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Natural Sciences Tripos: Report of the Review Committee

In the Easter Term 1996 the General Board appointed a Committee to undertake a review of the Natural Sciences Tripos. A Notice was published in Reporter, 1995-96, p. 733, announcing the review and setting out the membership of the Committee and its terms of reference. This Notice is reproduced below; see Appendix A to the Report, p. 288.

 The Board have now received the Review Committee's Report and have given preliminary consideration to it. They have agreed to refer the Report to Faculty Boards, Councils of the Schools, and other authorities directly concerned, together with the Admissions Forum, the Senior Tutors' Committee, the Committee for the Natural Sciences Tripos, and Cambridge University Students Union. The Board have not yet decided how to proceed in relation to the recommendations put forward by the Committee, but in view of the general importance of a number of the issues raised, not only for institutions concerned with the Tripos but more widely in the University, they have agreed that it would be appropriate to publish the Report for the information of the University and to invite comments on it. The Report is published below.

 Comments on the Report should be sent to Ms J. C. Williams, at the Education Section of the General Board, 4 Parson's Court, by the end of the Lent Term 1998. The General Board will consider the recommendations of the Report in the light of the comments received.


1. Background

 1.1 The Natural Sciences Tripos in the University of Cambridge is unique in its flexibility in offering students the opportunity to gain a breadth of knowledge across a full range of disciplines spanning the biological, chemical, and physical sciences. The last review of the Natural Sciences Tripos took place some thirty years ago. Since then, the Tripos has been steadily evolving to meet the educational needs of Cambridge students.

 1.2 However, in recent years the pressure for a review of the Tripos has grown as a result of a number of factors, including scientific progress and changes of emphasis in pre-university education. Thus the General Board agreed to initiate a review of the Tripos in May 1996.

 1.3 The terms of reference of the review were published in the Reporter (see Appendix A). Faculty Boards and other authorities were invited to submit comments to the Review Committee by the end of October 1996, as were individual members of the Regent House. To ensure student input, the Committee held an open meeting to consult students in the Michaelmas Term 1996. Towards the end of their deliberations, the Committee produced a work-in-progress report to ascertain the reactions of those likely to be affected. The present Report gives a final account of the views of the Committee, some of which have been modified in the light of comments on the work-in-progress report.

2. The Natural Sciences Tripos

 2.1 It is widely agreed in Cambridge that a broad scientific education in at least the first year is desirable. There is a unanimous view against moving to subject-based degrees, e.g. Physics or Materials. For instance, in their submission to the Committee, the Council of the School of the Physical Sciences stated that 'the unified Natural Sciences Tripos is believed to be of immense importance educationally and an asset to Cambridge'. The Faculty Board of Biology is 'opposed to any separation of the Natural Sciences Tripos'.

 2.2 The Committee have considered, but do not favour, the idea of having a Physical Sciences Tripos and a Biological Sciences Tripos. To do so would bring in a hard boundary where there is not a real one, and if the boundary were softened to anything like the extent that would be needed for educational reasons then the change would turn out to be purely verbal.

 2.3 If there is to be any coherence about the Tripos it is clearly necessary for the authorities responsible for teaching the component parts to give up some of the autonomy that they might otherwise enjoy. The Committee would like to see the minimum loss of autonomy on the part of those responsible bodies consistent with the Tripos having an educationally sound structure and not being merely a collection of disconnected courses.

 2.4 The Committee regard it as important to produce, if possible, a framework within which evolution is conveniently possible, rather than a fresh strait-jacket which is in the short term less uncomfortable than the present one.

 2.5 Flexibility for development in the set of subjects in Part IA is required not only because of scientific progress and changes of emphasis, but also because of rapid and not very predictable developments in pre-university education. There is, even within the present education system, an increasing tendency for students to take a single science only - doing A-levels in, for example, Mathematics, Physics, and French. The reputation of Cambridge is such that we could probably attract a sufficient number of good applicants with A-levels in two sciences and Mathematics for a while longer, albeit at the expense of an access bias towards independent schools which would fly in the face of the University's general policy. An alternative is to recognize that students with only one science A-level can make just as good scientists as those with more traditional qualifications. The Committee hope that Colleges will not risk losing good scientists by sticking to their conventional admissions patterns.

 2.6 There are two rather different manifestations of changes in schools. One is that students simply know less, and the other is a greater variation in what they know. The Committee observe that some Departments have overcome the problem by not requiring any A-level knowledge as a prerequisite to their Part IA courses. However, not all Departments would wish, nor would it be regarded as sensible, to start from a zero base. The Committee have therefore considered various ways of bringing prospective students without the relevant A-levels up to a common level of knowledge. A number of alternatives are noted:

 (a) The Committee are informed that some Departments, such as Physics, request Colleges to send self-teaching work books to prospective students with non-traditional qualifications (e.g. the Baccalaureate) to enable them to do some directed reading before they start Part IA.

 (b) The Committee believe that there is scope in the Natural Sciences Tripos to provide for students without the relevant A-levels, as already happens in Classics. For example, this might include Departments providing crash courses of lectures and associated supervisions for two weeks before the first term, and Colleges providing additional supervisions during the first two terms. Initial soundings from sixth-form teachers on this proposal are favourable.

