18/12/2003

Action needed to reverse decline in taught sciences

Urgent action is needed in order to reverse the decline in the popularity of many science subjects among school pupils and university students, the Royal Society Education Committee has said.

In a hard-hitting but bleak assessment of the dangers facing science undergarduate programmes, Committee chair Sir Alistair MacFarlane said that the "plummeting" popularity of science, engineering and technology among pupils and students "threatens the prosperity and quality of life of the whole nation and its progress during the 21st century".

He also called for a "sustained effort" to tackle the crisis in science education and warned that the introduction of variable top-up fees could put off students from enrolling on some undergraduate courses in science, engineering and technology.

In a statement, Sir Alistair, the former Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, said: “The government and the professional science and education communities need to strengthen their commitments to encouraging more pupils and students to study science, engineering and technology.”

Between 1991 and 2003 the number of A-level entries in Chemistry fell by 18.7%, in Physics by 29.6%, and in Mathematics by 25.4%. There were also falls between 1995-6 and 2001-2 in the number of first-year undergraduates Engineering and Technology of 8% and in the Physical Sciences of 20%.

Sir Alistair cautioned against “making changes to the UK higher education system that might accelerate, rather than reverse, the downward trends in the popularity of science courses”. Whilst recognising the need for a greater contribution by students towards the costs of higher education, he urged the government to give "due consideration" to the likely impact that variable top-up fees may have on student demand.

(gmcg)

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