Can liberal arts education save university physics?

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 21 November 2006.

Reading University has decided to close its loss-making physics department. Should we be concerned, and what can we do about the crisis in university physics education?

As expected, Reading University’s ruling council voted on Monday to close its physics department when the next crop of graduates is harvested in 2010. The University’s vice chancellor, Gordon Marshall, said that continued loss making and high costs mean the department is no longer viable, despite Reading being part of the UK’s only centre of excellence in physics teaching.

Reading is also world-renowned for its meteorology and climate science research, but these disciplines are part of a separate department, and are unaffected by the planned closure of physics.

The usual suspects are protesting the decision, with the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) accusing the government of double standards given its recent encouragement of science and engineering. The UCU is demanding “urgent action”, but exactly what kind of action it expects is unclear. It looks very much like a classic case of ‘something must be done’, and it’s the government that should do it, …whatever it is.

The Institute of Physics (IoP) has been more measured in its reaction to the news, with assistant director Philip Diamond doing little more than express disappointment. As a physics lobby group the IoP wants the Reading department to remain open, but it does at least acknowledge that there are real problems that must be addressed by all those with a stake in science education.

As far as Reading University is concerned, the fundamental problem is that the numbers don’t add up, and the laws of supply and demand dictate that something has to give. So what do those protesting the Reading closure want: for the government to step in and subsidise loss-making departments? I’m a physicist and taxpayer, and none too happy with the idea of my tax money being used to prop up failing university departments. This is not about the quality of physics teaching in Reading, which is by all accounts excellent; the bottom line is student numbers. It makes no sense to retain physics departments where there is insufficient demand for their services.

We do have a serious problem with physics and other science education. There is a chronic shortage of good school teachers, and a failure to convince and enable qualified and experienced scientists to abandon other careers for school teaching. And then there is the unattractiveness of science as a career option, with industry – apart from a few specialist areas that employ relatively few people and reward them well – generally offering poor salaries and status to science and engineering graduates, unwilling to invest in staff training and development, and displaying appalling ageism in hiring practices.

Only the other day we had Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton and president of the British Computer Society, complaining about a skills crisis in his field, yet experience on the ground shows that the complaints of academic and industrial lobbyists often have little foundation. This is confirmed by many of the comments left on the BBC News website by disgruntled IT workers following this story.

What to do about university physics?

Regional mergers of university departments should be considered, and lecturers could do more to encourage students from other departments and faculties to take physics modules as part of their degree. Fewer students may graduate with degrees in physics, but there is no shortage of physics graduates. There are too few people with a good knowledge of physics, and for that you do not need a physics degree.

More service courses for non-physics majors would go some way to redressing this problem. In recent years there has been a move toward modularisation in British science degrees, but it remains difficult for science students to mix courses between departments, let alone have arts and humanities students study physics at a level deeper than “Cosmology for Poets”.

In the United States, much first-rate undergraduate physics teaching is provided by so-called liberal arts colleges, and many graduates of such colleges go on to study for higher degrees in research-led universities and institutes. Some liberal arts students study for straight physics degrees, but many minor in physics, tailoring degree structure to personal interests and career goals.

In UK universities, teaching very often comes second to research. Although liberal arts college lecturers focus on teaching, they are also encouraged to do research work, especially if they can involve undergraduate students. The difference with research-led universities is that liberal arts colleges are not obsessed with chasing grants and boosting their departments’ research assessment rating. Nor are they fixated on maximising the number of honours degree students in their subject alone.

I know of liberal arts college professors across the pond who are more research-active than some of their big-name institute colleagues, and they manage to combine this with a real passion for science communication. This is a very different educational ethos from what we are used to here in Europe, and there may be lessons for us to learn from the liberal arts system.

There is a problem with university physics education. It is one of supply and demand in a market constricted by a number of factors which can only be addressed by making physics more attractive as a subject for students’ considerable investment of time and money. Talk of national interest and a skills shortage in ‘UK plc’ is meaningless when what it really comes down to is personal decisions made by individual students.