 (c) There is also the possibility of asking less well prepared students, if they wish to take a year out before coming to Cambridge, to acquire the missing qualifications. However, the Committee realize that this is currently a small proportion of prospective students.

 The Committee commend these possible remedies to Colleges, which are the authorities for admitting undergraduate students.

 2.7 The Committee realize that students intending to take Chemistry in later years will very probably have acquired an A-level in that subject. However, considering the enabling nature of the subject, there are almost certainly students who have not taken A-level Chemistry and who do not intend to become Chemists, but who discover too late that Part IA Chemistry is useful for a number of subjects in which they might consider specializing. The Committee hope that, for the good of the whole Tripos, the Department of Chemistry could find some way of making provision for these students, so that they too can benefit from Chemistry taught at university level.

 2.8 It is worth pointing out here that in a subject such as Chemistry, a Part IA lecturer should only assume knowledge of the core part of the subject, which is laid down nationally and currently amounts to about 50 per cent of an A-level syllabus. The smaller the core, the easier the pre-Part IA preparation, and, unfortunately, the lower the starting point for university lecturing.

 2.9 The Committee recognize that there are problems caused by the intensity and the pace of the Tripos, especially in Part IA, and they consider it important not to try to respond to changes in schools and in A-levels by increasing the intensity and the pace still further; these should rather be reduced. The Committee note that several Departments have already attempted to lighten the workload by decreasing the number of practicals in some Part IA courses, e.g. Chemistry, Geology, and Physics. The Committee believe that the workload could be further reduced by slowing the pace of some of the Part IA Mathematics courses (see paragraph 5.4 below).

 2.10 In section 8 below, the Committee propose an administrative structure for overseeing the Tripos, which should respond to changes both from within Cambridge and from outside. The structure would involve:

(a) inter-Departmental groups whose main function is to manage individual Part IA courses (see paragraph 8.1);
(b) a Management Committee whose main function is to administer the Tripos and the examinations (see paragraphs 8.2 and 8.3);
(c) a Strategic Committee whose main function is long-term planning of the Tripos in response to changes inside and outside the University (see paragraphs 8.6 and 8.7).

 For instance, within the proposed structure it will be the job of the Strategic Committee to decide how much of the workload should be reduced and that of the Management Committee, after consultation with the inter-Departmental groups, to decide how to implement that decision.

 2.11 Most of the Committee's deliberations have concentrated on Part IA. It is believed that the later Parts flow naturally from the successful organization of Part IA.

3. What one should have in the first year and why

 3.1 Some subjects are in the first year because they are in some intellectual sense fundamental (a judgement call), in that their concepts and findings underlie much of science and because they make possible more specialized work across a wide spectrum. The Committee include Biology of Cells, Chemistry, and Physics in this category. Mathematics ranks similarly, though it is even more basic and on a par with literacy - it enables thought.

 3.2 Other subjects are in the first year for less clear (though not necessarily less compelling) reasons. These include: providing a shop-window for subjects that are not taught at school, so that students may taste and be fascinated by them; providing some first-year teaching in subject X so that students who know, or believe, that they want to study X do not desert Cambridge wholesale for places where they can do X in the first year; providing some first-year teaching in subject Y so that students who want to study Y will have attained a sufficiently high level by the time they graduate. It would generate more heat than light to try to categorize the remaining Part IA subjects according to the original motivation for including them, which was probably never completely stated anyway. The existence and the importance of this group of subjects make it impossible to define the first year as consisting only of foundational and widely enabling subjects; this is not true, and cannot be.

 3.3 At present, with the exception of Mathematics, no Part IA course is an essential companion to another; this is desirable in the interests of maintaining breadth in both Part IA and Part IB.

4. A modified structure for Part IA

 4.1 The Committee have spent much time considering the structure of Part IA; they propose to retain the present structure of seven experimental slots, of which no one can take more than three at any one time.

 4.2 The Committee have considered the general principle of the introduction of a new subject into Part IA. This could be done by timetabling the new subject against one or other of the existing courses. However, after careful deliberation, the Committee are not in favour of this route, for the following reasons:

 (a) It may seem attractive at first sight to widen the range of courses available at first-year level, but after looking at possible routes through the Tripos, the Committee believe strongly that introducing more subjects would inevitably lead to greater early specialization, which is to be avoided. One of the particular strengths of the present system, which we wish to preserve, is that students are able to make choices about which subjects they pursue after being exposed to them at university level.

 (b) Extra subjects, either on the biological or on the physical side, would unbalance the distribution of subjects in Part IA and would encourage students to opt for purely physical or purely biological combinations. This is educationally undesirable for similar reasons, and again could lead to a restriction of options in later years.

 (c) There may in time be other subject areas which could make claims for introduction into Part IA. However, it is unlikely that a new subject area would evolve so rapidly that it should command a full third of the scientific attention of first-year Natural Scientists, particularly against a background of lower starting points for Part IA courses, as described in paragraphs 2.6 and 2.7.

 4.3 An alternative approach, which the Committee consider preferable, is to introduce some thirty-lecture units, examined separately for half the credit associated with a sixty-lecture course. This allows the introduction of new material into Part IA in units of less than sixty lectures, but retains sixty-lecture courses where this is deemed more appropriate.

