The sense that something is going badly wrong in our education system grew a little stronger this week with news that Reading University is to shut its physics department.

The university’s authorities decided that the department, though well-regarded for the standard of its teaching, was not viable as a going concern.

The university cited under-funding and lack of demand from students for basic sciences.

The latter is the more significant, because strong demand almost always ensures that the funding follows. The root of the problem is that not enough school pupils want to study sciences and engineering to maintain the number of departments operating across the UK.

When perfectly good schools of science and engineering begin shutting like under-used sub-post offices the current debate about turning round our performance in these areas takes on a sharper edge.

As fast developing economies such as China and India churn out science graduates by the lorry load, the UK seems to be moving in the other direction.

And all Tony Blair’s reassuring words about the importance of technology and innovation to our national future ring increasingly hollow if the engineers and technologists of the future decide they want to be accountants, lawyers or management consultants instead.

The trouble is, you can’t force people to study anything at higher education level. They have to want to do it, even more so when they are picking up the bill in the form of long-term loans against future earnings.

Courses in pure science appear to many potential students to be demanding (true), dull (a matter of opinion), non-vocational (it depends) and leading to poorly paid jobs (arguable).

We can promote the pure sciences as fascinating in their own right (and ironically enthusiasm for popular science is growing) but the current generation of students is likely to be interested in the bottom line ­– where is this taking me, and how much will I earn when I get there.

Now, if all this sounds rather gloomy for the pure sciences, it could in fact present an opportunity for the engineering community to blow its own trumpet a little louder.

Demanding certainly, as vocational as you want it to be and with a range of well paid jobs at the end of it, the various incarnations of engineering seem to tick many of the boxes the pure sciences are seen (however unfairly) as leaving blank. The question is, are we getting that message across?

Andrew Lee


The Engineer & The Engineer Online