Upturn in England's student science demand sees £350 million plan heralded a success

A recent upturn in the number of university students taking science and maths in England suggests interest in the sciences is on the rise again - and the promising trend looks set to continue, according to a report from the Higher Education funding council for England (Hefce). 

Hefce’s report comes halfway through a six-year injection of ?350million into subjects considered ’vulnerable’ in higher education. ’Science, maths and engineering are of great importance to the economy,’ said David Eastwood, Hefce’s chief executive. ’We now believe that we have turned the corner and are in a much better place than we were in 2004.’ 

The numbers of undergraduates studying chemistry fell from 11,944 to 9,531 between 1999 and 2003. Since then the decline has gradually reversed, recovering to 11,532 in 2006. Accepted university places in chemistry for 2008-09 are up by 4.4 per cent on last year - a trend that Hefce expects to continue.

A-Level entries in chemistry also rose by 5.3 per cent between 2005-6 and 2007-8. The overall proportion of students studying chemistry has only increased marginally, however, as total student numbers are also rising. Physics and maths have also seen A-level entry increases in recent years.

One major initiative funded by Hefce to increase student demand is Chemistry for our Future, a ?5.25m pilot scheme overseen by the RSC. Over 48,000 students across 900 schools and 40 universities have participated in the project so far. Next year it will join up with similar schemes in engineering, physics and mathematics to form a national strategy intended to enthuse pupils and ensure the sustainability of higher education in science.

Hefce has also allocated ?100 million over four years to sustain the high cost of teaching subjects like chemistry and engineering at university. ’Our chemistry department has definitely benefited from the funding, in terms of both facilities and staff,’ says Anthony Ryan, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Sheffield. ’This in turn has allowed us to increase our undergraduate population.’ 

RSC chief executive Richard Pike says the additional teaching funding is a step in the right direction, but notes that it still does not cover the extra cost of teaching laboratory-based subjects. When compared to classroom based subjects, Pike notes, teaching chemistry works out at an extra ?3,000 per student per year, so continued and increased investments will be needed in future to maintain effective chemistry education in schools and universities. 

Hefce’s project continues until the 2011-12 academic year, and Eastwood expects to see further improvement. But the report, Strategically important and vulnerable subjects, noted that the mean salary of chemistry graduates three-and-a-half years after graduation was just ?22,500 - close to the bottom of 25 subject groupings considered. ’Chemistry is showing growth across the board following a period of stabilisation and some earlier decline. However, the salary data suggest weak demand signals from employers, which may not sustain growth in the future, and this is a concern,’ it said.

Lewis Brindley

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