 4.4 A proposal for restructuring two biological subjects so as to allow the introduction of new material without a full new subject is attached in Appendix B. A majority of the comments on the work-in-progress report support the principle of thirty-lecture units for the biological subjects, as detailed in Appendix B. However, there were various mutually incompatible representations for the details of this proposal. If the principle of thirty-lecture units is accepted, the Committee believe that the Faculty Board of Biology should consider the following academic matters:

(a) the detailed contents of the four thirty-lecture units;
(b) whether a cross-over point should be allowed in the middle of the year, at which those students taking only two of the four thirty-lecture units would have a choice between two thirty-lecture units for the second part of their course;
(c) the order of the units.

 To ensure a balanced workload, the Committee recommend that students wishing to take only two of the four thirty-lecture units should not take both units in one half of the year and none in the other half, since students doing so would be studying four experimental subjects at a time.

 4.5 The physical science members of the Committee were explicitly requested to consider introducing thirty-lecture units, but they see no need for this approach to their part of the Tripos at present, though circumstances might arise that commend it at some future time.

 4.6 The Committee see the change to two of the biological subjects as a solution to the particular issue of the biological material which, they feel, merits a place in Part IA. They do not wish to see a proliferation of thirty-lecture units with unrestricted choice; this would lead to premature specialization and also general problems in Part IB, since the common background of students wishing to study any particular course could become small (just the problem that we currently face with students entering the University.)

 4.7 Any proposed changes in Part IA will naturally have some impact on Part IB. The Committee are convinced that the proposals for Part IA will not lead to difficulties in Part IB.

5. Mathematics

 5.1 The Committee have devoted considerable attention to the nature and status of the teaching of Mathematics in the Tripos. At present a candidate's class is only affected by the mark in Mathematics if counting it would make an improvement. There is no requirement for students to offer Mathematics at all. The effects are considered by the Committee to be educationally undesirable. Every year some forty people go away with Cambridge science degrees having no mathematical achievement beyond GCSE. Furthermore, nearly one in six of those entered for Mathematics in Part IA of the Natural Sciences Tripos fails. Considering the pervasive nature of mathematical modelling, and the mathematical judgement of significance of observations, this cannot be right.

 5.2 The present regulations give rise to curious anomalies and strange incentives. For example, a student who wishes to specialize in Materials may, in Part IA, take Physics, Materials and Mineral Sciences, Biology of Cells, and Mathematics. If the workload is too heavy, it would appear rational to de-emphasize Biology of Cells in view of the overall goal of specializing in Materials, but under the present rules de-emphasizing Mathematics may seem much more effective in the short term.

 5.3 After some considerable debate, the Committee have agreed to recommend that all Part IA candidates should be required to offer a Mathematics paper and that the Mathematics marks should count towards the classing of candidates. The question what weight those marks should carry is addressed in paragraph 5.5.

 5.4 The Committee are persuaded that, with relatively minor adjustments, the present battery of four courses in Mathematics can, and to a considerable extent already does, provide possibilities suitable for all candidates. In view of the pace and intensity of Part IA, the Committee feel that it is appropriate to reduce the amount of material in the current Mathematics A and Quantitative Biology courses to roughly three-quarters of their current levels; however, the courses should still occupy sixty lectures. This reduction of material will have consequential effects on Part IB (see paragraph 6.3), and perhaps on some other subjects in Part IA. The Mathematics B course, which is primarily designed for students with double Mathematics at A-level, could also be reduced; however, anecdotal evidence indicates that students taking this course seem to be able to cope well at present, and so there seems to be less need to reduce it. Any reduction would have implications, in particular, for the present Mathematics course in Part IB. The Committee have also considered whether the content of Elementary Mathematics for Biologists should be reduced in line with Mathematics A and Quantitative Biology. However, they feel that the final decision on this point should be with the body responsible for the course, the Faculty Board of Biology (see paragraph 5.7).

 5.5 In their work-in-progress report, the Committee originally proposed that Mathematics marks should carry equal weight with other subjects. However, having considered the comments on this proposal, the Committee have modified their recommendation. We now believe that the examination marks from Mathematics A, Mathematics B, and Quantitative Biology should contribute 75 per cent of an experimental subject. Although all the Mathematics courses should represent a similar challenge to their participants, the absolute level of attainment of Elementary Mathematics for Biologists is somewhat lower than that of the other Mathematics courses. We therefore recommend that it should contribute 50 per cent of an experimental subject in Part IA.

 5.6 It is essential that Colleges advise students to take the appropriate Part IA Mathematics course. The Committee believe that administrative difficulties to do with preventing the best prepared candidates from taking an easy course for cheap credit can as easily be overcome as they can be exaggerated. The Committee feel that the changes described in the foregoing paragraphs will encourage students to take their Mathematics seriously, since they will know that their marks will count.

 5.7 The Committee recommend that, given the focused nature of the material in Elementary Mathematics for Biologists, this course should become the responsibility of the Faculty of Biology (along with Quantitative Biology, as at present). The responsibility for Mathematics A and Mathematics B should remain with the Faculty Board of Mathematics, as at present.

