On the drop in applications to study chemistry degrees

This blog is an edited summary of a speech given to Heads of Chemistry UK annual conference in May 2019 at the University of Warwick. There has been an ongoing dip of ~13% in students applying to study for degrees in chemistry. I was asked to give my perspective on this from my unique position working with students at the point of transition between school and university. Bear in mind the audience for this was academics heading up UK chemistry departments in universities.

(Reading time 15 mins)

Introduction to me and my history in chemistry education

My name is Kristy and I have a unique role working across the transition from school to higher education in Chemistry.  I did my PhD with David Procter at the University of Glasgow, spending my final year at the University of Manchester.  Following that I trained as a chemistry teacher in a community comprehensive school in Bolton and I have been a teacher for 13 years. I never really left the University of Manchester, returning many times with my classes, helping out with outreach and doing some advisory work as an honorary fellow.  Early on in my teaching career I was involved in the RSC Chemistry for Our Future project organised by Pat Bailey looking at how the A level curriculum matched with 1st year undergraduate curricula at different universities. At school, I was quickly promoted. However I became quite disillusioned with my management role and the lack of time I had for my subject.  One of the things that came out of the last crisis in chemistry applicant numbers was the RSC school teacher fellow scheme and in 2011 I was a school teacher fellow, spending a year teaching full-time at Manchester funded by the HE STEM project.  I then returned to teaching, this time as “just” a teacher in an independent boys’ school. After a few years I became slightly restless and had a vision that there could be real benefit if I could teach both in HE and school.

Introduction to my current role

In 2015 I approached my Headmaster and the Head of School of Chemistry at Manchester to propose a new position, I essentially wrote an application for a job that didn’t exist.  So, since September 2015 I have been teaching 3 days a week at Manchester and 2 days a week in school.  At Manchester I teach on our physical science and engineering foundation course and in 1st and 2nd year chemistry as well as supervising BSc and MChem projects with a chemistry education research focus.  I am a chemistry education researcher with varied interests from assessment, transition, modelling, and student approaches to balancing equations.  I have active collaborations with colleagues in many universities including Oxford, Huddersfield, Durham and Edinburgh and schools across all nations of the UK.  In school I teach Year 8 and 9 and A-level chemistry and lead on action research.  So my week is varied, one day making red cabbage indicator with 13 year olds and the next lecturing in science writing or taking organic tutorials.  This gives me a unique position, working with students on both sides of the transition between school and higher education, keeping a perspective on changes for both communities.

Perceptions of chemistry as a subject

Chemistry as a subject is perceived as difficult and this affects the numbers prepared to take on the challenge of the A level.  Depending on your way of measuring, either chemistry or physics comes up as the most difficult A level, the one that your average A level student has the least chance of a high grade in compared with other options.  So you can begin to understand why young people might be reluctant to take it.  Other factors that affect its appeal are the loss of AS levels which no longer count in the overall A2 assessment and more students beginning the 6th form with only 3 A level courses, mainly due to financial constraints. 

The politics of higher education don’t help either.  So many universities have an ‘offer high, accept low’ policy, advertising entry requirements of ABB when they will accept far less.  The whole level 3 grade range of A*-E is not used.  This further fuels the message that anything below a grade B is effectively worthless as currency for entry to HE. For students it might feel a safer bet to take a seemingly more accessible A level, one you have a better chance of getting a magic grade B in.

Popularity and status of chemistry in schools

Despite this, chemistry is a healthy subject in schools.  All students must study chemistry in some form or another to GCSE and at A-level chemistry is regularly in the top 5 most popular subjects.  Entries in 2018 increased about 3% and around 54000 students take A-level chemistry each year.  The prior attainment profile of students is generally skewed towards higher achievers so this should mean a healthy supply of chemistry undergraduates.

However, we are all aware that one of the main motivations for students taking chemistry A-level is an aspiration towards high status degree choices like medicine, dentistry and veterinary science.  I suspect if medical schools started asking for physics at grade A as their compulsory A level, the numbers would shift significantly.  The school I teach in is an independent boys’ grammar school, traditional, heavy on sciences and maths and yet we have seen our A level chemistry numbers decline in recent years.  For us the shift has almost solely been to A-level economics.

