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Science Degrees

Volume 450: debated on Thursday 12 October 2006

More than 40 per cent. of students are taking science-based subjects. Today, there are well over 130,000 more young people studying for science-related degrees than in 1997-98. Crucial to stimulating demand at higher education level is increasing the numbers choosing to study science in schools. We announced a range of new measures to achieve that in the “Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps” document that we published last March.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but he will be aware that, during the years of this Government, the number of students studying biology and chemistry, in particular, and physics has fallen. Will he assure the House that he will attempt to address that problem, not by dumbing down the teaching of science, as has been reported most recently, but by improving, for example, the access to laboratories in schools and persuading young people that there are worthwhile careers in science to be pursued? In my area, for example, the aerospace industry finds it difficult to recruit science graduates. Will he address that problem, rather than trying to dumb down the subject?

As I said, there are 130,000 more young people studying for science-related degrees than when we came to power in 1997. In fact, UK universities produce two to three times more science graduates than the OECD average. Our lead on that, overall, has increased. In 2004-05, there was a higher than average increase of 10 per cent. or more in the number of students accepted to study subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry. There is no question of our dumbing down science. The new science GCSEs maintain the breadth, depth and challenge of the current ones. They provide a sound basis for further study of science at A-level and beyond.

Given that the Prime Minister said recently that we are going to have a new generation of nuclear power plants, what are we doing to ensure that we have adequate science graduates to meet the needs of the nuclear industry in the future?

Some 135,000 students are studying engineering and technology overall, although I do not have the figures for the nuclear industry in particular. However, that represents a good supply of engineers. If the Government were to decide to go ahead with new nuclear power stations—that will obviously be a matter for debate in the House—we would keep the need for additional engineers under review. I might add that Cogent, which is the sector skills council for the nuclear industry, has applied to establish a national skills academy. We will consider that over the next few weeks as a mechanism to ensure that there is an adequate supply of engineers for the industry.

How can the proportion of science students increase when the number, let alone the proportion, of pupils taking A-level maths, further maths, physics and chemistry is declining? Do not the Government accept responsibility for the botched curriculum reform that has led to the decline of specialist science teaching in state schools?

No. Speaking as a former science teacher, I strongly welcome the new key stage 4 science curriculum. I wish that I was teaching it now, but I am fulfilling my educational role at the Dispatch Box by explaining to Opposition Members that which they clearly do not understand. The new science GCSE has the full support of the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Association for Science Education. If that is not good enough for hon. Members, in today’s edition of The Times, the high mistress and head of science of St. Paul’s girls’ school writes:

“we entirely reject the criticisms of Twenty-First Century Science. The approach is challenging, rigorous and, above all, exciting. By linking science to the real world, it embodies the long overdue recognition that science is a dynamic, living subject.”

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to give that lesson to Opposition Members.

As a former science teacher, the Minister will be blindingly aware that science-based degrees require science-based universities, so will he agree to meet me and a delegation of staff and students from the university of Reading, because its physics department is threatened with closure by the university council, despite the receipt of more than £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money last year to establish a centre of excellence for the teaching of physics?

I cannot comment on a possible closure because no final decision has been taken. My hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning will be happy to meet such a delegation. It is not up to the Government to micro-manage the university system in such a way. However, through the Higher Education Funding Council, we try to ensure that the number of physics graduates and others is maintained national and regionally so that we have the supply of such graduates into the employment system that our country needs.

If the new science GCSEs are working so well, why do the best schools, which produce a disproportionate number of the best results at A-level and a disproportionate number of the science entrants to university, still insist on separate GCSEs for physics, chemistry and biology?

The difficulty for Conservative Members is understanding what goes on in our education system. Of course, we want those who have the aptitude to take three separate sciences, so we will be encouraging and enabling more of them to do so. However, in addition, we have been providing the new science and additional science GCSEs since September. Conservative Members seem to be contradicting themselves at every opportunity this morning. They wish to portray themselves as champions of the environment on the one hand, but they now want to reject the new opportunity for young people to debate key scientific topics such as global warming as part of the science curriculum. They cannot have it both ways. I suggest that they put their weight behind supporting our hard work—

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most successful ways of increasing the number of science graduates is through the foundation-degree route? Rather than simply concentrating on schools, we should be examining good examples of colleges and higher education institutions working with industry. For example, at Airbus in north-east Wales, there is a superb example of a foundation degree working excellently to bring us more science graduates.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I had the privilege of visiting Airbus a few weeks ago, I met some of the students who were undertaking foundation degrees. Many thousands of people in the work force are taking foundation degrees. The essence of the value of foundation degrees is that they are tailor-made to suit the needs of employers. At higher levels of study—level 4 and above—for employment that provides support to industries in terms of productivity, profitability, innovation, growth and development, foundation degrees are a real platform for people at work to improve their skills for the benefit of themselves, their companies and the country as a whole.

In spite of what the Minister says, I think that he would acknowledge that 30 per cent. of university physics departments have closed in the last eight years and the numbers studying chemistry have declined by 17 per cent. in the last 10 years. Against that background and in light of what he said earlier, I hope that he will support our amendment in the Lords which would entitle every pupil to triple science. Does he agree that we will never inspire our children to study physics as long as, in most of our schools, 80 per cent. of those studying physics are taught by someone with a degree not in physics but more likely in biology? Does he agree that the situation is a disgrace and needs to be remedied?

To return to the real world, the fact is that we want more of our teachers to have degrees in the relevant subjects, and we are introducing a science diploma so that existing teachers can develop a specialism in subjects such as physics—the example the hon. Gentleman gave—to ensure that our young people get the best possible education. It is our investment in science laboratories, in schools across the piece and in the number of teachers that has resulted in the best ever GCSE and A-level results in this country since counting began; and that is despite the opposition from the Conservative party.