 5.8 The Committee have considered the suggestion of the Faculty Board of Biology that Elementary Mathematics for Biologists should have a qualifying examination and should be examined during the year, rather than at the end of the year. The Committee believe that a qualifying examination is not satisfactory, for the following reasons:

 (a) A qualifying examination is effective only if students who do not pass it are unable to proceed with the course. The Committee feel that, in the Cambridge system, College Tutors might argue for exceptions in a manner which would make the system unworkable.

 (b) If the hurdle is perceived to be real, students might spend more time studying for Mathematics than necessary because they would fear the consequence of failure. The Committee believe that a qualifying examination might be unnecessarily stressful for students and in particular that continuous assessment throughout the year would make it even more so.

 (c) A qualifying examination might encourage students to learn no more than is sufficient to pass.

 The Committee recognize that these objections are not compatible with each other, but believe them to be cogent nevertheless.

 5.9 The Committee are aware of the fact that the proposed reduction of course content may have consequential effects on other Triposes (e.g. the Computer Science Tripos and the Chemical Engineering Tripos) which are dependent on the Mathematics courses in Natural Sciences Part IA. However, initial soundings indicate that the effect will be minimal as long as the views of the Departments concerned are taken into account in settling the details of course content. The Committee recommend that the Mathematics inter-Departmental groups (see section 8 on Management Structure) should consult widely during their deliberations.

6. Parts IB, II, II (General), and III

 6.1 The Committee do not believe in dictating to the bodies responsible for teaching how they should organize their courses. However, the Committee might be accused of avoiding issues if they did not put forward some suggestions about the possible impact of their proposals.

 6.2 The Committee agree that courses of sixty lectures should continue to form the basis of a Part IB course of study. However, the arguments in section 4 (and Appendix B) for introducing thirty-lecture units in Part IA may apply to Part IB courses to some extent, on both the biological and the physical sides. Whether to act on them is a matter for the Faculty Boards concerned.

 6.3 The Committee recommend that the present Mathematics course in Part IB should remain substantially unchanged. In addition, the Committee recommend the introduction of compulsory courses in Mathematics/Computing/IT in Part IB. This will have the advantage of reinforcing the mathematical competence gained in Part IA, so that these skills are not forgotten when needed in later Parts of the Tripos; material taught in Part IA has often been forgotten by the time it is needed in Part II. Included in some of these courses will be material removed from the Mathematics courses in Part IA (mentioned in paragraph 5.4). It might be effective to have, say, two hour-long sessions each week; the two hours might be spent partly on lectures, partly on examples/practical computing work. If less time than two hours is spent each week, the courses would become too diffuse; if more time, the courses would seriously reduce the time available for experimental courses. There will be educational and practical advantages if some of the material can be accessed remotely, via computer. It might be appropriate for the courses to be continuously assessed; to encourage students to take the courses seriously, the marks should count towards the Part IB marks (10 per cent of the total marks, say). The Committee recommend that there should be five such Mathematics/Computing/IT courses, one following on from each of the four courses in Part IA, together with one for students taking Mathematics in Part IB. Later in the year it might be appropriate if there were units more directed towards the individual Part IB experimental courses.

 6.4 The Committee recommend that the Faculty of Biology should be responsible for the biological mathematics courses (those following on from Elementary Mathematics for Biologists and Quantitative Biology) and that the Faculty of Mathematics should be responsible for the physical mathematics courses (those following on from Mathematics A and B in Part IA and those designed for students taking Mathematics in Part IB). As in Part IA (see section 8 on Management Structure), there should be inter-Departmental groups for these courses to ensure input from all interested Departments.

 6.5 The Committee do not believe in change for the sake of change. On the whole, it is believed that Part II works well and requires little modification. Part III is sufficiently new not to require the Review Committee to consider it.

 6.6 The Committee note that while many years ago Part II (General) was a widely used option, only fourteen students took it in 1997. However, the current system makes very little demand on staff time and is also a very efficient way of providing student choice.

 6.7 Although it may appear administratively tidy, the Committee do not recommend a wholesale move to a four-year Tripos. The Committee have considered the impact of four-year courses. If admissions to the Natural Sciences Tripos as a whole have to be reduced to avoid four-year courses leading to excessive growth in student numbers, it is important that the cut-back should not happen in three-year courses. However, since the strength of the Tripos is its ability to provide students with the chance to sample university science before having to decide in which subject to specialize, any attempt to set student 'targets' could only be done rather imprecisely. Certainly, until the time when the number of students staying on for a fourth year becomes clear, it is difficult to make any detailed proposal on admissions. The Committee have been informed that arrangements are in place for the Admissions Forum to monitor admission numbers and to alert the General Board to further developments. The Strategic Committee proposed in section 8 will have a role to play in monitoring developments in this area.

7. Other skills

 7.1 The Committee hope that the changes discussed in paragraph 6.3 will considerably improve the provision of computing and IT skills.

 7.2 The enormous strength of the Natural Sciences Tripos is its ability to provide a broad scientific education. This renders it difficult to include any specific teaching of presentation and writing skills within the already stretched work schedule. It appears that Part II projects can and often do involve these skills, and the Committee therefore recommend that individual Departments should make sure that these aspects receive explicit attention.

