time
entrants to HE.
2. There may be an argument for charging
leisure learners the full cost for their education, but it is
not clear that targeting those studying for an ELQ will achieve
this, as there is no evidence to suggest that the majority of
ELQ learners do not make use of their degrees. A better fit to
the category of "leisure learners" might be found by
considering programmes of study rather than individual student
circumstances. Many studies have looked at the issue of "over-qualification"
of graduates. For example, one study found that 23% of the 1997
graduate cohort was in jobs for which they are over-qualified,
compared to only 21% of natural science graduates and 14% of mathematics
and computing graduates.
Arguments have been made elsewhere for exempting programmes recognised
by professional bodies from the funding withdrawal, where that
body determines to some extent the course content or level. This
may be a valid improvement to the current proposals, and would
apply to IOP Accredited undergraduate degrees.
3. Birkbeck University is also advocating
an alternative approach to target "leisure learners"
more effectively: exempting from the funding withdrawal those
students returning to study an ELQ five years or more after their
original qualification. This does not entirely make sense, since
the earlier in an individual's career a qualification is taken,
the greater potential use can be made of it. An alternative approach
might be to withdraw funding from students who are currently retired,
or those close to retirement age. Another alternative could be
to withdraw funding only from learners who are studying at a pace
slower than half that of full time students; or those taking a
second, rather than a first ELQ, since these candidates may be
less likely to make use of their qualification.
4. If a case could be made that a funding
cut is really required, the IOP would support amendments to the
funding withdrawal which would, based on clear evidence, support
ELQ learning while targeting leisure learners more effectively.
5. More specifically with relation to the
physical sciences, the proposed allocation for strategically important
and vulnerable subjects (SIVSs) is both quantitatively and qualitatively
6. A number of influential meetings and
reports, including the Lisbon Strategy,
the government's own Next Steps
document, the Leitch Review
and the recent Sainsbury Review
have identified the need for more physical scientists, engineers
and mathematicians, as well as noting the shortage in other strategically
important areas. Of particular importance is the shortage of sufficiently
qualified physics specialist teachers and of people with an adequate
knowledge base to train as a specialist teacher.
7. HEFCE has funded a number of programmes
to encourage more HE students in SIVSs. The IOP's own Stimulating
project falls into this category as do others in mathematics,
engineering, chemistry and modern languages. In addition, the
Open University (OU) is heavily involved with initiatives attempting
to recruit more scientists and linguists. All of these projects
are intended to increase, rather than maintain, student numbers,
as is urgently demanded by the current UK skills shortage.
8. In response to the government's decision
on ELQs, HEFCE has proposed to tackle this issue with a targeted
funding allocation for SIVSs, rather than a full exemption, as
is the case for courses such as teacher training or foundation
degrees. This funding allocation would be based on historic student
numbers, which does not allow for any organic or institution-led
growth in SIVS ELQ student numbers. Further, it is not clear that
HEFCE will provide this allocation on an ongoing basis; the fund
is proposed only to cover the first two years of the ELQ funding
withdrawal. The government should make it clear to HEFCE that
a full and permanent exemption from the proposed withdrawal is
required for all SIVSs.
9. The cost of such an exemption would not
be that great. Other than medicine, the subject areas which would
create the most substantial savings under the withdrawal are business
and administrative studies and creative arts and design. Physical
sciences, for example, represent only around 3% of the total cost.
10. Not only would the proposed support
for SIVSs prevent growth in those subjects, but it could also
prevent mature students from reskilling in those areas.
11. The proposed ELQ policy is apparently
based on the assumption that the first of two "equivalent"
qualifications studied by an individual is likely to be more valuable
than the second. This is unlikely to be the case. One of the key
recommendations of the Sainsbury Review was that STEM careers
advice must be improved, and there is much evidence that careers
advice is generally weak in this area. Further to this, the UK
education system encourages specialisation at an earlier stage
than in many other countries. Given these circumstances, the withdrawal
of funding from ELQs is likely to disadvantage those subjects
which are useful in society and the economy, but unpopular amongst
16-18 year olds. It removes an important opportunity for those
whose needs have not yet been met by the education system.
