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Scientific subject intake improving

Science subjects had been suffering but recent figures are encouraging (photo: Sara Avanzino)

Science subjects had been suffering but recent figures are encouraging (photo: Sara Avanzino)

National intake for science, maths and modern language degrees is on the increase after several years of worrying decline.

According to a report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), released on 21 October, although it is early days in the funding programme the signs are that the recent £350 million investment into less popular subjects is having a significant effect on uptake.

Latest UCAS figures show that for the 2008/09 intake of undergraduates the number opting to study maths has increased by 8.1%, chemistry by 4.4% and physics by 3.3% since last year. Engineering acceptances are also up by 6.4%. Further down the education system notable changes are also occurring with a rise in the number of students studying for maths, further maths and science A-levels.

Professor David Eastwood, Chief Executive of the HEFCE, comments that “Working with universities, schools, learned societies and the Government we have made a series of strategic investments which are now bearing fruit. There is much more work to be done, but the future of these subjects looks much healthier than it did when our programme began three years ago.”

These figures come at the halfway point of the £350 million funding scheme which aims to revive interest in “strategically important and vulnerable subjects” which have seen large declines over recent years. During 2005 a number of university science, engineering, maths and language departments were forced to close or downsize due to a dramatic fall in student numbers. The funding scheme was put into place as an attempt to reverse the situation with a cash boost throughout the education system to encourage interest at all ages. The programme will continue until 2012 and includes a £100 million investment into often costly science subjects and £36 million to account for language subjects.

Due to the lab-based aspect of some science subjects the average yearly cost per student can be up to £3000 more than for classroom based subjects and often twice as expensive than for arts students. To add to this universities are more likely to make a loss on such students than on psychology students for example who require less expensive teaching methods.

Progress has also been made with modern language intake although not to such a great extent as with science subjects. David Eastwood described the situation as a “much slower burn,” however there has been an increase in numbers studying French at A-level.

The national trend appears to be reflected in the intake here at Sussex with a general increase in three of the concerned subject areas (mathematics, science and languages). Although exact figures for the 08/09 intake are not currently available, numbers of expected students can be estimated by looking at the figures from late September this year. The School of Life Sciences, which includes subjects such as Psychology, Chemistry  , Biochemistry and Biomedical Science, has seen an increase of 11% in expected student numbers since 2006. The Mathematics department has also seen its highest expected intake in recent years this autumn.

The figures for language degree intake are a little harder to ascertain due to the fact that many students study a language alongside another subject as either a major or minor constituent to their degree. However, intake of students onto single honours and joint honours language courses has increased by 8% since 2006.
Science graduates need not worry about their employability post-graduation as recent research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that the UK continues to outperform important international rivals such as Japan and the US in science graduate employment rates for those aged between 25 and 34.

While these figures are reassuring for the meantime, there is still work to be done throughout the entire education system to reverse these trends for the long-term and maintain adequate funding levels for costly science subjects and restore the UK to its position as a valid competitor in the global science and language jobs sector.

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