Brian Cox: too few science courses to meet growing demand

Entry requirements for degree courses in science are going "through the roof" because the government is not sponsoring enough places to meet soaring application levels, Brian Cox has said.
The Wonders of the Universe presenter said university budgets were not sufficient to cater for the explosion in popularity in science and engineering courses among young people.

Higher grade targets for A-level pupils applying to read science at University are not a sign of higher standards but of a shortage of places on offer, he added.

Prof Cox, who will teach a first-year undergraduate physics module at Manchester university next year, said: "We seem to have turned a corner in this country. It was the case for years that the number of kids interested in science was going down.

"The problem is that there are so many wanting to do science now that we don’t have university places for them, and you can see that as evidenced by the entry grades they need to do science, which are going up and up.

"That’s not an example of rising standards – what it’s really an example of is the fact that there are too many people chasing too few university places, in an area that we recognise as being nationally important."

The number of teenagers studying science and maths at A-level has risen dramatically in recent years, with entries in physics and chemistry up by a fifth in just five years.

This year universities including Bath and Nottingham made an elite A* grade at A-level a requirement for pupils wishing to study certain science courses for the first time.

Speaking at the launch of a two-day "science summer school" at St Paul's Way Trust School in the east end of London, the physicist called on ministers to raise investment and meet demand for science courses.

He said: "My challenge to government is, you’ve been saying for years you want more scientists and engineers in the economy – what are you going to do about it?

"Although [science] looks expensive, we actually spend sod all on it. The entire science budget, depending on how you define it, is about five to five and a half billion pounds a year, on a government spend of 620 [billion pounds].

"The university sector is very cheap and actually makes money. We’re not talking about [investing] large amounts of money, we’re just talking about a statement of intent."

Prof Cox said the hundreds of local pupils who turned out on the first two days of their school holiday to take part in the programme were evidence of the growing enthusiasm among young people for the subject.

The GCSE and A-level pupils heard talks by Prof Cox and other leading British scientists including Pen Hadow, the Polar explorer, and Prof Jon Butterworth who discussed Cern's search and probable discovery of the Higgs Boson particle.

Lord Andrew Mawson, one of the school's sponsors, said: "Government really needs to understand the significance of what Brian is saying about the future of science education.

"Our economy, in the situation where we are nearly bankrupt, is not going to be built by romanticism or by policy papers in Downing Street – it is going to be built by practical people who get into science and technology at this level."

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