Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

Dwindling number of students opting for hard sciences and engineering

Posted by alifinmath on March 15, 2008

This post of mine pertains to Britain — my adopted country — rather than the United States. We already know that most American students opt for courses like communications, education, psychology, and the ilk, and that without Chinese and Indian students, a large chunk of American computing, engineering, and physics departments would have to fold. We know this well. But the same is also true for Britain, where a large number of chemistry and physics departments have closed over the last decade, partly because of political incompetence but largely because of dwindling student numbers. I’m writing about this because the financial industry prefers graduates and post-graduates in the hard sciences and engineering — yet students are increasingly shying away from these areas. And government policy — beyond cheap rhetoric — does nothing to address this in either the USA or the UK.

One difference between the two countries is that deciding not to study computing or engineering in the USA is also based on bleak employment prospects as much of the work has drifted offshore or is in the process of doing so. And that even if one does find employment, one’s career is uncertain and promotion and prospects unattractive. But this last is shared with the UK. So students prefer accountancy, law, and management.

Another common feature is abysmal school teaching in physics, chemistry, and math. In Britain, as in the US, scientists prefer not to teach in the public school system. Pay and status are poor, discipline lax, the students obstreperous and abusive, the work unrewarding and onerous, and dealing with bureuacrats a pain. In short, society does not give a flying f*** about either teaching or science.

I found a masterfully written essay in the Guardian, parts of which I shall paste here:

Thirty per cent of physics departments have either been closed or merged in the past five years.

The laissez-faire attitude to science education has resulted in a disaster exemplified by the fact that more young people are opting for media studies than physics.

Unfortunately, the numbers of young people opting for scientific training has dwindled frighteningly all over the developed world, not just in the UK. It is worth noting that, over decades, the US has been spectacularly successful in making up its homegrown science and technology shortfall by draining first western European scientists, and now eastern European and Asian scientists.

At a time when China and India are producing the hordes of scientists and engineers upon which they know their futures depend, all we hear from our government is that it is not its job to interfere with a secondary or tertiary education system that is graduating 10 times as many psychologists, linguists, historians and media people than there are jobs for.

Just as cheap fast food has resulted in unprecedented levels of obesity, so this McDonald’s approach to cheap, trendy, seductively soft courses designed for mass consumption in tertiary education has resulted in a plethora of students trained for non-existent jobs.

I think there is every likelihood that the lack of scientifically educated and aware young people in the UK will result in ever poorer performance on a global scale, and a takeover by the next generation of young Chinese and Indians, ravenous for the scientific knowledge that will free them from the shackles of present poverty levels. They are being actively encouraged by their governments, who understand that the future lies in a scientific education based on doubt and questioning, rather than on belief.

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