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Undergraduate Education

British students decline to study chemistry

Drop in undergraduate applications attributed to the field’s poor public image

by Benjamin Plackett, special to C&EN
October 13, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 40


The number of British undergraduate students taking chemistry is on the slide—and has been for a number of years. The number of applications for chemistry bachelor’s degree programs has fallen by over 23% between 2015 and 2018, according to the latest figures from the central body through which all students must apply to study at UK universities.

The cause, experts say, is chemistry’s public relations problem combined with a prevailing and incorrect assumption that a degree in the subject consigns its graduates to a life in lab coats.

“Chemistry needs to get its house in order and be better at promoting itself,” says Ian Scowen, head of the School of Chemistry at the University of Lincoln. “Chemists aren’t good marketeers.”

Chemistry’s loss

The number of British students applying for and accepting placements in UK chemistry bachelor’s degree programs dropped roughly 20% from 2015 to 2018.
Source: Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Declining interest in chemistry matters, he says, if the UK wants to stay competitive in a global industry worth at least £50 billion ($62 billion) to the UK economy each year.

The fall in applications is mirrored by a tumble in the number of British students accepting placements in chemistry programs, with acceptances down by over 19% since 2015. Before 2015, chemistry departments in the UK had been enjoying a boost in recruitment from British students.

The downward trend for British students is tempered by a rise in applications from European Union and other international students. However, “while it’s nice to have an international workforce, you also want to make sure the UK is retaining its expertise,” says Claire Carmalt, head of the Chemistry Department at University College London. In addition, the UK’s imminent departure from the EU—Brexit—will mean current EU students will soon be subject to the more cumbersome immigration rules faced by other foreign students, which could mean a decrease in the number of students coming from the rest of Europe.

Whether the drop in British students studying chemistry is a longer-term trend is unclear. “But we’re worried about it,” says Danièle Gibney, interim education policy manager at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

Students applying to bachelor’s degree programs in the UK, unlike in the US, are required to apply for a specific major. It’s both difficult and rare to change subjects during the course of study. The students apply through the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, which collects and publishes the data for the whole country.

By comparison, to gauge the level of student interest in countries where students apply directly to individual universities and not necessarily for any specific major, chemists have to rely on statistics about degrees awarded. Had that been the case for the UK, the issue wouldn’t have been observed yet because the classes that began with the decline are just starting to graduate, depending on the school they attended.

Since 2005, US graduation statistics, for example, have shown a slowly rising number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in chemistry. Anecdotally, US chemistry department chairs tell C&EN they haven’t noticed any downturn in chemistry majors.

At first glance, the drop in British chemistry students is counterintuitive because other data from a nationwide survey known as ASPIRES show an increasing number of high school students who are interested in chemistry. So why is that burgeoning interest translating into fewer undergrads?

“This is a really complex issue,” Gibney says. “We are gaining insight through the ASPIRES, which tells us there are many people who don’t have a sense of what jobs chemistry can lead to.”

This is despite the high employability of a person with a chemistry degree in the UK job market, says Tristram Hooley, chief research officer at the Institute of Student Employers.

“There are a lot of employers looking for the skills that a chemistry graduate would have,” Hooley says. “Chemistry graduates are generally earning more than the average graduate, and so if you want to get a good job, then a subject like chemistry is a smart option.” But the number of chemistry students is falling, “so there’s a communication failure between the labor market and university applications,” he says.

While it’s nice to have an international workforce, you also want to make sure the UK is retaining its expertise.
Claire Carmalt, head of the Chemistry Department, University College London

Others agree. “We need to think about better career information,” Gibney says. The RSC is currently reviewing its existing career materials and producing new content. Gibney says this is the easiest and quickest fix to roll out.

In the longer term, the RSC is also reexamining the curricula for the UK’s A-level certification—the British equivalent to a US high school diploma—with an eye toward inspiring students to continue studying chemistry while still teaching fundamental concepts, Gibney says.

That goal is significant because in 2015—the year before chemistry departments started to see a decline in applications from British students—the government overhauled the chemistry A-level syllabus. The redesign removed in-course assessments and placed more importance on final exams. The teaching material also became more mathematical.

“That has meant chemistry is more challenging at A level and perhaps a little drier and more theoretical,” the University of Lincoln’s Scowen says.

This could explain why some students are interested in the subject, perhaps as a thought-provoking pursuit at A level, but unwilling to continue the slog through a 3- or 4-year degree program, he says.

Scowen isn’t alone with his opinion of how A-level changes are affecting the perception of chemistry. “It’s now seen as one of the more difficult science subjects,” University College London’s Carmalt says.

Adding to these woes is a general public that doesn’t seem to have embraced chemistry in popular culture as it has done with biology and physics, Carmalt says.

“Chemistry gets a bad press, whether it’s chemicals causing pollution or oil spills,” she says. “I don’t think we get the recognition of what chemists can do.”

Scowen shares her frustration. “Chemists are often at the heart of innovations, from new drugs to new materials for everything from new smartphones to solar panels,” Scowen says. But the subject isn’t getting credit for those advances, he says, and is instead losing out to other fields.

That sentiment is also echoed by Nicholas Green, the associate head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. “The word chemical has a terrible connotation, and it really annoys me,” he says. “It would be really useful if the BBC did a documentary on what you could do with chemistry as they have done with physics.”

All department heads C&EN spoke with agreed that their field needs to find an advocate like UK physicist Brian Cox, US physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, or US science communicator Bill Nye to champion chemistry in pop culture, but that’s easier said than done.

“If you’re selling black holes and exploding galaxies, it’s easier, but it’s harder to sell a series about chemistry to producers,” Green says.

Benjamin Plackett is a freelance writer based in the UK.


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