Changes to the chemistry curriculum at A level and GCSE

One of the proposed reasons for a drop in applicants to Chemistry courses is the curriculum change at GCSE and A-level in England.  Similar changes have occurred in Scotland, Ireland and Wales however I am less familiar with their systems so I apologise to those colleagues who draw their students primarily from those countries but I think the messages are the same.  The ‘new’ A-levels are now in their 3rd year of assessment (5 years since their teaching began) and the new GCSEs in their 2nd year of exams.  So, our current 2nd year cohort were the first to take the new A levels. Students who took the new GCSE will take their A levels this year.

It is true that there have been significant changes in the latest round of curriculum change.  All GCSEs and A levels are now linear, the whole grade is decided by exams at the end of the course.  There is no teacher assessment, coursework or controlled assessment.  The new GCSE and A level courses contain more content than their predecessors.  Some of this is a consequence of there being more time available for teaching, as the time that was taken up by preparing for and sitting module exams can now be used for teaching.

The curriculum content hasn’t changed that much, the core topics you would expect to be there are still there and both the level of difficulty and the proportion of mathematical content has been boosted. At GCSE we have gained a heavier focus on the history of chemistry, including development of the model of the atomic and the development of the Periodic Table.  There is also a strengthened emphasis on environmental concerns, water security, life cycle assessment of materials and a big chunk of atmospheric chemistry which feeds into the study of climate change. 

Gone are some familiar topics like the blast furnace and the limestone cycle.  Some topics that were in A level have moved down to GCSE, condensation polymerisation, more calculations and techniques like gas chromatography.  At A level we have had Kp calculations and the Arrhenius equation returned to the syllabus and on some syllabuses we now study Time of Flight (TOF) mass spec instead of outdated mag sector instruments.  There is greater emphasis on application of knowledge and bringing conceptual understanding together from different areas of the syllabus.  Questions are less predictable and have less scaffolding.  Practical work is not directly assessed and instead questions are asked about experiments in the exam papers.

The landscape of the chemistry teaching profession

None of this is insurmountable for teachers however it also comes on the back of a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention and a seismic shift in accountability.  Our teaching profession is one of the youngest and least experienced in Europe.  Teaching is considered a starter career by organisations with significant government backing like Teach First who hang around outside our lecture theatres with their brand managers making big promises.  Huge number of teachers leave the profession within 5 years of qualifying.  With school budgets eroded, experienced teachers become a luxury few can afford.  All this means that the teaching profession is less well equipped to deal with curriculum change.  There are fewer experienced teachers around to guide newer recruits and help them see the bigger picture. 

Impact of structural changes in schools and austerity

Even in what I consider the relatively short period of time I have been teaching there have been huge changes to how schools are organised and measured.  Increased fragmentation through the academies programme has put schools in competition with each other.  Schools thrive, survive or fail based on their results, mainly at GCSE but also at A-level.  For this reason, teachers are under huge pressure to get their pupils to achieve target grades that are mostly determined by the performance of their students when they were 11 years old, since GCSE target grades are determined by year 6 SATs performance.  This pressure can lead to a narrowing of the curriculum experience, less time for enrichment activities and engaging with outreach, less practical and investigative work and more time spent with past paper questions.  Triple science, that is full GCSEs in each of chemistry, physics and biology is often taught in the same time as double, meaning higher achieving students’ science experience is hurried.  It is not all doom and gloom though, teachers have always been a thorn in the side of the Department for Education and there are many out there trying their best with fewer and fewer resources.

RSC curriculum and assessment working group

When the last curriculum change was being hastily sent out for consultation, the RSC became frustrated with their capacity to respond to consultations which often appear at short notice and with short deadlines.  This was the same for the other Learned Societies.  The usual curriculum shelf life is between 5 and 7 years, depending on whether the government has any other political changes to occupy itself.  Ironically, Brexit is likely to have a slight positive impact on education as it means there is little political appetite or parliamentary time for large scale new curriculum changes.  Although it also means less time for any serious consideration of the funding issues which are causing huge issues in schools.

