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Physics education - concern deepens

Written by David Elliott   
Created on Friday, 11 August 2006 15:04

This is the conclusion of researchers at the University of Buckingham. From a peak of 55,728 in 1982, A-level physics entries  have fallen most years since to stand at only about half that level in 2005. In turn the number of full-time, first-year, UK-domiciled students with A-level physics going onto study physics degrees at university has declined by 512 since 1985 (with a further reduction of 113 when Materials Science and Astronomy degree courses are included).

This matches the findings of the Review of Geophysics Education released last month which showed that the number of students reading for first degrees in geophysics is now about half of that 20 years ago and related that directly to the decline in the numbers studying physics ( and mathematics) at 'A' level. It recommended that geophysics, with its obvious relevance to such high profile concerns as earthquakes and tsunamis, should be included in the physics A-level syllabus to add to its interest and thereby encourage more students to read physics.

If a supply of graduate level physicists is essential for the well being of UK plc what importance, the Buckingham report concludes,  should be attached nationally to identifying and developing students capable of taking physics to a high level?   This concern is echoed by the employer's organisation, the CBI, in a release of 14 August 2006 which notes that  'Demand for jobs such as chemists, physicists, engineers, and lab technicians has been rising consistently, and by 2014 the country will need to have found 2.4 million new people with these skills to meet expected need. The disparity between supply and demand is such that some British-based businesses are already starting to recruit from overseas because of a shortage of candidates from the UK. At the same time China, India, Brazil and Eastern Europe are producing hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers every year to drive their development and growth...This is not a criticism of young people - they work hard to achieve the best possible grades in the system provided. But it is clear we need more specialised teachers to share their enthusiasm for science and fire the imaginations of pupils, and to persuade them to study the core individual disciplines to high levels...We must smash the stereotypes that surround science and re-brand it as desirable and exciting; a gateway to some fantastic career opportunities. But the UK risks being knocked off its perch as a world-leader in science, engineering and technology. We cannot afford for this to happen'.

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