 7.3 The Committee have also considered the perception, in some parts of the University, that a lack of opportunity to combine science with a language might deter good candidates from applying to Cambridge. While the Committee are sympathetic to the principle of learning another language, they believe that half-hearted attempts to include a language in the Tripos would not be looked on favourably either by students or by employers. The Committee are of the opinion that it should be left to Departments and Faculty Boards to act as they see fit. The Committee have noted that language options have been introduced into the third- and fourth-year courses in Chemistry and in Materials Science and Metallurgy, making use of facilities elsewhere in the University.

 7.4 However, the Committee recognize that, while the possibility of introducing extra options exists in four-year courses (as some Departments are already undertaking), the amount of material already included in the Tripos would make it extremely difficult to do so for three-year courses.

8. Management structure

 8.1 It is already the case that a number of Part IA courses are taught inter-Departmentally and in consequence are managed by inter-Departmental groups. The Committee recognize that ultimate responsibility for teaching and for the syllabus lies with Departments and Faculty Boards. However, the Committee would like to see the principle and practice of inter-Departmental groups extended, so as to have an inter-Departmental group associated with each of the Part IA experimental courses and units even if the teaching is done by a single Department. There should also be two inter-Departmental groups for Mathematics, one overseeing the biological mathematics courses (Quantitative Biology and Elementary Mathematics for Biologists, and their successor courses in Part IB) and one overseeing the physical mathematics courses (Mathematics A and B, and their successor courses in Part IB). The purpose of the inter-Departmental groups is twofold:
(a) to provide input from subjects which depend on a particular course either contemporaneously or subsequently both within the Tripos and outside it;
(b) to provide a mechanism for introducing changes in the detailed content of existing courses.

 8.2 The Committee see a significant extra role for the chairmen of the inter-Departmental groups mentioned above, viz. to form a Management Committee for the Tripos, which will replace the existing Committee for the Natural Sciences Tripos. The new committee should consist of:

(a) the five chairmen of the inter-Departmental groups overseeing the five sixty-lecture experimental courses,
(b) two persons elected from among the four chairmen of the inter-Departmental groups overseeing the four thirty-lecture units,
(c) the two chairmen of the Mathematics inter-Departmental groups,
(d) one representative from the Senior Tutors' Committee and one from the Admissions Forum.

 The Committee think that it is important to obtain a broad representation on the Management Committee, but they do not believe that every Department involved in the teaching of the Tripos should have a representative on it. Doing so would make too large a committee to be effective.

 8.3 The Management Committee should be responsible for co-ordinating the detailed administration of the Tripos. The duties of the Management Committee should include:

(a) providing detailed administration of the whole Natural Sciences Tripos;
(b) ensuring the smooth running of the examinations;
(c) disseminating information on the Tripos (for example, some Directors of Studies have in the past produced a 'flow chart' showing the dependence of Part IB subjects on Part IA, and of Part II on Part IB; the Committee consider that this should be provided by the Management Committee, using the most up-to-date information);
(d) publicizing the Tripos in schools (for example, the production of a Web page and/or a glossy brochure is long overdue);
(e) producing a brief annual report to the Faculty Boards, the Strategic Committee (see paragraph 8.7), and the General Board, describing how the Managing Committee has performed its duties, highlighting any matters that the relevant bodies might consider.

 We envisage that from time to time the Strategic Committee and the Faculty Boards will certainly refer matters for consideration to the Management Committee.

 8.4 On the small, but significant, expense required by the Management Committee to undertake its duties, the Committee recommend that Departments should contribute to the expenses by paying a subscription based, say, on their undergraduate FTE numbers.

 8.5 The Committee have considered where, and what form of, student representation would be most appropriate within the proposed administrative structure. It is worth remarking that Faculty Boards will play a bigger role in the Tripos than previously, and students are represented on Faculty Boards. However, given the wide remit of the Management Committee it would probably benefit from student input. An alternative might be to have student representation on the Strategic Committee (see paragraph 8.7), but that committee might not meet more than once or twice a year, which would make it difficult for students to make effective contributions. The Committee recommend that two student members (one from the biological subjects and one from the physical subjects) should be elected to serve on the Management Committee from among the student members of the relevant Faculty Boards.

 8.6 The Committee believe also that there needs to be a different body with the duty of maintaining strategic oversight of the Tripos and advising the General Board (via its Education Committee) as necessary. The Committee have considered a suggestion that the Strategic Committee should consist of Heads of Departments (or their representatives) involved in the Natural Sciences Tripos, with one of the Pro-Vice-Chancellors as Chairman. However, this would generate a committee of nineteen members, which is considered too large for effective decision-making. It is therefore recommended that the Strategic Committee should consist of four appointees from each of the Councils of the Schools of the Biological Sciences and the Physical Sciences and one from the Council of the School of Technology, with one of the Pro-Vice-Chancellors as Chairman.

 8.7 As the name suggests, the Strategic Committee should consider matters of overall strategy rather than matters which belong to representatives on Faculty Boards or inter-Departmental groups. Such matters would include:

(a) the balance of subjects offered by the Tripos in the light of significant developments in the scientific world;
(b) the balance of students to be admitted in response to the ever-changing background and supply of prospective students;
(c) consideration of the structure and philosophy of the Tripos from time to time;
(d) periodic 'reviews' of the Tripos (say once every five years), including such matters as the overall student workload, the allocation of undergraduate FTE credit to Departments, and other external changes which may make structural development of the Tripos desirable;
(e) any other matters raised by the Management Committee (either directly or via its annual reports), by the Faculty Boards, or by the General Board.

