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Science and Math Enrollments Reach New High In UK 91

Posted by samzenpus
from the get-your-science dept.
ianare writes "There has been a continued increase in the number of students taking A-level science and maths subjects. Physics has been especially popular. A growing fascination with science and teacher support schemes seem to be improving the teaching of maths and physics in UK state schools. From the article: 'There is evidence that two teacher support schemes funded by the Department for Education and run by the Institute of Physics and Mathematics in Education and Industry are beginning to make a big difference. The IOP runs a network in England designed to help science teachers teach physics, called the Stimulating Physics Network. The MEI has a similar scheme called the Further Mathematics Support Programme. There is compelling evidence that much of the rise in the numbers of A-level students comes from schools participating in the scheme.'"
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Science and Math Enrollments Reach New High In UK

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  • Investing. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by wisdom_brewing (557753) on Monday August 20, 2012 @04:06AM (#41051939) Homepage
    So the Government invests in education and this yields results.

    Shocking!
  • This is good. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Hazel Bergeron (2015538) on Monday August 20, 2012 @04:12AM (#41051965) Journal

    I regret not doing more mathematics the first time round at A level, but there are problems to be addressed. I did turn my degree ("major", as Americans seem to call it) toward mathematics, and for preparatory work ended up doing another math A-level via private study, for which I received the top % in the country for that exam board. But all I really did was cram the study books published by the same company which produced the exams.

    At a ceremony thing, following a long discussion with some of the staff at the board, I was immediately offered a trial position. I stupidly didn't take it. Well, I know at the time I was recovering from an illness which had just appeared and wasn't really thinking straight about what I could do long term. But I would like to have played at least some part in turning it more from a "learn for the test" thing into a "learn problem-solving" thing.

  • Simpler explanation (Score:5, Informative)

    by RogueyWon (735973) * on Monday August 20, 2012 @04:12AM (#41051967) Journal

    I think there's probably quite a simple explanation for this. The amount of debt that students in England and Wales will likely need to take on (barring rich parents) to pay for a degree has risen significantly from this year (not quite at US levels yet, but getting much closer). At the same time, the huge expansion in the numbers going to university has meant that the chances of a degree leading to graduate-level employment have fallen sharply.

    The perception now is that if you want to go from university into a "good" job, then you need either a science degree, or an arts degree from one of the elite institutions (Oxford, Cambridge, or one of the other top 10 or so universities). A decade ago, studying a "silly" degree for three years could be justified, from the point of view of an 18 year old, on the basis that it meant you got three years of the student lifestyle. If you didn't get a graduate-level job at the end of it, then at least it hadn't cost you all that much. This has changed now (and in a funny way, this is probably a good thing).

    Whether the conventional wisdom will actually prove correct for students starting undergraduate degrees in September this year, I don't know. I suspect a maths degree will always make you more employable than a media studies one, but there's no reason to suspect that any portion of the graduate jobs market is immune to over-saturation.

    As tends to get pointed out quite frequently, what we lack in the UK (and have lacked for decades now) is a network of decent technical colleges to prepare people for skilled non-academic jobs.

    • Yes, this is likely related to the economy and changing attitudes about education.

      Some of these attitudes are becoming a bit extreme though. I've noticed snobbery and contempt for people who don't specialize in math or science. It may ultimately lead to a sense of entitlement for these science and math majors that goes unsatisfied. Already in the post-doc world and in academia we see signs of saturation. And the salaries in these fields aren't high enough to indicate dramatic unmet demand.

      More and more I t

      • by wisdom_brewing (557753) on Monday August 20, 2012 @04:52AM (#41052101) Homepage
        Thank XXXX for that. So many A-Levels these days are in ridiculous subjects, thankfully the trend AWAY from Maths and Science is coming to an end.

        In the UK the government went with a target (set on a EU level) of having 50% of the population in higher education (not realising the vocational side of things that is common in other European countries such as Germany that count towards this goal).

        You end up with half the population with a degree is a useless subject and unemployable as you are "overqualified" for roles that do not require a degree.

        You might not end up using Maths in your day to day job, but the logical mentality that it encourages is very useful in other aspects of life - even simple things like managing your budget.

        We don't need thousands of Media Studies graduates with huge debt, we need Scientists, Entrepreneurs and many other roles that are currently being filled by imported labour. I can't remember the last time I saw an English plumber or electrician - those skills are needed here and the pay for those roles is ridiculously high in the UK compared to other countries (I know a plumber who makes the equivalent of USD 200k a year 5 years after getting his qualifications).