In order to be better prepared for the next curriculum change, the RSC put together a curriculum and assessment working group project.  The aim was for response to future curriculum change proposals to be proactive, not reactive, and for the work done to inform conversations with civil servants in the DfE.  The 14-19 group was formed first and drew on expertise from chemistry teachers in schools and further education and academics in higher education with many familiar names being involved, David Read from Southampton and Gareth Price from Bath being two key names. 

This was followed by an 11-16 group of which I was a member.  The aim of these groups was ideological.  If we were to design the ‘best’ chemistry curriculum we could, from scratch, what would that look like?  The outputs from both groups have been presented at various conferences and by RSC education coordinators at local workshops.  Comments have been gathered from various stakeholders and collated.  The two secondary curriculum groups have now merged to consider the whole curriculum from 11-18; a primary group starts soon.  This work is ongoing and engagement from higher education is very welcome.  I believe the work to date was presented to your Directors of Teaching at last week’s meeting at Burlington House.

Role of outreach

So the school curriculum is not as engaging as it could be and pupils might not be getting an ideal curriculum experience.  Surely this could be countered by outreach from HE and industry?

Outreach is not a sticking plaster, just throwing more money at outreach is unlikely to have any real effect on the supply of new undergraduates.  That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it, we just shouldn’t expect much in terms of short-term results and certainly not be so mercenary as to propose a direct link to recruitment.  This is particularly damaging when it comes to widening participation.  The impact of outreach flows, between institutions and between subjects.  Just recently while I was helping my MChem student with some research, I had cause to read a large selection of UCAS personal statements.  Lots of them mentioned outreach, summer schools, guest lectures, competitions, university visits.  Now, all of these UCAS forms were from 1st year undergraduate students at Manchester and yet the outreach contact they mentioned was from institutions across the country and sometimes not even in chemistry. 

The easiest audience for outreach is 6th formers as they have made a decision to study chemistry A level and there is a short enough timeframe to consider this type of outreach to be recruitment.  However, it is worth bearing in mind that at this point, 6th formers have also mostly decided the courses they are aiming at.  The real value in student facing outreach is with much younger students, it is however much more difficult to design and implement and attracts fewer colleagues volunteering their time. 

Perhaps the best outreach is that which supports teachers.  New undergraduates regularly cite their teachers as influences in their subject choices.  In a typical week, a full-time chemistry teacher will teach around 20 hours of classes and up to 150 students.  Anything a university can do to improve the day to day experience of pupils in chemistry lessons is likely to be of benefit to recruitment, but it is not easy to measure.

Encourage graduates to consider teaching as a career

Some of the best advocates for chemistry degrees are those teachers who are spending so many hours with young people in their formative years.  For this reason we need to make sure enough of our graduates go on to teach in schools.  For years at Manchester we would get 20-30 applicants from the same 6th form college in Greater Manchester, one of our graduates was teaching there.  For all the negative aspects of the teaching profession, it is a great job to be in, always varied, never dull!  Teaching needs teachers from all walks of life and with all kinds of academic backgrounds.  Teaching is not just a suitable profession for your lower achieving graduates.  I have spent much of my teaching career working alongside colleagues with PhDs, even when I worked in a bog standard comp.  Undergraduates, postgraduates and postdocs who might be interested in teaching chemistry as a career need to be better supported by the departments they study their chemistry in, and their career choices valued as much as those moving into industry or academic research.

What do we showcase about our chemistry degrees?