12. The IOP's report, The economic benefits
of Higher Education Qualifications
showed that on average a physics degree adds 30% to an individual's
lifetime earnings, compared to other degrees including biology
and history which add only 16%.
13. There is no reason to suppose that employers
would be able to sponsor candidates through these qualifications,
particularly when highly numerate and skilled graduates are available
internationally, and the effected candidates are likely to be
looking for a career change.
14. While the government cannot provide
every secondary student a specialist physics teacher and accurate
careers advice about the benefits of a physics education, it would
be unfair to deny those who enter other areas of study the opportunity
to reskill at a later stage.
15. HEFCE's current proposals for SIVSs
are aimed only at supporting provision, rather than enabling ELQ
learners to study these subjects. It is explicitly stated in the
implementation plan that HEIs may chose to use the SIVSs targeted
funding to support new entrants to HE.
16. In contrast to this, John Denham, the
Secretary of State for Innovation Universities and Skills, has
implied during the recent House of Commons debate on HE, on 8
that ELQ learners would be able to study science and other SIVSs;
however, this is not in line with HEFCE's proposed implementation.
The IOP would support a policy which ensured every student would
be funded to study a SIVS, regardless of the level of their previous
17. The proposed support for SIVSs is clearly
insufficient. It is hard to see any coherence of policy in trying
to encourage more graduates in these areas, while limiting funding
to allow people to change their career paths appropriately.
18. Perhaps the strongest case in support
of a full and permanent exemption from the new ELQ policy for
physics is that of the shortage of specialist teachers. While
the government has requested that Initial Teacher Training (ITT)
will be exempt from the funding withdrawal, any subject-related
courses taken prior to, or after, ITT will not be.
19. There is an urgent need to increase
not only the numbers of physics specialists embarking on ITT,
but also the number of candidates eligible, or likely, to do so.
The government has recognised that the shortage of physics teachers
is very severe and has set in place a number of initiatives to
ameliorate the situation, some of which are in partnership with
the IOP. Next Steps
set out a target of 25% of science teachers having a physics specialism
by 2014, and while DCSF is responsible for keeping annual figures
on target, joined up thinking is clearly required between DIUS
and DCSF in order to achieve this.
20. With fewer than 3000 UK physics graduates
a year, it will not be possible to remedy the 5,000+ shortage
of physics specialists via that route.
For this reason it has often been acknowledged that re-skilling
of both mature candidates and new graduates in other disciplines
21. This may involve qualified teachers
gaining a bachelors or lower level physics qualification (anecdotally,
we know of working teachers who have done this, although there
is no quantitative information available), or those with related
degree subjects or experience in industry boosting their physics
knowledge prior to undertaking ITT. An approach which has been
commended by the IOP is the OU undergraduate level Certificate
in Physics which offers sufficient preparation for a candidate
to enter ITT as a physics specialist; this course is being marketed
accordingly. In both of these situations, studying physics either
prior to or after ITT, an ELQ would be required, and these routes
into physics teaching would fall foul of the current proposals,
unless physics courses are given a full exemption.
22. While candidates who have taken, for
example, a masters' qualification, will be supported by the government
in taking a PGCE, a candidate holding a PGCE would not be supported
in taking a masters' degree. One strategy to aid the shortage
of science teachers has been to encourage young science graduates
to enter teaching for a few years on the basis that it would give
them valuable experience, despite not presenting an attractive
life-long career. However, if taking a PGCE would effectively
rule out any post graduate scientific or business-related study,
candidates would be deterred from this career path.
23. All of the above concerns raised so
far would be addressed by a full and permanent exemption for physics,
as a SIVS. However, the example of ELQs taken before or after
ITT is representative of a wider concern, that courses may not
be appropriately classified as "equivalent" for the
purposes of this policy. For example, there are several qualifications
which conventionally and appropriately attract high numbers of
ELQ learners, including the MBA and professional IT qualifications.
Likewise, while it is intended that foundation degrees prepare
the learner for further study, it is not clear that those graduating
from these courses under the ELQ exemption would be entitled to
continue to bachelors or masters level in their new subject area.
