There’s no quick fix for the decline in applications to chemistry degrees

An image showing three conical flasks in decreasing size

Source: © Kleo Palaté

Does focusing on the flask explain why the pool of chemistry degree applicants is drying up?

The UK and Ireland are facing a crisis in applications for degree courses in chemistry. Depending on how you view the data, there has been a drop of between 13 and 23% in applications. This is a persistent trend, not just a blip. Of course we’re searching for a solution, preferably an easy one.

Outreach is often suggested as a sticking plaster, viewed as an antidote to an uninspiring curriculum. While it may have some benefits like increasing the exposure of young people to science or providing them with role models, we already have a huge network of outreach providers from learned societies, universities and industry. Yet application numbers are still dropping, showing that the problem is far too complex for a quick fix.

Changing the subject

Curriculum change is often the first place blame falls for decreases in university applications, and there have been significant changes to curricula across the UK. In 2015 the major qualifications in England, GCSEs and A levels, changed from modular assessment to a linear format. This means the whole grade is decided by exams taken only at the end of the course. There is no coursework, and practical work is not directly assessed. The new chemistry curriculum contains more content than the old one, introduces more difficult concepts, and the proportion of mathematical content has increased. Greater emphasis is now placed on applying knowledge and bringing conceptual understanding together from different areas of the syllabus. Questions are less predictable and have less scaffolding than before.

All these changes could be considered as either positive or negative. For example, modular exams fuelled grade inflation and encouraged gaming of the system, and we would all agree that chemistry needs a good foundation in maths. However, it also comes on the back of a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. This is a particular shame as new undergraduates regularly cite their teachers as key influences in their subject choices.

Part of the problem is that the system is no longer set up to value long-serving teachers. The UK’s teaching profession is one of the youngest and least experienced in Europe, and huge numbers of teachers leave within five years of qualifying. Teaching is advertised as a starter career by organisations with significant government backing who hang around outside university lecture theatres with brand managers making big promises about career progression and future opportunities. With school budgets eroded, experienced teachers become a luxury few can afford. And so, the teaching profession is less well equipped to deal with change as there are fewer experienced teachers around to guide newer recruits.

On top of these changes, there has been a huge change to how schools are organised and measured, with schools increasingly put in competition with each other. Schools thrive, survive or fail based on the exam results of their students. This pressure can lead to less time for enrichment activities, less practical and investigative work and more time spent with past paper questions. Despite this, many teachers are out there trying their best with fewer and fewer resources, making their own apparatus and adapting activities where they can.

Marketing degrees

While it’s not considered polite to talk about money, we have to acknowledge its role in subject choice, especially as many applicants are not driven by a particular vocation. Degrees in the 21st century are expensive essentials, so chemistry degrees need to offer value if they are to attract applicants. Many A level chemists aspire to high value careers, generally medicine or dentistry. The Institute of Chemical Engineers has done a fantastic marketing job in the last few years under the tagline ‘Why not Chem Eng?’, which makes clear that chemical engineering offers some of the highest graduate salaries around. Our marketing job is quite a bit harder; chemical engineer is a job, the title ‘chemist’ is much more diffuse.

Chemistry graduates are in high demand in the general graduate market but we don’t tend to showcase the graduates who become accountants and managers, convert to law, enter the civil service or become teachers. Instead, our websites have lots of pictures of students in labs (often staring at the ubiquitous flasks of coloured liquids). To an uneducated outsider, a chemistry degree looks a lot like a vocational training programme for a lab job.

Perhaps we think careers outside of the lab aren’t aspirational, or perhaps they don’t fit with our own ideologies about what chemistry degrees should lead to. However, we can’t afford to have such principles if we want more people to apply for chemistry degrees. We need to appeal to those students who enjoy chemistry at school and know they want to go to university but have no strong feelings about which subject to study. We need ‘accidental chemists’, whose original plan fell through. We need to do a better job of marketing our actually highly marketable degree.

Editor’s note: The Royal Society of Chemistry recently launched ‘Chemistry: making the difference’ to inspire teenagers to take up chemistry. Find out more at