On a similar line of thought.  Chemistry is a facilitating subject at A level and I think we would all agree that is a facilitating subject at degree level.  Chemistry graduates are in high demand in the general graduate market meaning our graduates are not just restricted to jobs in chemistry.  But how much do we celebrate this?  When prospective students look at our websites they see lots of case studies of graduates who go on to work in industry, to do PhDs or become academics.  We have lots of pictures of students in labs (often staring at the ubiquitous flasks of coloured liquids).  To an uneducated outsider, a chemistry degree would look a lot like a vocational training programme for a lab job.  We don’t tend to feature the graduates who become accountants and managers, convert to law, enter the civil service or become teachers. 

Perhaps we think those careers aren’t aspirational, perhaps they don’t fit with our own ideologies about what chemistry degrees should lead to?  However, we can’t really afford to have such principles if we’re going to support our applicant numbers.  We need to appeal to those students who enjoy their chemistry study at school and know they want to go to university but have no strong feelings about which subject to study and no fixed vocation.  We need ‘accidental chemists’, whose original plan fell through.  We need mathematicians seeking variety and physicists who have already decided electrons are the best subatomic particle. For example, Chemistry is highly mathematical and using optional modules can be a satisfying choice for students who might otherwise choose a maths degree.  But we don’t do a great job of getting that message to those students.  There are some pockets of good practice, Oxford’s ‘further maths, what next?’ conference is one of them, but this needs to be much more widespread.  Chemistry is far more than smiling students in white coats carrying out synthesis experiments.  We need to do a better job of marketing our actually, highly marketable degree. 

Are we all offering value for money?

Degrees in the 21st century are expensive essentials.  I am younger than most people here, I studied at the introduction of the £1000 fees and I left university with £13.5k in debt.  I finally paid this off at the age of 35. Now doing a PhD and becoming a teacher didn’t exactly enhance my ability to pay back my loan but still, a relatively small debt took me 13 years to pay off.  A 4 year MChem degree for today’s students taking both a tuition fee and living costs loan outside of London will cost £71,000.  It’s a level of debt unimaginable to most of us outside of mortgage debt.

So, chemistry degrees need to offer value for money.  Going back to the school I teach in, despite excellent teaching and a truck load of outreach and enrichment, we have relatively few boys who apply for chemistry degrees (or indeed other pure sciences like physics).  My school is fee paying and so my boys are in some of the most fortunate of circumstances with supportive and informed parents.  However, this is ‘the North’, not Eton, and the boys, even those not on bursaries, are as aware of the financial pressures of life as anyone.  They tend to aim for vocational degrees; those who A level chemists not aspiring to medicine or dentistry tend to apply for chemical engineering.  The Institute of Chemical Engineers has done a fantastic marketing job in the last few years under the tagline ‘Why not ChemEng’?  Potential applicants are well aware that chemical engineering offers some of the highest graduate salaries around.  Chemical engineer is a job, the title ‘chemist’ is much more diffuse.  This makes our marketing job quite a bit harder.  Maybe it is time to resurrect the old RSC campaign “not all chemists wear white coats”?

And do all of our chemistry degrees all offer value for money?  Do they open the doors they should?  Last year I was involved in recruitment for a school chemistry technician.  Now school science technicians are not well paid, the job is usually term-time only and is perfectly accessible to someone with A-levels or even just good GCSEs, an interest in science and a healthy dose of common sense.  For our last vacancy we attracted more than 20 applications, all from graduates.  This is actually more applications than we would usually get for a chemistry teaching post!  We shortlisted 6 candidates, 5 with chemistry and closely related degrees and a qualified optometrist who was looking to spend more time with her family.  All the chemistry graduates had finished university within the last 2 years and they all had jobs in places like Starbucks, Costa and Tesco.  They all had degree classifications of 1st and 2:1 though their A-level grades tended towards the lower end of the grade scale.  As part of the interview there was a practical task, to prepare the bottles of acid we keep in each lab from the concentrated stock solution and to set up a fractional distillation kit for a teacher demonstration.  I am sure you have guessed my point by now, none of the chemistry graduates we had shortlisted was able to even do the correct calculation to dilute the acid, most could not put together the distillation kit.

