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Physics students protest at Reading

Boffins on the warpath

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Physics students at Reading University have come out in protest against their department's impending closure.

The students took their protest, and their banners, to a meeting of the University senate yesterday. They wore masks depicting vice-chancellor Professor Gordon Marshall, who announced the decision to close the department in three years time.

Masked protest

Simon Stacey, president of the university's physics society said: "No one has given us any reasons as to why the department is closing. We're here today to ask for an explanation of their decision and to try and get the vice-chancellor to change his mind about the closure."

The problem lies in the way funding is allocated to universities. Although the number of physics students has remained relatively stable, according to the Institute of Physics (IoP), the huge increases in the number of students in other subjects can make it look as though it is shrinking.

Physics is also an expensive subject to teach, as are all laboratory-based subjects. IoP assistant director of education and science Philip Diamond said the funding allocated to teaching physics probably doesn't reflect the costs.

"What happens is that big departments get bigger and the small departments get smaller. At some point they drop below the level of viability."

He added that other subjects are also at risk, including chemistry (another expensive lab-based subject) but also modern languages, particularly Chinese or Arabic.

Reading University's department is unlikely to be the only one in the UK that has "dropped below the level of viability". The trouble is, departments can't advertise their vulnerability for fear of losing talented research staff and scaring off prospective students.

"This is why we don't hear about it until it is too late," says Diamond.

Similarly, it is probably already too late for Reading. Even if the department is given a reprieve, it would be an unusual student who would apply to a department he or she knew to be hanging by a thread.

As Simon Stacey said: "I was hoping to go on to do a PhD at Reading after I graduate this year. Now I'm not sure if I will be able to do that." ®

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