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Chemistry Makes A Comeback In U.K. Universities, Schools

Outreach programs, extra funding, and even economic recession have combined to bring the U.K.’s university chemistry departments back from the brink

by Alex Scott
March 18, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 11

Credit: King’s College
After an eight-year hiatus, King’s College London has reopened its chemistry department with a multidisciplinary emphasis.
Undergrad chemistry with biomedicine students in the lab at King’s College
Credit: King’s College
After an eight-year hiatus, King’s College London has reopened its chemistry department with a multidisciplinary emphasis.

In the decade leading up to 2005, about 30 of the U.K.’s 70 chemistry departments closed in the face of waning undergraduate enrollment in chemistry and a lack of funding to teach the subject. The situation has since turned around dramatically, with about 10 chemistry departments reopening in recent years. As well as recruiting more students, many U.K. university chemistry departments are also now recruiting staff.

It was 2004 when Steve Smith, who was vice chancellor of Exeter University at the time, proposed cutting costs by closing the university’s chemistry, music, and Italian departments with the loss of 150 academic staff, including 35–40 chemistry staffers. When the news broke it appeared on national TV and in every national newspaper. Smith’s plan fueled student protests and generated public anger. He reportedly received more than 300 personal, “nasty” letters of complaint.

The number of students enrolling in university chemistry courses had been in decline for several years as students opted to study other subjects. Fewer students meant less demand for instructors, so budget-minded administrators such as Smith found chemistry departments easy targets for closure. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) partly blamed the closed doors on the failure of higher education funding agencies to recognize that chemistry required extra money to maintain labs and replenish chemicals.

Despite protestations from RSC and eminent scholars, Smith proceeded with his plan and closed the departments in 2005. Although Exeter University wasn’t the only one to shut down chemistry, its closure was high profile enough to force the government of the day to take notice. The government responded by providing the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) with $550 million for the academic years 2005–06 to 2011–12 to support so-called strategically important and vulnerable subjects, including chemistry. The money was used in two ways: to fund outreach programs that encouraged children to study chemistry in high school and take up the subject at university, and to provide extra money for chemistry research at universities on the condition that they kept their departments open.


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HEFCE’s funding, which continues today, has prevented staff numbers from falling further. In fact, many chemistry departments have been hiring. Keele University, for example, has appointed six new academic staff since 2006 and invested more than $4.5 million to refurbish labs. As well as receiving more funding for teaching, since 2006 it has successfully recruited a greater number of students to its chemistry and medicinal chemistry degree courses.

In the past year a number of universities, including Lancaster University and King’s College London, have reopened—or announced plans to reopen—their chemistry departments. Exeter has not reopened its chemistry department but has incorporated the subject into multidisciplinary research and teaching programs.

“It looks like staffing numbers for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] subjects have gone up,” says Chris Millward, associate director for HEFCE. “We are getting back to normal.”

An additional, and rather surprising, factor has encouraged more undergraduates to study chemistry in the U.K.: the economic recession that began in 2008. British students have been seeking out chemistry degrees in recent years because the subject provides relatively good job prospects, say a number of leading academics. This is in contrast to the situation in the U.S. where job prospects for chemistry graduates have been tougher of late.

U.K. chemistry graduates commonly are taking up jobs in the pharmaceutical, fine chemicals, and banking sectors as well as in teaching, according to a 2008 study by the Institute for Employment Research and the Higher Education Careers Services Unit. For 2010 chemistry graduates, six months after graduation about 41% were employed with a further 44% in full-time graduate study or a combination of graduate study and work. According to Lancaster University, which reopened its department in October 2012 after closure in 1999, “students recognize the career value of a chemistry degree.”

As a result of outreach programs, HEFCE’s funding, and students going back to school during the recession, the number of chemistry departments across the U.K. has risen by about 10 since 2005 to 52 in 2013. Between the academic years 2004–05 and 2011–12, the total number of U.K. undergraduates studying chemistry rose 41%. For the academic year 2011–12, there were 15,660 full-time students studying chemistry in all years at the undergraduate level, according to the latest statistics available from the U.K. Higher Education Statistics Agency.

The number of student undergraduates for other science subjects, including chemical engineering and physics, has also increased since 2005.

A similar pattern occurred in Germany, where student numbers fell beginning in 2004, were then flat for 2007–08, and subsequently picked up again from 2009.

The U.S., too, has seen a recovery in the number of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry. According to the latest data published by the American Chemical Society, the number of chemistry graduates from ACS-approved schools has risen since 2002. That number increased 44% from 2005 to 2011, when there were 15,712 new graduates. The total number of chemical engineering students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. also increased but to a lesser extent than chemistry. The number of ACS-approved chemistry graduate programs at U.S. schools remains somewhere between 600 and 700.

U.S. universities have benefited from more students taking chemistry in high school, in part because some states have increased their science requirements for high school graduation. Greater awareness about the role of chemistry in society as a result of outreach programs undertaken by ACS and other organizations may be another factor in the uplift at universities, says Mary Kirchhoff, director of education for ACS.

C&EN recently contacted the 30 U.K. universities whose chemistry departments ranked lowest in entry requirements, graduate prospects, and research quality, according to statistics gathered by the Complete University Guide, an independent guidebook. All 21 departments that responded stated that the number of students applying for chemistry courses and studying chemistry at their schools is rising. Many U.K. universities also tell C&EN that they have increased—or are planning to increase—the number of chemistry staffers.

“Things are moving in the right direction,” says Jim Iley, executive director of science and education at RSC. The organization has played a central role in advising HEFCE and implementing school outreach programs.