Our roles and responsibilities with social mobility

Is it really fair that those graduates have a chemistry degree that doesn’t enable them to access graduate jobs?  Most will have entered their degrees in good faith, their UCAS statements making bold claims about their desire to cure cancer or discover the next wonder material.  And yet, these young people were doing jobs they could have got with their A-levels and lacked the scientific skills to get even an entry level technician’s post, nevermind a research post at GSK or Sellafield.  And generally, it is the least advantaged young people who are least able to distinguish between courses, thus perpetuating inequalities.  We need to make sure our degrees keep opening doors to the jobs our applicants might aspire to.  Every graduate we send out into the world with weak conceptual knowledge and understanding but a high degree class, undermines the currency of a chemistry degree in the graduate market.  The conversations around dinner tables become something like “oh, don’t do a chemistry degree, next door’s son did that and he couldn’t get a job, he’s working in Tesco”.

Do we need greater standardisation of 1st year degree programmes?

It may be that there needs to be greater cooperation between institutions to guarantee a particular standard for degrees labelled as chemistry.  Some history to this can be found in the story behind the exam boards who set the public examinations in England.  Up in the North, the JMB exam board was formed in 1903 by the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds with Sheffield and Birmingham joining later.  Together, they set a common matriculation exam, ensuring standards for entrants to their programmes.  For aspects of my chemistry education research I look at old exam papers, in the front of the books of papers I consult are the names of the academics on the committees who did this work, many of them recognisable as high-profile researchers in their respective fields.  This was a time before government defined qualifications and school standards varied widely.  By cooperating with each other, the red brick universities of the North were able to ensure consistency in standards.  Similarly ‘back in the day’ there were also the RSC exams which could be taken by candidates not matriculated to a university programme.

Increasingly I am coming over to the idea that we should by now have figured out what we expect of students at the end of year 1 and even year 2 in the core, I, O, P strands of a chemistry degree and that this should be examined to try to encourage some retention of these basics.  Students like a certain amount of predictability, and that is no bad thing in the early years of a degree course.  Employers like to know the standard of the graduates we produce.  The playing field across all degrees that call themselves chemistry, should be levelled.  At the moment we have small armies of external examiners checking papers and zig zagging across the country to meetings with considerable replication of effort.  Would it be more sustainable if we had committees drawn from chemistry departments at different institutions who took care of the core curriculum assessment, leaving the rest of us to concentrate on good teaching and learning?

I know the counter argument to this, that we would all like to preserve the unique selling points of our degrees and that a common core curriculum would somehow undermine our individuality.  I would say that isn’t the case, there are plenty of modules outside of core that can be used to maintain a unique flavour to a degree.  There is also the competition argument.  The government has put universities in direct competition with each other, much like they have with schools.  League tables, NSS and TEF all collect data that is used to judge us, and we all want our data to say good things.  Honestly now I think they only way to fight this tendency to place us in competition is to cooperate, to fight back as a group of schools of chemistry with a common cause, and perhaps a common core curriculum.

Student Experience – Maths classes

Moving on from assessment, what about the student experience?  The ‘maths’ problem is a perennial one.  There are relatively few schools of chemistry that can afford to have A-level maths as a prerequisite and this leaves the rest of us with a diverse group of students with a range of experience in mathematics.  Lots of students do take chemistry and maths A-levels together, A-level maths is one of the most popular post-16 qualifications.  But many do not, and for those, their experience in maths will have ended 2 years before their degree in chemistry begins. A-level chemistry does have a reasonable amount of maths in it, even more since the recent curriculum changes have meant the assessment must have at least 20% of level 2 maths or above.  However, this maths is what could be considered to be functional maths, lots of changing of units, multiplication, graph plotting, some algebra. Probably the most advanced thing they do that they haven’t met before in GCSE maths is to find the log button on their calculators to calculate pH. 