 8.8 For ease of communication between the two proposed committees, it would seem sensible for the Secretary of the Management Committee to serve also as Secretary of the Strategic Committee.

9. Funding of the Tripos

 9.1 Three of the recommendations made above have resource implications:
(a) the additional preparation, before and during Part IA, for students without the relevant A-levels;
(b) the provision of additional Mathematics/Computing/IT courses in Part IB;
(c) the increased duties of the Secretary of the Management Committee and the Strategic Committee.

 9.2 The main data available on funding of Departments is the disaggregation analysis, which relates the income received by the University on account of the existence and activities of the various Departments to the expenditure incurred in and on behalf of those units. There is not universal agreement over the analysis, and we believe it is probably most useful at School level. Within the terms of the disaggregation analysis it appears that Departments whose teaching lies mainly in the Natural Sciences Tripos are mostly not paying their way. Before jumping to conclusions from that, it must be recognized that the analysis refers to the complete activities of Departments, including research, and is not only concerned with teaching.

 9.3 There is no doubt that teaching capacity would be better utilized and Departmental books would look healthier if there were substantially more students taking any of a number of subjects in the second and later years. However the University's capacity is limited overall, as is the number of students that the Funding Council allows it to accept. Increases in some subjects of the Natural Sciences Tripos could only be made at the expense of reductions elsewhere in Cambridge. Furthermore, even if it were thought right to strengthen Natural Science numbers at the expense of the (very profitable) Departments of the School of Technology, say, and even if the unusual Cambridge admission arrangements were to give effect to such a decision, there would be nothing to ensure that the students took the 'right' subjects of the Natural Sciences Tripos after their first year. Any mechanism which did ensure an adequate supply of, for example, Earth Scientists would contradict our belief in the general shape of the Tripos, which implicitly depends on free choice between subjects.

 9.4 The University has never followed the practice of rigidly tying Departmental budgets to the identifiable income that they generate, and the Committee believe that extremely undesirable inflexibility would result if it did. What principles should guide the University in this matter are beyond the remit of the present Committee.

 Finally, it is worth stressing once again that the Committee are anxious to create a framework that can respond to both national and local changes in education and, in particular, an administrative structure that does not unnecessarily restrict the bodies responsible for teaching.

 If the general framework set out by the Committee is accepted by the University, then a differently constituted group will be needed to draft detailed changes to Ordinances.


26 November 1997


Natural Sciences Tripos: Review Committee1

The General Board give notice that, after consultation with the Committee for the Natural Sciences Tripos and other bodies concerned, they have appointed a Committee to carry out a review of the Natural Sciences Tripos and to report to the Board. The membership of the Committee is as follows:
The Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Chairman)
Dr J. M. Baker, T* Professor E. A. C. MacRobbie, G
Dr R. J. Barnes, EM Professor D. H. Mellor, DAR
Dr J. A. Leake, JN Dr J. M. Riley, G
Dr N. Linden, JE Professor J. K. M. Sanders, SE
Dr D. W. B. MacDonald, W Professor J. O. Thomas, NH
Professor O. J. Braddick, University College London
Mr J. Rankin, ICI Engineering Technology, Runcorn
Secretary: Dr S. T. Lam, T.

The Natural Sciences Tripos system, which is unique in U.K. universities, has provided wide opportunities for students to gain a breadth of knowledge and understanding across a full range of disciplines spanning the biological and physical sciences and it has served students and the University well. The last major review of the Natural Sciences Tripos took place in the early 1960s and the structure which was established following that review has been in place for over thirty years, although in that period the subject material in individual subjects has been reviewed frequently and the subjects have changed substantially in content and presentation.

 In recent years the pressure for a review of the Tripos has grown as a result of a number of factors, including (i) the progress of the sciences over the years both by way of the expansion of knowledge and the development of new areas, (ii) changes in pre-university education in science subjects, and (iii) difficulties in creating space for new subject material which does not fall within the broad areas covered by the existing subjects, especially in the first year of the Tripos.

 The General Board have agreed that the Review Committee should operate with a wide remit and that, while the Committee should give primacy to educational criteria and issues, they should feel free to enquire into, and to make recommendations on, all aspects of the Tripos across all years of study and examination, although it is not envisaged that the Committee will wish to make recommendations on details of course content.

 In the course of their deliberations, the Review Committee will be expected to give particular attention to the following matters:

(i) the overall structure of the Tripos, with a view to proposing a framework within which the teaching of science subjects at the undergraduate level can evolve into the future;
(ii) the shape of the course covering the first two years, including the disciplines required to constitute a broad foundation, the number and balance of subjects to be offered, the combinations and numbers of subjects that students are required to take, the extent of choice and constraints, the acceptability of timetabling courses simultaneously, the nature of assessment and the structure of the examinations;
(iii) the effect of changes in the school curriculum, the interface with pre-university courses, study skills and knowledge on entry, the pool of applicants for the Natural Sciences Tripos, the effect which the choice of subjects available in the first two years has on that pool, and the question of how students with mixed science/arts A Levels can be accommodated within the Tripos;
(iv) admissions policies in relation to the merits of students with different combinations of subjects;
(v) the impact of four-year courses on undergraduate numbers and the effect of these courses on admissions;
(vi) the need for students to be properly informed about the nature and scope of those scientific disciplines not commonly taught at pre-university level but which are represented in the Natural Sciences Tripos;
(vii) the position of Mathematics in the study of subjects within the Tripos, and in particular the teaching of Mathematics in the first year with respect to the need to ensure that students are equipped with techniques that are relevant to the subjects they intend to study in subsequent years;
(viii) the way in which the educational aims of the Tripos can be combined with the constraints imposed on certain subjects by the need to achieve recognition of courses as accreditation for professional qualifications;
(ix) the objectives and methods of teaching for the Natural Sciences Tripos in relation to the scientific and other skills expected of graduates;
(x) cross-disciplinary links and the desirability of strengthening and extending interdepartmental teaching;
(xi) the question of whether non-scientific topics, such as a language or other transferable skills, should be incorporated into the Tripos;
(xii) the workload of students in terms of timetabled contact hours, supervision and study periods, and the content and intensity of courses;
(xiii) the relationship between the Natural Sciences Tripos and other Triposes with which it shares courses and to/from which students transfer frequently;
(xiv) a mechanism for the allocation of FTEs to Departments on a stable and equitable basis, which has due regard to the teaching load taken on by those Departments.

 The Review Committee will also consider, and make recommendations on, the future arrangements for the management, review, and development of the Tripos, including the constitution, duties, and role of the Committee for the Natural Sciences Tripos, in order to provide a structure which will allow further revision of the Tripos when it is called for.

 The General Board expect that the Review Committee will shortly invite Faculty Boards and other authorities concerned with the Tripos to submit observations. The Board now invite members of the University who wish to do so to submit written comments for consideration by the Committee. These should be sent to the Secretary General of the Faculties at The Old Schools by 31 October 1996 at the latest. Evidence submitted earlier would facilitate the work of the Review Committee.

1 This Notice was published in Reporter, 1995-96, p. 733.

* Dr Baker's place was taken by Dr J. A. Jackson, Q, with effect from December 1996.


Biology teaching in Part IA and Part IB of the Natural Sciences Tripos*

1. Part IA

 The strength of the Natural Sciences Tripos is its flexibility and breadth. Students who opt to come here do so largely for this reason. This should not be used as an argument against change, but any change which is introduced should retain these advantages. It is in the light of this that we examined the question of the introduction of a fourth biological subject as proposed by the Faculty Board of Biology.

1.1 Four slots or three?

 We looked at the arguments for the introduction of a fourth biological science course, Brain and Behaviour.

 (a) Feasibility. It is possible to run a fourth biological science course if it is timetabled against the Materials and Mineral Sciences option from the physical sciences.

 (b) Accreditation. The question of accreditation has been raised, but we have now been assured that this is not an issue, and in any case the proposal for a thirty-lecture unit in Behavioural Science (see section 1.2) would increase the amount of material that could be offered as supporting professional accreditation in Psychology.

 (c) The need to compete with other universities where only Psychology or more Psychology is taught throughout the three years. The argument here could be used for any single subject in the Tripos. The uniqueness of the Natural Sciences Tripos is its flexibility, and this is what students come here for, as was made clear at the student feedback meeting held in the Michaelmas Term 1996. The price of this flexibility is that any single subject in the Tripos offers less first-year teaching than students would receive in a single-honours course elsewhere. All subjects need to pay this price if the benefits of a broad and flexible scientific preparation for their students are to be retained.

 (d) Educational desirability. We do not believe that it is desirable to introduce a full sixty-lecture subject Brain and Behaviour in addition to the other biological subjects, for the following reasons:

(i) The balance between the physical and the biological sciences would be disturbed.
(ii) It would encourage early specialization, something which both the Committee and student feedback are clearly against.
(iii) There would be serious consequences for existing Part IB courses in which further specialization does develop; in particular, Ecology and Animal Biology would be significantly affected.

Although we are not in favour of introducing an extra slot, we recognize the need to introduce students to brain mechanisms and behavioural science in their first year (see section 1.2). There may be other subjects that will need to be introduced in the future as their relative importance grows.

 For these reasons we believe that reorganization, with the introduction of a limited number of thirty-lecture units in the biological sciences, offers a solution that meets the present perceived need for the introduction of new material, and in addition provides a flexible framework for the future. We recommend the scheme outlined below in section 1.2.

1.2 What should go into the slots?

 It is important to devise a mechanism that will allow three things:
(i) a broad scientific base in the first year, leading to gradual specialization;
(ii) the introduction of new subjects while maintaining the broad base;
(iii) inter-Departmental teaching and co-operation.

 As stated above, in the interests of flexibility and the introduction of new material we recommend that the 'quantum' should be thirty lectures, except that Biology of Cells should remain at sixty lectures. We considered the suggestion that Biology of Cells should be split into two smaller units, but rejected it on two grounds: first, the course works well as an integrated whole, providing a basic grounding in cellular and molecular cell biology, and we could see no educational justification for splitting it. Second, the course is taken by nearly 50 per cent of first year Natural Sciences students, and by any criterion is fundamental for a large number of Part IB and Part II courses in biological sciences.