        Anyway, rant over.
        • by xaxa (988988) on Monday August 20, 2012 @06:11AM (#41052481)

          My younger sister, and some of my friends who were just starting university when I was just finishing, have science degrees from good (in several cases very good) universities, and are struggling to find appropriate jobs.

          One has a degree in Biochemistry from Imperial, and was told last month by the Jobcentre staff that she'd have a better chance finding a job if she removed it from her CV! (She's had a succession of temporary jobs, boring office work etc, all with the promise of a permanent position at a later date, but that always seems to go to the less-qualified person who the company presumably assume will stick around for longer).

          My sister found a job doing data entry for a company in her field (bio-somethingorother), hoping that would lead somewhere, but it hasn't.

          I think there seem to be better opportunities elsewhere in the EEA, but people seem unwilling to move. I can understand that a little, but at 21 I thought it would be great to go and live in another country (I applied for a couple, but was offered a job in the UK within days of starting to look anyway).

          Meanwhile, the place I work struggles to find computer science graduates, as we don't pay anywhere near enough to compete with the City, so we have to find idealists who really want to work for a charity, and they're rare.

          • Overqualification is a serious problem (I almost consider using the term a form of discrimination) and Jobcentres are (unfortunately) next to useless...

            My best friend has a Biochem degree from Oxford - I would say Imperial is on par in terms of reputation.

            He's currently teaching Biology at a private school in Kent and absolutely loving it.

            Biochem, its more or less impossible to find anything related other than clerical work unless you go beyond a BSc. Most of the exciting stuff you need to be at Phd leve
          • by chrb (1083577)

            I think there seem to be better opportunities elsewhere in the EEA, but people seem unwilling to move.

            Lack of personal mobility has been cited as one of, if not the most important, factor in regional and youth unemployment. I have a number of old friends and acquaintances who relocated to find work - usually to a large city within the same country, but sometimes further afield, to other continents, EU to/from US, to places like Dubai, Sri Lanka, Amsterdam, Germany etc. There are immigrants to the U.S. and U.K. who have left their friends and families, travelled hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles, in sear

            • Mobility is a HUGE advantage in a job hunt.

              Be it for employment or progression (rate of promotion has dropped off substantially in recent years for obvious reasons).

              My brother is moving to Singapore in a few weeks - internal promotion at his firm.

              I am currently considering a few roles in Moscow, HK and Singapore which would be financially much, much better than my current position - sometimes you need to take a risk and leave the comfortable (and repetitive) behind.
              • by Grishnakh (216268)

                There's some problems with this. When you relocate far away like that, you lose your entire social support network: family, friends, etc. You're not even in your own culture any more, you're in an alien culture, so it's quite hard to make any new friends, and you can forget about having a marriage, kids, etc. What exactly is the draw for this? A big salary? A prestigious job? Science and engineering jobs don't pay that well. They're better than the average, at least until age discrimination hits at 4

            • by xaxa (988988) on Monday August 20, 2012 @07:13AM (#41052723)

              I live in London, so I know loads of people who've relocated -- many semi/unskilled young people from Southern or Eastern Europe, but also plenty of skilled workers from Northern and Western Europe, and transient workers from Australia, NZ, SA etc. Half the people I meet aren't British. Some Swedish friends told me last night that London is the fourth-largest city by Swedish population.

              I haven't checked any statistics, but I wouldn't be surprised if British people are some of the least mobile in the EU.

              (FWIW, my sister/friends etc have probably been on benefits for less than six months between them. They can get unskilled temporary jobs in offices easily enough (and do so).)

              The government should, as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits, require people located in areas of high unemployment to relocate if there are appropriate jobs elsewhere.

              Agreed. Wasn't the whole point of Jobseeker's allowance to fund things like train travel to job interviews? (I could be wrong, I never needed to sign on.)

              • by wisdom_brewing (557753) on Monday August 20, 2012 @07:33AM (#41052809) Homepage
                5th city of france as well. Yesterday was at a barbecue in Sevenoaks (small commuter town, traditionally very, very English) - the people present were...

                Swedish
                Polish
                German
                Japanese
                Russian

                London and the surrounding area has become a very international place (always was, but has become much more so in recent decades.

