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Universities to drop physics

Two universities are pulling out of physics as the number of young people choosing the subject continues to fall.

The University of East Anglia and Coventry University have decided that physics courses no longer justify their cost. Birkbeck University in London is considering the same action, while a fourth university, De Montfort in Leicester, has merged administration in its physics and chemistry courses.

Coventry this week confirmed that next September's intake will be the last as it concentrates on "areas of strength in recruitment". The UEA has decided to close its undergraduate course.

The proportion of A-level students specialising in the sciences has fallen from 44 per cent in 1962 to less than 17 per cent in 1994. There has also been a fall in the numbers taking A-level physics from 45,716 in 1988 to 32, 801 in 1996.

The Institute of Physics described the move as extremely worrying and blamed cuts in higher education funding, and the local effect of market forces.

In a speech to the Association for Science Education earlier this year, Professor Alan Smithers from the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University called for a major re-think of 14-19 science education.

The news coincides with the launch of a Pounds 25 million campaign to interest youngsters in technical subjects, and to rescue the British engineering industry.

The organisers of the Year of Engineering Success, backed by major firms, claim our future prosperity is threatened by the problems facing UK engineering courses.

In 1993 there were 22,000 UK engineering students: by 1995 this had fallen to 17,000. There is also a dramatic shortage of trainees wanting to teach maths and science at a school level.

According to the new campaign Britain needs to recruit 30,000 new qualified engineers just to replace those leaving the profession this year; but will only get half that number.

Last week a report from the Royal Academy of Engineers identified a mismatch between the abilities of school-leavers and the requirements of university science and engineering courses.

* Idealistic young people who want to do some good in the world should choose a career in engineering rather than medicine, according to the organisers of the Year of Engineering Success.

"We need to impress on young people and their parents that maths and physics are going to lead to a much better quality of life, for themselves and others," said Dr Mary Harris, the director.

"It's not about nuts and bolts or metal-bashing, but about control systems for spacecraft or using satellites to help agriculture. Engineers can make a huge difference to the world: they take the drudgery out of human life."

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