Sunday, October 01, 2006

The closure of Reading University physics department

PR27(06)
29 September 2006
“The Institute of Physics deeply regrets the proposed closure of Reading University’s physics department” said Institute of Physics science director, Peter Main on learning of the impending closure of the 33-strong department. “University vice-chancellors are operating in an environment that is controlled by the choices of seventeen-year old students. Funding follows student numbers and so the future of Britain’s science base rests on the university choices of sixth-formers. In addition, laboratory-based subjects are not adequately funded. This is a clear example of market failure. The government has to realise that its aspirations for science, set out in the chancellor’s “Next steps” programme following the March budget, will not happen unless they look again at how university departments are funded; the current model disadvantages laboratory-based subjects, especially physics”.
The Institute of Physics is working with the Higher Education Funding Council on a number of projects to promote student demand for physics. However the effect of these projects will be limited unless action is taken now. Student choice is influenced by poor careers advice, a shortage of specialist teachers and a system which discourages students from taking subjects perceived as “difficult”.
Peter Main continued, “Increasing student demand is a long-term project - we are looking at a minimum of three years before today’s GCSE students start a university course. If our attempts to encourage demand are successful we may end up in a situation where students want to do physics but can’t as there will be regions of the UK where there are no physics departments. Unless the government puts in place short-term measures to sustain physics and other economically important but vulnerable subjects, we are promoting an unattainable option for many aspiring physicists”.
Robert Kirby-Harris, the Institute’s chief executive, commented, “Contrary to many reports, physics is not a declining discipline; undergraduate numbers have increased over the last few years - although not in line with the overall increase in university student numbers. Measures are in place to try to increase further student numbers and there is some evidence that they are starting to work - closing a department now would seem to be short-sighted and sends out the wrong messages”.
“Most importantly, the skills of physicists are crucial to research in disciplines as important as health sciences, environmental research and energy”, he went on, “There are universities without a physics department that have many physicists teaching and doing research. If physics departments close who will train the next generation of these vital researchers?”
Notes to Editors
For further information please contact:
Dianne Stilwell,public relations manager,Institute of Physics,tel: 020 7470 4875, or 07957 200214,e-mail: dianne.stilwell@iop.org.
The Institute of Physics is a scientific membership organisation devoted to increasing the understanding and application of physics. It has an extensive worldwide membership (currently over 35,000) and is a leading communicator of physics with all audiences from specialists through government to the general public. Its publishing company, Institute of Physics Publishing, is a world leader in scientific publishing and the electronic dissemination of physics.

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