The current government’s policy of getting as many school leavers as possible into higher education along with ministers introducing an internal market into universities has claimed it’s latest victim; the University of Reading is planning to close it’s physics department.
In a statement released to the press last Thursday (20 mins before staff and students were told) the ‘Senior Management Board’ (read beancounters) proposed that the "Department of Physics recruit no further students after the present year’s intake in October 2006." and that the "Department closes no later than July 2010".
As a graduate of that very department I find the news quite shocking, especially as I am friends with current students and staff, but I cannot say that I am surprised. There is a discrepancy between the government’s targets of getting 50% of sixth form students into higher education and the distribution of those extra pupils, when university life is sold as either one constant party or a requirement for future success it is no surprise that we are seeing a rise in numbers for arts degrees with 5 hours a week of lectures at the expense of exceptionally hard, 26 hour a week courses such as physics and chemistry.
The Institute of Physics’ science director, Peter Main, puts it succinctly.
"Funding follows student numbers and so the future of Britain’s science base rests on the university choices of sixth-formers. In addition, laboratory-based subjects are not adequately funded.
"The government has to realise that its aspirations for science … will not happen unless they look again at how university departments are funded; the current model disadvantages laboratory-based subjects, especially physics".
And the chief executive, Robert Kirby-Harris;
"Contrary to many reports, physics is not a declining discipline; undergraduate numbers have increased over the last few years – although not in line with the overall increase in university student numbers.
"[C]losing a department now would seem to be short-sighted and sends out the wrong messages".
Universities are infamously bureaucratic institutions that hemorrhage cash on a vast scale and given that last Christmas, according to staff members, a long running campus wide research program to find out which departments were viable, deemed that physics was essential to the running of the university, is it possible that this new turn of events IS just a short-sighted, as well as cynical, attempt by the campus administration to concentrate on the cash cow that is the arts and humanities departments at the expense of future British physicists?