Yesterday was the third of this year’s open days for prospective students. I was on campus for about five hours, fielding questions from prospective students and their parents. It was fun, and it is a real pleasure to help people. Particularly if the parents did not go to university themselves the whole business of applying to university can be a bit intimidating and confusing. So, on Open Days staff and students are there to help.
Some of the confusion comes from the sheer numbers of degrees on offer. A search on the UCAS site for physics at the University of Surrey yields 14 degrees. I can easily see that this looks scary. It is also a bit needless, in terms of what students study for the first year and a half of their degree, we only have two options: physics, and maths and physics. It is only after the first year and a half that our courses divide. For example, students doing Physics and Astronomy then do specialist astronomy modules, while BSc physicists do a Professional Training Year and those on the MPhys do their Research Year.
Our Physics-with courses are there to allow students to spend part of their time studying a particular area of physics. It is a way of allowing universities to differentiate themselves, and I think it is useful for students. One of the prospective students was interested in astronomy, we have a astronomy research group and so a bunch of final year modules on astronomy, that she might find particularly interesting. Her sister is doing Physics with Particle Physics at Queen Mary. Queen Mary have a big particle physics research group, and we don’t, so a student wanting to do lots of particle physics would be better advised to go to Queen Mary, while one interested in astronomy could come here. Physics-with courses are the way universities tell prospective students with interests in particular areas of physics that they are catered for. So they serve a useful purpose, for both students and universities.
But it would probably help if they were presented as what they truly are, variants on a theme, not as independent courses. Putting them into groups with common first years where you switch from one to the other in the first year would make it clearer that the differences between these courses is very different than that between say a physics degree and a chemistry degree. Switching between say BSc Physics and BSc Physics with Astronomy after a year is a small admin matter, switching from BSc Physics to BSc Chemistry would require starting again from the first year in Chemistry.