A further concern is that bachelors' students leaving their studies
before completion can in many cases be offered a CertHE. Were
this situation to arise for a student already holding a CertHE
at the start of their bachelors course, it is not clear how the
new regulations would allow that student's learning to be given
credit. These issues are largely beyond the concerns of the physics
community, but could potentially impact in certain cases.
24. The Open University's (currently the
UK's only distance learning and specialist part-time provision
for physics) unique system presents a range of difficulties. Students
currently register for courses (worth 30 or 60 credit accumulation
and transfer scheme (CATS) points) rather than degree programmes
(360 CATS points). For this reason it will not be clear until
graduation whether or not a student's programme of study can be
classed as a SIVS. HEFCE's proposal, to count programmes of study
as SIVSs where half of the qualification aim is in a relevant
subject, will be difficult to apply in the case of the OU. Many
ELQ students will be using individual modules to boost their subject
knowledge, as is the case with the Certificate in Physics, learners
may put these modules together to form various qualifications,
or study them alone.
25. At least 20% of current OU physics students
are ELQ learners.
Since a part time degree can take many years to complete, current
students' exemption status must remain in place for several years,
beyond HEFCE's proposed 2010-11 review of the SIVSs allocation,
in order to satisfy the government's stated aim of not affecting
26. According to HEFCE's figures, while
part time students represent around 16% of the total, around 71%
of ELQ learners are part-time. Any policy targeting ELQs will
clearly have an impact on part time provision. By withdrawing
funding from ELQ learners, important provision for non-ELQ learners
will be jeopardised. These problems have been addressed more extensively
by other bodies; however, the impact of this is particularly crucial
in the physical sciences. Of the IOP accredited programmes, only
two out of 687 specifically cater for part time students, and
one of these is due to close. This will leave the OU as the only
viable option for many of those who would wish to study physics
part time while they are in employment. By withdrawing funding
for ELQs, the government is disincentivising any potential increases
in part time physics provision.
27. For some learners, part time study is
their only opportunity for HE. By damaging part time study, the
proposed policy will have a negative impact on mature, female
returner, EU migrant worker and disabled students, and possibly
other minority groups. It could also disadvantage female students
overall, who are less likely than their male peers to take physics
as a first degree. It is hard to see how a policy claiming to
be motivated by "fairness" and widening participation
could risk excluding these groups even further. While HEFCE acknowledges
the importance of part-time provision in widening participation,
it is disappointing that no analysis has been presented of how
the policy will affect these groups. In the absence of such an
impact assessment it is difficult to see how these proposals meet
the legal responsibilities set out under the various equality
duties for public authorities to actively promote equality.
28. The viability of part time physics provision
is a crucial reason why SIVS targeted funding based on historic
numbers is inadequate, and a full exemption is required.
70 The Institute of Physics is a scientific membership
organisation devoted to increasing the understanding and application
of physics. It has an extensive worldwide membership and is a
leading communicator of physics with all audiences from specialists
through government to the general public. Its publishing company,
IOP Publishing, is a world leader in scientific publishing and
the electronic dissemination of physics. Back
C Smetherham 2005, reported in Briefing Paper 3: A Review of
the Literature on Graduate Employment, Underemployment and Unemployment
Report for the Independent Study into the Devolution of the Student
Support System and Tuition Fee Regime, Claire Smetherham,
March 2005. Back
For details of IOP Accreditation, please refer to our website:
The EU's Lisbon Strategy: http://ec.europa.eu/growthandjobs/index_en.htm Back
Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next
Steps, March 2006. Back
Leitch Review of Skills' final report, Prosperity for all in
the global economy: world class skills, December 2006. Back
Lord Sainsbury of Turville's Race to the top: a review of Government's
Science and Innovation Policies, October 2007. Back
see the project website for more details: www.stimulatingphysics.org/ Back
Produced jointly with the Royal Society of Chemistry by PriceWaterhouseCoopers,
The economic benefits of Higher Education Qualifications, 2005. Back
Hansard, volume 470, part 27, 8 Jan 2008, column 233. Back
See note 4. Back
Based on estimates in Physics in schools and colleges: teacher
deployment and student outcomes, Alan Smithers and Pamela
Robinson, 2005. Back
Estimated figures from Professor Nick Braithwaite, Head of Physics
and Astronomy Department, OU. Back