                Jobseeker's allowance is meant to fund those things as well, but try taking a train from, say, Yorkshire to London for an interview at short notice - you wouldn't be able to afford the ticket.

                Think free travel to interviews is something that should be looked into. Jobseekers allowance just about covers food. Though housing allowance, exemption from council tax, etc... are very generous.

                I think you're right on the British being the least mobile, major limitation is that English is taught very widely abroad, but the British rarely learn any foreign languages beyond a basic level and the typical language learned is French, which isn't very useful. German, Spanish, Mandarin - those would be good.
                • by Martin S. (98249)

                  "Job Seekers" used to be entitled to a rail warrant under the Travel to Interview Scheme. This was closed to cut costs, which is rather counter-productive.

                  • Wasn't aware that this used to exist. Thanks for the info, something to push for again.

                    Problem is you'll have the extremely vocal "You're breaking up families!" crowd up in arms again.
                    • by Martin S. (98249)

                      The scheme ended in December as part of austerity measures.

                      If a job seeker is getting interviews they are doing, sucessfully, what is expected of them. It is plainly stupid to block them getting a job, stop needing benefit and start paying tax to save a few tens of quid on a travel expenses.

          • by Weezul (52464)

            I'd agree the economy should be one component, but also the U.K. has been making the A levels easier and easier. I've found that U.K. math majors were amongst the weakest math students I've ever taught. And so so many unqualified MSc students doing mathematics.

        • by chrb (1083577)

          We don't need thousands of Media Studies graduates with huge debt, we need Scientists, Entrepreneurs and many other roles that are currently being filled by imported labour.

          The problem is that 17 year olds generally have no idea what skills are in demand in the workplace. Perhaps every university should be required to write a letter to each prospective student, informing them of the ratio of graduates from that university with that particular degree in the last 5 years who are employed/unemployed, and the median salary. The letter could also point out similar degrees with better prospects. That way student choice would be retained, but it would be more informed. Alternatively

          • Parents should also be guiding kids on this.

            My parents were very supportive (thankfully) - offered me a variety of choices, and got me SERIOUSLY thinking about my future at a very early age.

            It needs to go beyond "what do you want to be when you grow up?" when the kid's barely able to understand what that means. It means thinking about what the best risk/reward would be. Balancing the cost of a dergree against potential earnings. Things like quality of life also need to be factored in.

            I was lucky with my
            • by Grishnakh (216268)

              I completely disagree about parents. Unless your parents are in your field of interest, they don't have a fucking clue about what fields are good and which aren't. If your parents are not college-educated, it's even worse. I'm an embedded software engineer; my mom is always encouraging me to apply to jobs I have zero experience in, just because they involve computers in some way. She thinks I can do anything that has anything remotely to do with computers.

          • Perhaps every university should be required to write a letter to each prospective student, informing them of the ratio of graduates from that university with that particular degree in the last 5 years who are employed/unemployed, and the median salary

            University league tables have this information. When I was looking at universities over a decade ago they showed both the average salary of graduates and the percentage that had a job within a year of graduating. This information is still published.

          • Perhaps every university should be required to write a letter to each prospective student, informing them of the ratio of graduates from that university with that particular degree in the last 5 years who are employed/unemployed, and the median salary.

            What? A personalized letter? Delivered by the mail? I'm pretty sure there's a more efficient and affordable method of disseminating information.

        • by gbjbaanb (229885)

          Media studies... pah. You can get a degree in Facebook [telegraph.co.uk] today. How about that for the ultimate in uselessness.

          • Will be redundant by the time you finish your degree, awesome!
            • by gbjbaanb (229885)

              hence the point about teaching students fundamental computing principles rather than how to use whatever technology is currently in use.

              A lot of students came out of University knowing C, when the industry moved to Java. Then they came out knowing Java, when the industry had moved on to C#. Now students might be coming out knowing C# when Microsoft is moving back to C++. This is what happens if you let the short-term minds of our industry try to influence how students are taught.

        • by digitig (1056110)
          We need all of those media people, too. The UK entertainment industry is as big a contributor to the economy as finance is, and tourism -- which, frankly is all about media -- is a decent chunk of the economy too. Just because it's a sector of the economy that appeals to geeks (except when it's making superhero or sci-fi movies) but it certainly matters to the accountants.
      • by chrb (1083577)

        Yes, this is likely related to the economy and changing attitudes about education.

