Adam Corner and I have co-authored a piece for the Times Higher this week on so-called ‘Geek Chic’ and what, if anything, this means for universities.
I like to pin computer keys into my ears and handknit necklaces.
We wrote it a while back and didn’t think it’d be especially topical. Then A-level results came out last week, along with some figures showing that, for the first time since 2002, physics is back in the top ten most popular A-level subjects. Further, applications for physics degrees were up 17% on last year; astronomy up 40%. Writing on the BBC website, Pallab Ghosh suggested this was an example of not only geek chic, a “Brian Cox effect” even.
(Yeah yeah, geek chic is all very 2006. Dr Corner, the THE, the BBC and I are all way behind the times. Spare me your hipster-isms. I live in Hoxton: I’ve heard them)
If feeling especially cynical, we might note that the “Brian Cox effect” is a story the BBC would be particularly pleased to promote. Although I do think the apparent rise in the popularity of physics is worth noting, we should be careful of taking these stats at face value, and of ascribing singular explanations. Personally, I like the Institute of Physics’ line of we don’t really know: “To be honest with you we don’t really understand that. We’re delighted, but we can’t quite put our finger on why that is” (Tajinder Panesor, quoted by Ghosh).
In particular, that stat on the rise in astronomy applications left me with a lot of questions: how many students are we talking about here, has someone started a new astronomy course recently, has there been an increase in the astronomy content of the school curriculum in the last few years, are there more astronomy clubs in schools, could Galaxy Zoo be credited in some way…? (many of these seem answerable – any readers of this blog help me out?).
Several people have noted that teachers and parents remain key influences on young people’s career and further/higher education choices, for all that celebs might make for a neat story. Others have also mentioned the possible role of the Stimulating Physics network, and it’s maybe also worth noting work aimed at developing school teachers’ professional skills, science museums and visitor centres, and public engagement activities. Over the last twenty five years (especially the last ten) the UK has invested a lot of resources on promoting science to young people; inside of schools and out of them. Cultural change is slow, and often happens through long threads of small, interpersonal projects you wouldn’t see on TV. Arguably, this is especially true when it comes educational change. We should remember that university applications are many years in the making, relying on GCSE grades and A-level choices. Brian Cox’s BBC show was only broadcast in March last year. It may well have ignited some previously laid kindling though, it’d be interesting to know more. Actually talking to teenagers about their attitudes to science and technology isn’t, I think, done enough.
Moreover, looking at the evidence we do have, I think we should remember that there are still some clear challenges. The Campaign for Science and Engineering warned against complacency over the “good news” for science in A-levels, stressing inequalities in gender and school type. From their analysis, it looks like the gender gap in science and maths is widening, not narrowing. Although more are girls taking physics, maths, and chemistry, those increases are, if we look in detail, outstripped by the number of boys taking them. Physics, for instance, saw nearly two thousand more entries this year, but only a tenth of those were girls.
CaSE also note that although independent schools account for just 13.4% of all A-levels taken, they provide for 29% of further maths, 18.1% of maths, 17.9% of chemistry, 19.1% of physics, and 14.8% of biology A-level students. I think this is really important. In putting together the THE piece, one of the things that stuck out for me was a reference to a ‘Geeks vs Chavs’ parties. We used this reference to reflect upon quite what a middle class movement a sense of geek chic might be, and suggest that it is perhaps “less of a celebration of the underdog and more simply a way of those traditionally in power finding new ways to assert themselves”. There is a politics to be unwoven here, ignoring it does no one any favours.
At an event on higher education policy last night I asked what the we could do to stop science becoming a space only for the middle classes? I didn’t really get an answer. That isn’t a criticism of the debate’s panelists; I don’t think there are simple answers here. Still, it is a question we should keep asking ourselves.