So, most of us have a good number of students each year who have never done any calculus, whose only understanding of the word integration is an association from interpreting NMR spectra and for whom differentiation is a term used to describe pitching levels of teaching at appropriate levels for students ability. And for those students most HEIs run catch up lessons of one design or another.  Some will be run by service teaching from the maths department, others by chemistry lecturers and all with varying levels of success.  Maths classes regularly gain negative feedback in unit evaluations.  Although we are trying to bridge the gap between those with A-level maths and those without, we still aren’t succeeding.  This is another area that is surely primed ready for collaboration between institutions.   

Pastoral care

Students these days are more diverse than ever. More and more students are going to university and they’re not all privileged with high prior achievement.  School pupils with special educational needs are now routinely given the adaptations they need, and so these students are academically successful and progressing to HE as exactly they should.  The pressures on our incoming students are vast, definitely greater than even my days.  Our society is less equal than it has ever been and the race to get the best A-level results and access to the best HE courses begin early.  In the anxious parent’s mind, to get your child into the highest value courses they need the best A-levels, and so to be in the best school to get those A-levels.  That can mean hothousing from primary school age, church attendance, moving house, prep for entrance exams, private tuition, revision guides, summer schools, work experience.  The treadmill begins early and students are acutely aware of the pressures on them.  Add onto that the reduction in funding for CAMHS, the service that provides treatment for mental health issues in young people and the number of students reaching our doors with untreated and poorly managed mental health issues is higher than ever.

Because of this we need to pay particular attention to the pastoral role of our academic staff.  In my experience it is one area where many academics feel poorly prepared and where the establishment structures don’t always help.  All of our institutions have counselling services, halls or college pastoral tutors, students’ union advisors and such like.  But our students are students of chemistry, they spend a lot of hours in our company and it stands to reason that often when things go wrong, it is us they reach out to.  As a school teacher my pastoral role is well defined and given the time it needs to flourish.  At Manchester we have worked hard to make sure our 1st year tutorial programme supports the building of relationships between tutees and academic staff.  Care is taken in constructing tutorial groups to ensure a balance of students but also to try to make sure students with any ‘at risk’ indicators are allocated to tutors who are known to have strong pastoral skills.

Teaching and scholarship focused staff

Colleagues with strong pastoral skills tend to be those who spend a lot of time with students, especially in the early years of their degrees.  At Manchester we have a specialist group of ‘teaching and scholarship’ focused lecturers, you might call them something different.  Years ago, at Glasgow there were colleagues called ‘university teachers’ and I commonly see ‘teaching fellows’ bandied around.  In chemistry we are very lucky to have a healthy community of teaching focused staff who are not just service teachers but have interests in pedagogy and chemistry education research.  A large number of former school teacher fellows are part of this community.  However this community runs on a shoestring.  I have many colleagues in the chem ed who self-fund their conference fees, travel and accommodation for the very few meetings and conferences that we have each year (in exotic places such as Sheffield and York!)  Rarely is pastoral work and pedagogical research covered in workload agreements and there is still a long way to go in achieving parity of esteem with research focused colleagues.  The lack of avenues and role models for teaching focused colleagues to consider promotion to full professor and all the increments on the way are a significant barrier to recruiting and retaining the talent in these areas we now need more than ever.  


So where to end this? Overall it is not all doom and gloom, we are custodians of a highly marketable subject.  Every year from now on we will have more 18 year olds than we now do.  So the dip in applicant numbers may be a temporary blip or part of a trend that may see a contraction in the number of HEIs offering chemistry degrees, unfortunately I don’t have a crystal ball.  I am also speaking somewhat ideologically as I am outside of the management pressures that your own institutions impose on you.  However if we can make some changes to set our house a bit more in order we will be in a much better place to navigate the higher education market in future.

Takeaway messages

  • Invest in people as a priority over ‘stuff’
  • Collaborate rather than compete (competition has been corrosive in schools)
  • Celebrate the diverse career paths that our subject can open up
  • Engage with teachers as much as with potential applicants
  • Encourage innovation in teaching and the student experience, both in day to day work and outreach

[And maybe you should all get a school teacher fellow like me!]

Huge thanks to my headmaster Philip Britton and Dr Martin Galpin for advice with the speech in May.

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