        I'd argue there is an even simpler explanation - popular culture has shifted. Reality TV and the "media studies" degrees it fuelled are no longer cool. Instead, the people who appear on reality TV shows are increasingly seen as losers; the new cool is startups and app stores, the young crowd hear stories of the people who became app store millionaires in 6 months, and dream of being the next Zuckerberg. I predict that this new wave of enthusiasm for computing won't last; we saw this cycle before with the .

      • by Weezul (52464)

        There aren't merely "signs of saturation" in academia. Academia was already fully saturated in the mid 70s. We've actually been shrinking the academic job market for the last decade using adjuncts.

        In fact, we've recently started shrinking it by creating really good online courses. There are open courseware guys at MIT who suggest there should only be 6 real universities within 20 years. In other words, all professors not at elite institutions like MIT and Stanford should become TAs who help the students

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by slew (2918)

      Whether the conventional wisdom will actually prove correct for students starting undergraduate degrees in September this year, I don't know. I suspect a maths degree will always make you more employable than a media studies one, but there's no reason to suspect that any portion of the graduate jobs market is immune to over-saturation.

      I think the falacy in the conventional wisdom is that somehow a university education is sufficient to prepare an arbitrary student for a graduate-level job at the end. In my opinion, some people just have an affinity towards math and science (similar to affinity that some folks have to the arts, or others have for business) that makes it an intangible element that makes all the difference that no university education can create.

      Somehow I doubt a large increase in enrollment is reflective of an equivalently

    • You provide a possible explanation - I am sure there's some truth in the belief that students are more discerning now it costs much more to study. However the IOP and others have provided some evidence for their argument [stimulatingphysics.org] so we should at least consider it. Definitely it would be interesting to hear if you've come across research into students' attitudes towards their choice of university courses.

    • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Monday August 20, 2012 @05:47AM (#41052383) Journal

      The amount of debt that students in England and Wales will likely need to take on

      The amount of what in Wales?

      The Welsh assembly 100% subsidises university fees for their students (paid of course from English taxes!).

    • by xaxa (988988) on Monday August 20, 2012 @06:15AM (#41052493)

      I think there's probably quite a simple explanation for this. The amount of debt that students in England and Wales will likely need to take on (barring rich parents) to pay for a degree has risen significantly from this year (not quite at US levels yet, but getting much closer).

      I've read that many potential students don't understand one very important difference between the American-style student debt and the English/Welsh version: in England/Wales the interest rate is low, and you don't have to pay back the debt until you earn over a certain amount (£15.7k), and the repayment amount is fixed (9% of income over £15.7k). The debt doesn't count on a credit score either.

      It's somewhere between a debt and a graduate tax.

      • The thresholds are actually being raised quite a bit, this is before

        http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/EducationAndLearning/UniversityAndHigherEducation/StudentFinance/Gettingstarted/DG_199403

        and this is after

        http://www.studentloanrepayment.co.uk/portal/page?_pageid=93,6678784&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

        But yes, very, very different to the US. Graduate tax is a good way of putting it.
    • by bcrowell (177657)

      The perception now is that if you want to go from university into a "good" job, then you need either a science degree,[...]

      Yes, this is a much more likely explanation than TFA's claim, given without any evidence, that the cause of the higher enrollments is "better science teaching" or that "science has become cool again."

      In addition to making bogus assumptions about the cause of the increase, there is a likely tendency to make bogus assumptions about its effects. In particular, you might think that higher e

  • I do hope they can keep improving. Demand for skilled workers, especially in the USA, is still outstripping supply and this is a good first step in helping to rectify the situation.
    (Yeah, I know that this report is from the UK and I wrote "especially in USA" but US companies can, will and already do import talent from outside of the USA.)

    • Demand for cheap labour visas, especially in the USA, is still outstripping supply

      FTFY.

    • by vlm (69642)

      Demand for skilled workers, especially in the USA, is still outstripping supply

      At $7.25/hr part time no benefits under two years experience need not apply, over 30 years old need not apply.

      For all other situations, not so good.

  • Trendy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PeterAitch (920670) on Monday August 20, 2012 @05:24AM (#41052241)

    There are many reasons which may have conflated to produce this result. I moved out of research 20 years ago and have been teaching physics in UK schools ever since, so I have seen various trends during that time.

