A response to David Phillips: ‘Whither University Chemistry?’

In the January 2011 edition of Education in Chemistry, Professor David Phillips (Professor Emeritus, Imperial College, and President, Royal Society of Chemistry), has written an Endpoint article entitled ‘Whither University Chemistry ?’ The article is now online.

University Chemistry departments come in different sizes, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the points raised in the article from the point of a view of a small ‘department’ like the one I am in (which is actually a section within a large school), since some of them may be more of an issue for larger departments than for smaller ones.

The first point concerns length of degree courses. We run three year dual honours courses, so a student studying chemistry will either study ‘chemistry + X’ or ‘chemistry with X’, depending on whether they continue with both subjects for three years, or concentrate on chemistry in their final year. And, having graduated, our students routinely go to other universities to do PhDs. Therefore the suggestion made in the article that, if four year degrees are shortened to three years, a bridging masters course would be needed, does not relate to our experience, which suggests that the need to run (and fund) such courses may not be there.

The second point involves admission and outreach. Contrary to the statistics referred to in the article, our extensive outreach activities have had a considerable effect on both our recruitment numbers and on the mix of students in our classes. We enroll many more local students, and many students who are the first in their family to experience higher education. In addition we run a science foundation year, which can be taken by those whose A level grades were not high enough, or who want to do a degree in a different subject from their A levels, or who have non-traditional qualifications; this year feeds into our degree courses.

Although the effect of higher tuition fees on recruitment cannot be pre-judged, I hope and believe that science subjects will be less affected than feared by some, since many students will continue to want to study for degrees that will find them employment or qualify them for further study that will in turn enhance their employment prospects, and a chemistry degree, or a degree involving chemistry and another subject (like forensic science, physics or a life science) surely falls into this category!

Finally, the article mentions the issue of research, and whether it should be done in all chemistry departments, or just the larger ones. I’m writing an Endpoint article on this topic, so I won’t say too much at this stage, except that I firmly believe that university chemistry should be taught by active researchers, who can bring the subject alive and relate it to their own research. But more on this later!

I’m grateful to David for writing his article which set me thinking, and I hope that his article and my response (and that of others) will contribute to the debate that we must have to ensure the future health of University Chemistry.

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