 We propose that four new thirty-lecture courses should be introduced, to be run on inter-Departmental lines, and that the sixty-lecture course on Biology of Cells should be continued. From October 1997, the Physiology courses in Part IA of the Natural Sciences Tripos and in Part IA of the Medical and Veterinary Sciences Tripos will be taught separately.

 The lectures would be grouped as follows:

(a) Biology of Cells sixty lectures organized by Biochemistry, Genetics, Plant Sciences, Zoology, Physiology
(b) Evolution and Bio-diversity thirty lectures organized by Plant Sciences, Zoology, Genetics
(c) Behavioural Science thirty lectures organized by Psychology, Physiology, Zoology
(d) Physiology thirty lectures organized by Physiology, Zoology
(e) Plants and Microbes thirty lectures organized by Plant Sciences, Biochemistry, Pathology

 Timetabling of the thirty-lecture units restricts flexibility for students taking only one biological subject (apart from Biology of Cells), i.e. doing only two of the four thirty-lecture units proposed. It is proposed that the two timetable slots at present occupied by Physiology and Biology of Organisms should be used. Of various possible combinations the best arrangement seems to be:

Slot A: Physiology, followed by Behavioural Science;

Slot B: Plants and Microbes, followed by Evolution and Bio-diversity.

 A student taking only two of these options may choose either Physiology or Plants and Microbes, followed by either Behavioural Science or Evolution and Bio-diversity. It will allow more flexibility than current arrangements, since a switch between slots is possible half-way through the year, and for students taking two biological subjects (apart from Biology of Cells) all four options are available.

 We have considered various mutually incompatible representations for alternatives to this suggestion, but nevertheless feel that the proposed arrangement is the most educationally desirable.

 If the principle of some thirty-lecture units is accepted, the Faculty Board of Biology would need to determine:

(a) the detailed contents of the four thirty-lecture units;
(b) whether a cross-over point should be allowed in the middle of the year, at which those students taking only two of the four thirty-lecture units would have a choice between two thirty-lecture units for the second part of the course;
(c) the order of the units.

* A note prepared by the Cambridge biological members of the Review Committee.

1.3 Examinations

 We suggest that each thirty-lecture unit should be examined separately. A convenient form of examination might be a single three-hour examination with half devoted to the theory paper and half devoted to a dry (e.g. data-handling) practical. Another possibility would be to have a three-hour examination with two hours for the theory component and one hour for the practical component, thereby reflecting the balance of the marks for theory and practical. Alternatively, 'wet' practical skills could be examined, if so desired, by some form of continuous assessment.

 In the case of the sixty-lecture course, a single three-hour paper and an appropriate practical examination would be arranged as at present. None of these suggestions would add to the number of examinations or the complexity of the examination timetable.

II. Suggestions for Part IB teaching

 We agreed that three 'sixty-lectures-worth' courses should continue to form the basis of a Part IB course of study. However, the arguments for introducing thirty-lecture units in Part IA may apply to Part IB courses to some extent. It may therefore be that there will be some reduction of the quanta to thirty lectures for courses in Part IB (although perhaps not for all courses). The educational arguments about introducing flexibility are much the same for Part IB as for Part IA, and we therefore suggest that Part IB teaching should have available a mix of sixty-lecture and thirty-lecture units, together with a greater degree of inter-Departmental co-operation in teaching. This inter-Departmental co-operation in teaching need not be restricted to the biological disciplines in the Natural Sciences Tripos; for example, we note that the Department of Biochemistry sees distinct educational advantages in explicit provision for joint teaching across the Biochemistry/Chemistry interface, as suggested by the Biological Sciences Review Committee.

 We also took account of some further suggestions made by a working party set up by the Faculty Board of Biology. As an example of the way in which this might work, there could be four thirty-lecture units covering the following topics, to subsume the two sixty-lecture courses Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Molecular Cell Biology.

 Cell biology/Development

 Gene expression/Genome organization

 Structural biology/Molecular biophysics

 Bioenergetics and metabolism.

 The introduction of these units, some of which could be taught inter-Departmentally, could do much to eliminate the perception that exists of significant overlap in one or two areas between the present sixty-lecture courses.

 There are other biological science courses which might be considered for splitting into thirty-lecture units, but we felt that it was outside the remit of this Committee to go into the details of these, and also that it was premature at this stage of the discussion. Certain thirty-lecture units provided by individual Departments might for example be combined with one or more of the thirty-lecture inter-Departmental units, while other Departments may wish to retain the full sixty-lecture course structure. There is still a need in Part IB to strike a balance between courses which are an explicit preparation for Part II and courses which will leave students with some choice and flexibility. We believe that the introduction of a limited number of thirty-lecture units could achieve this balance. At this point there is a need for a much more detailed discussion at Departmental and Faculty Board level of what combinations of such thirty-lecture units would be desirable or allowable.

Part II (and beyond)

 When these changes in Part IA and Part IB of the Tripos have been finalized, we feel that it may be necessary for the Faculty Board of Biology and the constituent Departments of the Faculty to give serious consideration to the introduction of fourth-year courses (organized on either a Faculty or a Departmental basis) for at least a subset of biology students. Indeed, the fourth year of the new Biochemistry course is scheduled to start in October 1999.
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Cambridge University Reporter, 14th January 1998
Copyright © 1998 The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge.