THE FUTURE OF PHYSICS

This paper was sent to the Editor by Dr Richard Evans, Principal of Stockport College of Further and Higher Education. He addressed the Foundation on the subject “Post-Sixteen Education – Supplying the Needs of Engineering in Britain” on 9 October 1991, when other speakers were Professor Ian Nussey and Dr Derek Roberts.

Dr Richard Evans

Summary by the editor: In a provocative article, Dr Evans posed a number of questions to which answers were needed in order to develop an overall, coherent, long-term strategic policy for physics education and the part that higher education institutions must play. Among other topics, he examined the purposes of a physics degree, employment prospects for physics graduates, articulation with schools and further education.

INTRODUCTION.

The following article is written to hopefully precipitate positive and constructive discussion. Effective and appropriate physics and physics-related education is essential for the financial and intellectual life of this country. I hope the ensuing discussion does not become too defensive. There are signs of change, but for a relative outsider it is seen as being painfully slow.

After a recent Institute of Physics (IoP) seminar at the ASE’s Annual Meeting on Physics in Higher Education I reflected on many of the issues raised. Bearing in mind that most modern physics is now pure philosophy, a reflective stance is somewhat appropriate.

Physics education is at the cross-roads, and I often sense reading articles in the Physics World and other journals, or attending such seminars as mentioned above, that very few physicists are asking searching and fundamental questions about their subject – its purpose in education and society in general and its position within the educational landscape. We all accept the general landscape is largely determined by the financial, political and economic climate. These inevitably create a turbulent and at times volatile environment, full of contradictions and paradoxes which is sadly still mainly dominated by short-termism, especially in the political dimension.

Even with all these uncertainties, it is important that the teachers involved in the subject attempt themselves to position the subject in the general landscape as well as the educational landscape. A good example of this is the “Parenthesis Model” of management, where managers try and accept all aspects of the external world which continually impact and influence their organisations. It is a dynamic situation with very few absolutes. Change is the only fact and nothing is immutable, ie the traditional A Level system or the three-year full-time honours system. No doubt many would disagree with this statement and would align themselves with the ‘back to basics brigade’. Oh! for the good old days when applicants for physics degrees possessed physics A Level with double maths!

Supporters of this view will no doubt continue to perpetuate the top-down philosophy. HE knows best. It sets its standards relative to its traditional programmes of study, little changed over many years. This has driven the rest of the educational system. Until recently, this view was reinforced by most GCE examining boards, but curriculum developments in school and post-16 sectors radically change the way students learn and perceive their studies.

This issue and other associated ones raise fundamental questions about standards, real or imagined, and the nature of the student body. What are students’ perceptions of the subject and what are their aspirations? Research has shown that students now wish to pursue mixed economy A Level programmes. For example, one science with humanities/arts subjects. This reflects the desire by the student to keep their HE/career options open and possibly to break away from the very narrow focus of the two/three separate sciences with mathematics. The Table shown below shows this trend for a mixed economy of ‘A’ levels.

Increasingly, mature students entering HE via Access provision make different demands on the HE sector, its provision and its staff. The top-down approach is now inappropriate. HE must recognise these changes and adopt a less atavistic perspective and be more prepared to review and refine their provision. How best can change be managed? Should it be driven by a top-down or bottom-up approach? If physics departments wish to benefit from the one-in-three participation in HE they must change or go under, because of the accountancy-driven mentality exercised by the current Government. Many Universities, old and new, have begun to accept these changes, but I fear in physics and in many other sciences they still wish to rely on the past. The four-year physics degree is a welcomed and refreshing development, but there still needs to be careful thought given to what the student wants, and any degree framework should allow honourable exits at various stages. In addition, the exciting potential of the ‘2+2’ programme needs to be further exploited. The HND award is a valuable and integral qualification in its own right. It can prepare students for further and higher study but also produce highly qualified technicians in physics and in other scientific areas. Staff in physics departments must once and for all resolve the difficulties that they are experiencing with the mathematical knowledge required for entrance.

A whole series of questions must surely be asked. Many of these are interrelated. These questions are in order to develop an overall, coherent, long-term strategic policy for physics education and the part that Higher Education Institutions must play. Such questions could be:

  • What is/are the purpose(s) of a physics degree?
  • What is the employment profile for physics graduates in the future?
  • Are too many Universities/Colleges of Higher Education offering physics or physics related provision?
  • How would future developments with the likelihood of a designation of the Universities, as research and teaching or just teaching institutions likely to change the nature of HE provision and as a consequence physics?
  • How can HE programmes articulate more effectively with schools/FE ‘science provision’?
  • How can the provision maintain that difficult balance between the essential core skills knowledge required and the ever accumulating and accelerating skill knowledge base of physics, and indeed that of other sciences and the technologies? What is meant by the core? What is its positioning in any degree programme? What is its relationship to the ever expanding body of knowledge?

PURPOSES OF A PHYSICS DEGREE.

Clearly, this country needs highly qualified graduates/post-graduates in physics to satisfy the research and development activities in industry and academia. Provision should also prepare increased numbers of highly qualified technicians essential to support the researchers. In addition, provision should play its part in increasing the level of scientific literacy/awareness for as many students as is possible. It is often stated that the physics graduate is very versatile, after all many move into a wide range of professions and careers not directly related to physics. It is essential that the physics community capitalises on this fact.

EMPLOYMENT PROSPECTS FOR PHYSICS GRADUATES/ POST-GRADUATES.

This question raises a whole series of issues about the nature of the future of work and its profile. Where will the jobs be? A number of international reports have indicated most areas of employment growth will be associated with the areas of energy utilisation, conservation, pollution control and health. If this is the case then clearly the physics programmes must be very much about multidisciplinary scientific approaches.

Sadly, graduate unemployment is rising and many physics graduates are now unemployed. “Do we have enough graduates in pure physics?” “Are we producing the right kind of graduates currently to enter these new areas of employment?” Surely, a fundamental review is needed to attempt to match the provision provided in HE to the jobs of the future.

NUMBER OF UNIVERSITIES/COLLEGES OF HIGHER EDUCATION

The HE sector is becoming increasingly diverse. This is particularly so resulting from the Polytechnics becoming Universities. The nature of the student body is changing dramatically as we move more to mass Higher Education. Each institution, quite rightly, has its own mission, but surely across the sector there has to be some sort of coherent approach to capitalise on the populations who are interested in a particular programme. In an age when the slogan is ‘doing more for less’ and trying to maintain quality this coherent strategy is essential to reduce unnecessary duplication or cut-throat competition.

If Universities are to be designated research and teaching, or teaching only, then those institutions must think hard about what provision they make and for what markets. Physics is an expensive subject to deliver, not only because of the process it involves, but invariably fewer students are enroled in relative terms to other less costly provision. As the continuing ratchet is applied to make education cheaper, institutions will have to think seriously about the range of their provision, including their science provision.

I am aware that many physics departments have been merged with other departments, for example engineering, electrical engineering, but even so I sense that resources are limited and institutions feel they cannot provide the quality of provision. Clearly, a point comes when institutions must make hard decisions and this, no doubt, will be centred around costly provision and/or where the numbers of applicants are few. It does not make any sense to have every University or College of Higher Education offering the same kinds of provision. Provision is being offered that involves physics jointly with other subjects, for example languages, business studies, engineering. This again is a welcome development, but even so with the number of applicants still relatively low the institutions are continually going to experience difficulties in recruiting sufficient students.

RESEARCH AND TEACHING AND TEACHING UNIVERSITY DESIGNATION.

I have had the privilege of being a member of two Royal Society Working Parties. During both a great deal of discussion centred on the correlation between research and teaching, particularly in the sciences. Many staff in HE argue very strongly and passionately that there is a correlation, that the research activity does enrich and enhance the teaching provision. Others feel that the correlation is less significant and experience from other countries, particularly America, is that physics teaching can be of the highest order within an institution that just has a teaching mission. I would be interested to hear from colleagues in Higher Education how they feel about this matter.

ARTICULATION WITH SCHOOLS AND FE PROVISION.

As mentioned above, a great deal is now happening in the schools sector with the development of balanced science and the Dearing Report is now advocating that vocational elements could be introduced into key stage 4 of the national curriculum. (Whatever the final outcomes are from Dearing, it is essential that double science award continues to be the | norm for 14 to 16 year olds.) This, coupled with the ‘science for all up to 16’ could open up access and increase participation in science post-16. The post-16 sector is radically changing the curriculum frameworks offered, for example with the development of the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) and an increased drive to NVQ Kitemark vocational qualifications. A Levels to a large extent have been unaffected by these changes, although there are some interesting and possibly exciting developments in modulal science A Levels.

All this will produce very different kinds of science students with an interest in science who may wish to enter Higher Education. It is therefore essential that the Universities begin to unpack their existing provision to try and develop a smoother progression and transition opportunities for these students. Clearly, there are issues about the degree of depth of specialisation in the separate sciences. If a | degree programme is offered in a separate science, then there clearly are going to be discontinuities and difficulties for students. This not only relates to the level of understanding and knowledge of the specific science, but also the need for the necessary mathematical knowledge.

Some interesting initiatives are now under way, for example, Flexible Learning Approaches to Physics (FLAP). These programmes are attempting to offer a resource for students entering HE so that they can actually gain enough knowledge and understanding of the subjects if it is perceived that this has been insufficient since they left school and Further Education.

FLAP is clearly a welcomed initiative, though I do worry that it could be seen as very much a top down approach, that the degree framework remains unchanged and the Universities are attempting to carry out remediation to bring the students up to their traditional starting points. It might be useful to allow FE institutions and post-16 institutions to have FLAP or some similar programme to assist students if they wish to enter HE or the world of work. I look forward to seeing how FLAP is received and how effective it is. Equally I look forward to similar initiatives in chemistry and biology and no doubt we will see the acronyms FLAC and FLAB as a result.

THE EVER ACCELERATING KNOWLEDGE BASE OF PHYSICS.

It is now generally accepted that the knowledge half-life of engineers and scientists is less than four years. It is a time of unprecedented growth in the knowledge base. This coupled with advances in information technology produce very exciting if not daunting challenges to all people in education and most certainly within the Higher Education sector. I know that physicists argue there is an essential core very much based on traditional physics that students need to have and yet they have to ‘excite’ the student about some of the wonderful developments that are now occurring in physics and in other sciences. How much of the ‘new science’ can they include in a degree programme without sacrificing that essential core base of knowledge? This is a difficult question that also might beg fundamental questions about what the first degree is. If a curriculum framework can be developed that will allow honourable exits, clearly again, each of those stages must have that balance achieved so that people leaving HE can enter the world of work or progress on to further study and be confident that their knowledge skill and understanding base will make them effective employees and/or students.

Figure showing Subject Options at ‘A’ Level:

fig1: Candidates Subject Options at A-Level

fig1: Candidates Subject Options at A-Level

My final comment is that I find it very sad that the seminar mentioned above was very poorly attended. There were a number of very important issues raised. It was interesting to note that one of the members of the audience, a Japanese lady, made the point at the end that the Japanese are also experiencing similar difficulties in recruiting students into Higher Education physics. Maybe it is not, as is usually the case, a British problem, but it might be an international problem. This now would raise fundamental issues about having strong and negative views about physics and other sciences. Therefore it becomes then a question for the physics community of the world to begin to ask fundamental and philosophical questions about how to re-establish a value structure and the role of physics in the social, intellectual, economic, political and educational domains for the future. Over to you.

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