Newcastle Joins the Resurgence of UK Physics

I’ve posted a couple of times about how Physics seems to undergoing a considerable resurgence in popularity at undergraduate level across the United Kingdom, with e.g. Lincoln University setting up a new programme. Now there’s further evidence in that Newcastle University has now decided to re-open its Physics course for 2015 entry.

The University of Newcastle had an undergraduate course in Physics until 2004 when it decided to close it down, apparently owing to lack of demand. They did carry on doing some physics research (in nanoscience, biophysics, optics and astronomy) but not within a standalone physics department. The mid-2000s were tough for UK physics,  and many departments were on the brink at that time. Reading, for example, closed its Physics department in 2006; there is talk that they might be starting again too.

The background to the Newcastle decision is that admissions to physics departments across the country are growing at a healthy rate, a fact that could not have been imagined just ten years ago. Times were tough here at Sussex until relatively recently, but now we’re expanding on the back of increased student numbers and research successes. Indeed having just been through a very busy clearing and confirmation period at Sussex University, it is notable that its the science Schools that have generally done best.  Sussex has traditionally been viewed as basically a Liberal Arts College with some science departments; over 70% of the students here at present are not studying science subjects. With Mathematics this year overtaking English as the most popular A-level choice, this may well change the complexion of Sussex University relatively rapidly.

I’ve always felt that it’s a scandal that there are only around 40 UK “universities” with physics departments Call me old-fashioned, but I think a university without a physics department is not a university at all; it’s particularly strange that a Russell Group university such as Newcastle should not offer a physics degree. I believe in the value of physics for its own sake as well as for the numerous wider benefits it offers society in terms of new technologies and skills. Although the opening of a new physics department will create more competition for the rest of us, I think it’s a very good thing for the subject and for the Higher Education sector general.

That said, it won’t be an easy task to restart an undergraduate physics programme in Newcastle, especially if it is intended to have as large an intake as most successful existing departments (i.e. well over 100 each year). Students will be applying in late 2014 or early 2015 for entry in September 2015. The problem is that the new course won’t figure in any of the league tables on which most potential students based their choice of university. They won’t have an NSS score either. Also their courses  will probably need some time before it can be accredited by the Institute of Physics (as most UK physics courses are).

There’s a lot of ground to make up, and my guess is that it will take some years to built up a significant intake.The University bosses will therefore have to be patient and be prepared to invest heavily in this initiative until it can break even. The decision a decade ago to cut physics doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that they will be prepared to do this, but times have changed and so have the people at the helm so maybe that’s an unfair comment.

There are also difficulties on the research side (which is also vital for a proper undergraduate teaching programme), there are also difficulties. Grant funding is already spread very thin, and there is little sign of any improvement for the foreseeable future  in the “flat cash” situation we’re currently in. There’s also the stifling effect of theResearch Excellence Framework I’ve blogged about before. I don’t know whether Newcastle University intends to expand its staff numbers in Physics or just to rearrange existing staff into a new department, but if they do the former they will have to succeed against well-established competitors in an increasingly tight funding regime. A great deal of thought will have to go into deciding which areas of research to develop, especially as their main regional competitor, Durham University, is very strong in physics.

On the other hand, there are some positives, not least of which is that Newcastle is and has always been a very popular city for students (being of course the finest city in the whole world). These days funding follows students, so that could be a very powerful card if played wisely.

Anyway, these are all problems for other people to deal with. What I really wanted to do was to wish this new venture well and to congratulate Newcastle on rejoining the ranks of proper universities (i.e. ones with physics departments). Any others thinking of joining the club?

7 Responses to “Newcastle Joins the Resurgence of UK Physics”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    “I’ve always felt that it’s a scandal that there are only around 40 UK “universities” with physics departments…. I think a university without a physics department is not a university at all. I believe in the value of physics for its own sake as well as for the numerous wider benefits it offers society in terms of new technologies and skills… I think it’s a very good thing for the subject and for the Higher Education sector general.”

    Several strands here… 40 is not enough in a population and an island our size? I don’t regard it as axiomatic that quantity implies quality – certain other countries are counter-examples.

    I agree that a Higher Ed institution isn’t really a university without one, but I think the label “university” is over-valued. In the 1990s many good polytechnics were upgraded and became 2nd-class universities. Nobody thinks badly of Caltech or MIT for not being universities.

    Where I do agree is that physics is worth studying for its own sake and for the wider benefits of that study to society. For its own sake – as Feynman said to a general, “it contributes to defence by helping to make our country worth defending”. Wider benefits – physics graduates have been through several years of difficult problem-solving that is fairly abstract but not so abstract as to be inapplicable in the technological world. It’s a skill.

    • telescoper Says:

      Before the status of the polytechnics was abolished in 1992 and they became “universities”, I think only a couple had Physics. I can think of Preston Polytechnic (now UCLan) and Portsmouth Polytechnic (now the University of Portsmouth) although there may have been others. UCLan kept theirs going; Portsmouth closed theirs but have now (I believe) reopened.

      My point about “proper” universities, is that I don’t think it’s a university education unless it’s informed by ongoing state-of-the-art research. Many of the new universities (including old polytechnics) are effectively teaching-only institutions.

  2. I believe another that University of Chester is intending on opening a physics department, or establish some Natural Sciences course. So there’s another former polytechnic.

  3. telescoper Says:

    If only the resurgence extended to the football team…

  4. Reading has started a course in Environmental Physics this year, first entry 2014, and has continued to employ a large number of physicists in its School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

  5. Mark Hindmarsh Says:

    “They did carry on doing some physics research (in nanoscience, biophysics, optics and astronomy)”. Don’t recall any astronomy from my postdoc days there, but there is quantum field theory and cosmology in the form of Ian Moss and David Toms, now in the Applied Maths Department.

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