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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 November 2006, 16:02 GMT
Science teaching gets cash boost
Science student, pic by London Metropolitan University
Science departments are expensive to run
Universities in England are to get an extra 75m over three years to boost science departments struggling with declining student numbers.

The extra 25m a year will support courses in chemistry, physics and aspects of engineering.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England will offer the extra funds from the next academic year (2007/08).

It is hoped the funding - estimated to be worth about 1,000 per student - may stop some departments from closing.

Over the past decade, 20 physics departments have closed and academics fear a further 10 are under threat.

University departments teaching chemistry, maths and modern languages have also been under threat.

The real problem is in schools
Boris Johnson, Conservative higher education spokesman

Professor David Eastwood, chief executive of Hefce, said: "Through this additional funding of 25m a year over three years we want to ensure that in the future there will be sufficient provision to meet increased demand from students.

"Chemistry, physics and some engineering subjects are particularly expensive to provide and have been in relative decline with respect to student numbers."

  • the 75m had been set aside to meet the costs of a funding review which is not now taking place
  • universities typically spend 8,000 per student on such courses (at 2003 prices)
  • they currently get a grant of 5,000 - which now rises to 6,000 for the next three years
  • they also get 2,000 net from tuition fees
The Higher Education Minister, Bill Rammell, said: "We have significantly increased the number of science undergraduates and raised the numbers coming through teacher training in science subjects.

"This further initiative of 75m extra support for chemistry and physics will help to bolster these key strategic subjects."

Science in schools

Professor Drummond Bone, president of Universities UK, welcomed the news.

"The UK science base is outstandingly successful and second only to the US. This has been achieved on lower funding than our competitors," he said.

Science students, pic by London Metropolitan University
Boris Johnson says the decline of science must be tackled in schools
"If this is to continue, adequate funding in schools, colleges and universities, and a continued effort to encourage more young people to study science, are essential."

But the Conservatives spokesman on higher education, Boris Johnson, said: "We must be realistic and accept that the real problem is in schools.

"We have seen a shocking decline in subjects like physics and chemistry at A-level. That is why university science departments are under pressure.

"Too many pupils are being steered away from more challenging subjects - even though science graduates on average earn more than others."

In deficit

The Institute of Physics believes the majority of physics departments in England are in deficit.

Philip Diamond, the institute's assistant director for higher education and science, said he would welcome any extra cash for vulnerable departments.

He said: "Under the current funding regime, a significant uplift in Higher Education Funding Council for England grant would be required given the fixed undergraduate fee, to bring these physics departments into balance.

"It seems like the government has recognised that physics departments need a short-term fix before the demand for places improves."

Reading closure

One department threatened with closure is the physics department at Reading University.

Professor John Blackman, head of the department, said the Hefce announcement could make "a huge difference" to science teaching.

"This is Hefce providing some joined-up thinking basically," he said.

But Professor Blackman said he was not sure that the funding would secure the future of his department.

On Monday, delegates of the University and College Union and Reading MPs Martin Salter and Rob Wilson lobbied higher education minister Bill Rammell over the proposed closure.

UCU joint general secretary Sally Hunt said: "New money to save strategically important departments is always to be welcomed, however, the new funding does not arrive until 2007 which will be too late to save Reading's physics department - exactly the type of department it should be protecting."

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02 Oct 06 |  Education
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05 Nov 06 |  Berkshire

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