Worrying Times for UK Physics

As I’m more-or-less in between jobs at the moment, this is the first August in many that I haven’t been involved the clearing and confirmation process that helps students find places at university after the A-level results are released. I know how stressful it is for admissions staff and prospective students alike, so I’m not sorry to be out of it for once!

On the other hand I did notice something worrying that seems to be the continuation of a trend I noticed last year.  I quote from a piece issued by the Institute of Physics about the number of students taking A-level physics last year:

Although there was an overall rise of 2% in the number of A-level entries, the number taking physics fell to 36,287 compared with 36,701 last year – the first time numbers have fallen since 2006. The number of girls taking physics rose by 0.5%, however.

That decline is slight, of course, and it was  obviously too early to decide whether it indicated whether or not the UK has reached “Peak Physics”. Well, this year has confirmed that trend. According to a piece by the Wellcome Trust the number of entrants for physics A-level has fallen further this year, from 36,287 in 2015 to 35,344 in 2016. The Institute of Physics has also commented.

Virtually all students who get a Physics A-level do go to university, but by no means all do physics. It is also a qualifying subject for engineering and technology programmes, as well as medicine. It’s not clear yet whether the decline in A-level entry reflects a decline in the number of students going to start physics degrees at University this year, but this seems probable. This is good news if you’re an applicant with a Physics A-level, of course, because it increases the chances of you getting a place, but it’s no so good for physics as academic discipline.

Physics departments in UK universities are already competing for a very small pool of students with a Physics A-level.  The removal of student number controls allows  large universities to recruit as many students as they like, so the competition between universities for such a small number of applicants is extremely intense. Moreover, some universities, e.g. Newcastle and Hull, have opened up physics courses that they had previously closed, and others have started  new programmes based on what was anticipated to be an overall increase in demand. To support this expansion, many institutions have recruited extra numbers of teaching faculty assuming the salary costs would be covered from tuition fees. If the decline in overall student numbers continues then the budgets of many physics departments are going to look pretty grim, with potentially serious  consequences for the long-term sustainability of physics in many institutions.

I have to confess I’m worried. The physics community urgently needs to find out what is behind this fall. It’s not restricted to physics, in fact. Both biology and chemistry have also experienced a decline in the number of A-level entrants (from 44,864 to 43,242 and from 52,644 to 51,811 respectively), but the effect on physics is likely to be greater for the reasons I discussed above.

Mathematics numbers have also fallen, but by a much smaller percentage and from a much higher level: from 92,711 to 92,163.  I‘ve argued before that there’s a case on a number of grounds for scrapping the physics A-level as a requirement for entry to university as long as the student has mathematics. That may be a step too far for some, but it’s clear that if physics is to prosper we all have to think more creatively about how to increase participation. But how? Answers on a postcard – or through the comments box – please!



8 Responses to “Worrying Times for UK Physics”

  1. Absolute numbers. What are the relative numbers, that is, what fraction of the population in that age range? Has that gone up or down. And, of course, as demography changes, the proportion of society where physics is an option might change.

  2. A decline of 2.5% would not worry me. From my experience with the teenagers of that age, I would expect such variations from year to year and wait a bit for more worries.

    There is another trend across disciplines. Hard studies in science and engineering used to be worth the effort. Thereafter you could achieve positions that are secure and paid clearly above average. There are data from many countries supporting that this is not longer an universal truth. This is maybe a factor lowering the motivation and results in general.

    With respect to only about 20% girls in the Physics-A class. I believe to remember the group of female students being 20-25% already some 30 years before. There is no progress whatsoever since then, or, maybe that simply is it and has not much headroom. When I look at statistics, I see at technical universities typically an average over all bachelor programs of 33% female students starting their studies, and saw never a place where physics would be above average. It would be good to improve the numbers, however, I believe this will take a long time.

  3. Colin Jones Says:

    Do you think peak physics was maybe caused by discoveries such as graphene, Higgs boson as well as greater interest in space again, as well as the Brian Cox effect.
    These have now tailed off a little, but take up is still critical to having enthusistic quality specialist physics teachers in schools.
    The scientific research future is extremely worrying overall but am hoping that discoveries come along to seize the interest of the next generation such as manned mars missions etc

  4. Countering the drop in physics is the continuing and encouraging growth of further maths. Though the issue of which students have access to further maths A-level, particularly in deprived areas, is still very significant.

    For me, it was really further maths that prepared me for a physics degree. Physics A-level was far to general (and non-mathematical). Though this was a few years back now, from talking to students and teachers it doesn’t appear that too much has changed since. I would agree that dropping the requirement to have a physics A-level for a degree offer is probably sensible, since the current physics A-level doesn’t appear to achieve very much.

  5. I think the rot set in when it became allowed to do Physics A-level without doing Maths A-level. Even in 1968 the Oxford Physics course had to start by bringing maths up to an acceptable standard – and many found effectively doing the whole Further Maths course in one term rather challenging….

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