    Physics has always been perceived as hard (especially by girls) and considered geeky. Most of my students have either been out-and-out geeks or those aspiring to medicine/dentistry. A few have shifted into numerate careers (e.g. actuary, accountancy) and several into teaching.

    Mostly pupils are interested in the sexier aspects - astrophysics or relativity or quantum theory, rather than mechanics or thermodynamics. Of course, at school level the really hard stuff doesn't kick in but it is still quite challenging for the vast majority of students.

    A few years ago maths at A-level in the UK was made significantly easier (this is well-documented elsewhere) and took a lot of students who were considering doing physics as a "hard" option in order to go to medical school. To some extent this is still the case, but more people are doing physics as well. Why?

    The courses feeding into A-level have been made easier - this gives people the [misleading] impression that they can cope with physics - and increases the course drop-out rate! Also, it is very valuable for entry on to competitive courses in good universities, but only if you get the top grades. Finally - and perhaps most importantly - it is seen as interesting, thanks to the influence of ambassadors such as Brian Cox (who has over 0.75 million followers on Twitter) and the well-reported recent events at CERN.

    It will be fascinating to see how this develops - will the courses be "dumbed-down" (probably not, in the current political and economic climate). Will people realise that physicists are not necessarily directly employable? (I currently know two Ph.D.s who are still working as painters and decorators, several years on). Will the love affair with media science die away? (Again - it was last seen during the Moon landings and yours truly got sucked in as a boy...)

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Jobs for those with degrees, masters or PHD in physics.??

      Everything.

      From banking, construction, engineering, ICT, essentially all technology, anything to do with numbers or handling data, anything to do with statistics, anything to do with problem solving. Every single field I've drifted into have found my skills invaluable.

      Don't think Fermi could have been useful other than a physicist? Newton seemed to earn money doing numerous other jobs, as have many other physicists.

      I don't know what so

      • Newton seemed to earn money doing numerous other jobs, as have many other physicists.

        Indeed - perhaps I wasn't clear. Anyone seeking work straight from University should have an edge. There are still some prejudices out there (e.g. "Physicists can't write and don't have social skills) but the numeracy/problem-solving card usually trumps those. Having said that, those who start on a "physics" career may find it harder to change direction later. They often seem to end up in a series of short-term posts (be

  • Science and math is really important in our everyday lives. No wonder people should study this subject and focus for the more development and productive country.
    • Sadly I can't agree. It's not "important" as lots of people seem to get by, some even do well with very little science or maths. Lots of people have fantastic mental arithmetic; but never use it beyond a game of darts or gambling.
      It should be important in our everyday lives. I can't disagree with that. If people had an understanding of what science strives for, when they read bullshit news paper lies they'd question the print.
  • by leastsquares (39359) on Monday August 20, 2012 @06:02AM (#41052435) Homepage

    I think this trend has more to do with Brian Cox [wikipedia.org] than any government initiative.

    • Perhaps not [iop.org].

      Last year, many accredited the success to cultural influences, such as the “Brian Cox effect”.

      New data, however, suggest a network designed to help science teachers inspire students with the wonder of physics, called the Stimulating Physics Network (SPN) [stimulatingphysics.org], has played a major part in translating this nascent inspiration into A-level entries.

  • What is surprising to me though is that Computing classes are not in the list of "hard" subjects being taken up in increasing numbers. This year, computing is falling [zdnet.com].

    Maybe no-one wants a computing career, long hours, bad colleagues, constant re-learning crap that's itself obsoleted a couple of years later.

    Lets hope the raspberry pi does something, or in a decade everything will be outsourced.

  • A growing fascination with science and teacher support schemes seem to be improving the teaching of maths and physics in UK state schools.

    Initiatives are nice, but I suspect the students are drawn to physics in particular because they see billions on dollars/pounds being spend on the LHC and either thinks it's cool and want to understand whats really going on there, or they see the money. Others will not the rise in interest at the time of their "initiative" and say they caused it. Seems like a survey of t

  • by koan (80826)

    It's all the Indian immigrants.

  • As a physics teacher in a standard comprehensive school in the UK, I've seen a massive rise in students choosing physics in maths recently. A few years ago very few were choosing it as it was so much harder that 'travel and tourism' or sociology and got effectively the same qualification. The schools also promoted easier courses as it massively bumped up their pass figures. Whereas now, with the changing job climate, lots of them are realising that not all A-levels were created equally and their job prospec

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