RSC stepped up its outreach activities to encourage younger students to take up chemistry and to go on and study chemistry at the university level. Beginning in 2006, for instance, it implemented a three-year program named Chemistry For Our Future featuring an array of classes for teachers to use in high schools. Teachers can download instructions from the Web on how to run classes such as “Murder in the Lab,” in which students are given an introduction to the analytical chemistry used by forensic scientists. The program was supported by $8 million in funding from HEFCE.

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RSC continues to deploy aspects of the program as part of its contribution to the National Higher Education (HE) STEM Programme, an initiative funded by HEFCE to promote STEM subjects including chemistry. HE STEM has helped “bridge the gap from school to universities,” Iley says. RSC members serve as regional coordinators who link teachers with university professors in order to ease the school-to-university transition. Other programs introduced by RSC include its Learn Chemistry Web portal designed for junior high and high school students.

The chemical industry in the U.K. also has been contributing to a greater understanding of—and interest in—chemistry in schools. Companies including Croda, L’Oreal, and BASF have been among the most active.

The outreach programs appear to be working. The number of children studying chemistry A-level in England and chemistry Higher in Scotland—the key academic tests for entry to U.K. universities—is up 33% compared with the middle of the past decade, and now amounts to more than 50,000 each year. Of the 50,000, more than 95% go on to study at university, including more than 7,000 who go on to major in chemistry.

RSC has welcomed the growing interest in chemistry among schoolchildren and says it plans to continue with its outreach programs.

Even though more students are looking to study chemistry at the university level, “there is no room for complacency,” Iley says.

Student numbers have rallied in the U.K., the U.S., and Germany. NOTE: U.K. data are for academic period ending in year indicated. Data for 2012 are not available for the U.S. and Germany. SOURCES: U.K. Higher Education Statistics Agency, American Chemical Society, German Chemical Society
A set of three line graphs. The top graph shows the number of all U.K. chemistry students. The center graph shows the number of U.S. chemistry graduates. The bottom graph shows the number of first-year chemistry students in Germany.
Student numbers have rallied in the U.K., the U.S., and Germany. NOTE: U.K. data are for academic period ending in year indicated. Data for 2012 are not available for the U.S. and Germany. SOURCES: U.K. Higher Education Statistics Agency, American Chemical Society, German Chemical Society

HEFCE will continue to fund vulnerable science subjects through 2014–15, but beginning this academic year it has reduced the amount of money it provides for university chemistry from $7,340 to $2,224 per student per year. HEFCE’s reduction is more than offset, however, by a hike in annual student tuition fees for most universities from $5,060 to $13,494, which will continue beyond 2014–15. The tuition fee hike hasn’t put off students from attending university because they have access to low-cost loans to pay for the tuition. As a result of the changes, total funding for each chemistry undergraduate student has risen by 26.8% to $15,718 in 2012–13 compared with one year ago. In theory, the money should go directly to chemistry departments, but it is up to the universities to decide how to spend it.

Student enrollments for university chemistry degree courses are continuing to rise despite the fee hike. And many universities that struggled to fill their chemistry courses a decade ago have changed them to chemistry-related courses to attract more students. An example is the University of Central Lancashire. It stopped offering chemistry to undergraduates in 1998 but in 2000 launched its Centre for Forensic Sciences with a significant chemistry component in its forensic science course for undergraduates.

Queen Mary, University of London, suspended undergraduate student recruitment for chemistry for the 2004–05 year because of financial pressures. The chemistry department was then merged to form a larger School of Biological & Chemical Sciences. The university has since undertaken initiatives to encourage students to study chemistry and in recent years has broadened the number of chemistry-related courses it offers. Student numbers have been rising steadily, with nearly 300 currently enrolled across a range of chemistry-related courses. “Both teaching and research have shown robust growth in recent years,” the university says.

King’s College London’s chemistry undergraduate course, which closed in the middle of the past decade, was reintroduced this academic year. Augmenting the chemistry course, in a bid to make chemistry graduates more employable, the university introduced a multidisciplinary curriculum around a four-year master of science program in chemistry with biomedicine.

“It’s not chemistry ‘lite,’ ” says Ulrike Eggert, a German chemist who teaches the course and who in 2011 was the first staffer to be hired as a direct result of its introduction. Eggert took up her post following studies at Princeton University and Harvard Medical School. She has multidisciplinary expertise in the space between chemistry and biology. The university has since hired seven other full-time chemistry department staffers along with three others who will contribute a portion of their time to the chemistry department.

The intake for the current academic year was capped at 20 undergraduates. The program for the next academic year has received about 150 applications so far for a target intake of 40 students.

Though Exeter University hasn’t reopened its chemistry department and has no plans to do so, the university is enjoying a multidisciplinary approach to science, says Nick Talbot, professor of molecular genetics and deputy vice chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at Exeter. Subjects in which some chemistry is taught and researched include functional materials and climate-change science.

A multidisciplinary approach means that the university can play to its strengths and avoid being exposed to any decline in student interest for specific departmental subjects, Talbot says.

Exeter’s strategy is proving to be a financial success. Its research income for science has increased from less than $23 million in 2005 to about $90 million in 2012. Staff numbers are now well above the level prior to the 2005 cuts. “We are attracting very high quality scientists. We are recruiting heavily,” Talbot says. “Science is so much better when it’s interdisciplinary.”

Either as a component of a multidisciplinary program or as a rejuvenated stand-alone department, chemistry in the U.K. is back.


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