Science struggles as a sustainable symbol of survival

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Science education post-16 is facing major threats, particularly vocational science in further education. University science faculties struggle each year to hit targets. They are increasingly lowering their entry requirements and poaching students already enrolled for college higher national diplomas.

Reasons for the threats include the continued hostility to science and technology, particularly the vocational awards, despite a world increasingly oriented towards science and technology.

If Britain is to survive as a global economy and deal with changes from the information revolution, we need more employees highly qualified in science and technology and more basic scientific literacy among the general public.

Another threat is the questionable ability of colleges to continue offering vocational science. Science invariably recruits fewer students than other post-16 courses, whether for A-levels, general national vocational qualifications or other more vocational programmes.

However, even GNVQ science awards are struggling to recruit viable numbers of students. There is evidence emerging to show they are more appropriate and a valuable alternative to A-levels. Most successful students move to HE science.

Sadly, the continuing hostile and often ill-informed press coverage of GNVQs is deterring prospective students. Introduction of modular science A-levels is also taking students away from GNVQs. Modular A-levels are welcome but should not be allowed to weaken them.

However, the current funding regimes and the faster push for convergence - with everyone at the same funding level in three years - will disadvantage science in just that way. This is also true for disciplines such as engineering and construction. Colleges are finding it more difficult to sustain science study, let alone change it to meet employers' needs.

The funding regime is not sufficiently tuned to recognise the higher costs, particularly in the vocational areas. This and the recruitment difficulties colleges have make the overall cost very difficult to justify. We cannot rush for convergence without a watertight guarantee from the council that the new tariffs for individual courses will favour science and hence help halt the decline.

If this is not addressed quickly, many vocational science programmes will disappear and science in general in FE will decline, I estimate, by between 20 and 25 per cent. This will follow the decline of science within the university sector.

There has been evidence of this over the past few months with the closure of four physics departments and one chemistry department, as well as a number of faculties of science being reviewed in universities.

Despite innumerable approaches to the Further Education Funding Council science inspectors, the FEFC regional offices and the FEFC itself, including the awarding bodies, it still is proving very difficult to get reliable and valid statistics on the number of students enrolled on vocational science courses.

A number of informal surveys across colleges within the sector indicates that enrolments are falling and courses are being reduced. It mirrors what has happened in engineering construction in the past few years. We must be alarmed that decisions to cut courses are taken with no adequate statistics that might force colleges, the FEFC and the Government to think again.

Comparing costs for other provision and analysing the income, the figures look grim indeed. A full A-level income for two years is up to Pounds 25,000, much more than a science vocational course can attract. The most recent tariff provision from the FEFC has not increased for science.

Colleges are also finding it difficult to invest in the necessary capital and equipment for science, following the changes in the capital allocation regimes. Universities face similar difficulties in sustaining comprehensive provision across the sciences.

It could be that most vocational science post-l6 will disappear from the FE sector within the next few years and we will end up with a very homogenous sanitised range of provision, focused mainly on A-levels and GNVQs - assuming GNVQs can overcome some of the difficulties mentioned. This would be a very worrying development, as recent surveys indicate significant growth in science-related employment, particularly at the professional level, calling for qualifications above NVQ level 3.

Advocates of the work-based route would argue that employers should deliver and pay for the more occupational-specific programmes of study. Evidence already exists that shows that employers want colleges to play a significant role in the development and delivery of this approach, but in the current climate they find it difficult to pick up the full responsibility.

Colleges are very keen to work with employers, operating in different ways to that of the traditional day-release of the past, but there needs to be encouragement both financially and politically to strengthen strategic partnerships between colleges and employers.

There must also be a fundamental review of how certain key strategic areas of provision are funded in the future and a more sensitive funding regime needs to be introduced for colleges and employers to develop a strong and high-quality science curriculum post-l6.

Dick Evans is principal of Stockport College of Further and Higher Education

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