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General election 2024: what the manifestos mean for physics

19 June 2024

Last week saw the publication of manifestos by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and Labour. The IOP’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Elizabeth Chamberlain, summarises the key commitments relevant to physics and to the IOP’s asks for an incoming government.


Research and development (R&D) investment

The IOP is calling on the next government to radically increase R&D investment to match or exceed the top OECD countries, to boost economic growth, productivity, and job creation across all parts of the UK.

What the manifestos say

  • The Liberal Democrats commit to investing at least 3% of GDP in R&D by 2030, rising to 3.5% by 2034.
  • The Conservatives reconfirm the existing commitment to increase public spending on R&D to £22bn a year over the next parliament and promise further R&D investment into defence.
  • Labour say they will scrap short funding cycles for key R&D institutions in favour of 10-year budgets.

What this means for physics

According to the latest Office for National Statistics figures, the UK invested £66bn in R&D in 2021, made up by £46.9bn from business, £14.9bn from higher education, and £3.4bn from government. The government has said this equates to around 2.9% to 3% of GDP, but this is still less than other global leaders in science and technology. For example, in 2021, South Korea spent 4.9% of GDP on R&D, the US 3.5% and Belgium 3.4%.

The current government originally promised to raise public R&D investment to £22bn by 2024-25 but in the 2021 Autumn Budget and Spending Review the target was pushed back to 2027-28. The Conservative manifesto pledge could be seen as another slowdown, since technically the next parliament will last until 2029. The Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to hit 3% by 2030 is at a similar level and a similar timescale. So both pledges could be a real-terms decrease.

Workmen and huge panels representing a research and development setting

Although Labour do not set a specific spending target, many will welcome the security of 10-year budgets for research and innovation to create greater certainty in the system and encourage private investment. A key finding of our Physics R&D Blueprint was the need for a clear, comprehensive and long-term vision for R&D and a stable policy environment, accompanied by long-term and sustainable funding. However, stability should not come at the cost of a flat cash settlement that doesn’t take into account the need for inflationary rises.

Education and teachers

The IOP is calling on the next government to tackle the barriers in the education system that currently prevent too many young people from enjoying the opportunities that arise from pursuing physics. This includes making whole-school equity plans mandatory in all nurseries and schools, and tackling the desperate shortage of physics teachers so every school can provide high-quality specialist physics teaching.

What the manifestos say

  • The Liberal Democrats commit to creating a teacher workforce strategy and establishing a commission to broaden the curriculum and make qualifications at 16 and 18 fit for the 21st century.
  • The Conservatives promise new teachers in priority areas and key STEM and technical subjects bonuses of up to £30,000 tax-free over five years, and confirm their plans to introduce a new Advanced British Standard.
  • Labour promise to recruit an additional 6,500 new expert teachers in key subjects. They commit to modernising the school curriculum and launch an expert-led review of curriculum and assessment. They also single out the arts and music as subjects where they will take action so these subjects are no longer “the preserve of a privileged few”.

What this means for physics

The IOP estimates that there is a 3,500 physics teacher shortfall, with schools in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas less likely to have specialist physics teachers. So the manifestos’ commitments to teacher recruitment are encouraging. However, the next government must set out not just how it will recruit new teachers but also how it will retain existing teachers, as well as retrain non-specialist teachers to be able to teach subjects such as physics with confidence.

There is already a £3,000 annual levelling-up premium for teachers in disadvantaged schools over the first five years, and it’s unclear how the £30,000 bonus promised by the Conservatives relates to this. It’s also worth noting that while financial incentives have a role to play in addressing recruitment and retention challenges, they will not solve the problem in their own right, especially given wider issues such as workload pressures.

A young female student working at a laptop with other students in the background

Our response to the consultation on the Advanced British Standard made the case for fundamental reform of the entire education system. This should include reviewing the purpose of education, major reform of the national curriculum, long-term mechanisms and structures to bring expertise and stability to curriculum, and a fundamental rethink of the purposes and methods of assessment at 16 and 18.

There is little in the manifestos on how underrepresentation in subjects such as physics will be addressed, and this must be part of any new government’s education strategy.

“The next government must set out not just how it will recruit new physics teachers but also how it will retain existing teachers.”

There is a significant and well-known problem with girls being underrepresented in physics, and the underrepresentation does not stop with girls. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, disabled people, LGBT+ people, and those from minority ethnic groups, particularly those from Black Caribbean heritage, are all underrepresented in physics.

Technical skills and apprenticeships

The IOP is calling on the next government to equip more people with technical skills, by addressing the problems that currently affect apprenticeship training providers and employers in the UK.

What the manifestos say

  • The Liberal Democrats promise to create new Lifelong Skills Grants, giving all adults £5,000 to spend on education and training throughout their lives.
  • The Conservatives commit to funding 100,000 high-quality apprenticeships for young people, paid for “by curbing the number of poor-quality university degrees that leave young people worse off”. They also confirm their commitment to deliver the Lifelong Learning Entitlement.
  • Labour’s manifesto commits to a comprehensive strategy for post-16 education that will guarantee training, an apprenticeship, or help to find work for all 18- to 21-year-olds. They promise to establish Skills England, a new body that will bring together business, training providers and unions with national and local government. They also commit to reforming the Apprenticeship Levy.

What this means for physics

Technical skills are at the forefront of the new economy, and apprentices in physics-based businesses have a crucial role to play in tackling the UK skills gap. It is therefore positive to see that all three parties recognise the importance of technical skills.

Our Solving Skills report identifies a range of challenges and opportunities for physics-related apprenticeships, and sets out a number of actions that could help revitalise such apprenticeships and the ecosystem that underpins them. These include:

  • making sure employers and training providers are involved in shaping the content of apprenticeships and supported in their delivery;
  • adopting a place-based approach that takes into account local needs; and
  • tackling stereotypes and misperceptions about who can do physics and busting the myth that apprenticeships lead to ‘lower status’ jobs.

“Apprentices in physics-based businesses have a crucial role to play in tackling the UK skills gap.”

A teacher and female apprentice demonstrating a physics-based model in the classroom

In conclusion

Although most of the main headlines have focused on taxes, the NHS, immigration and policing (not to mention Ed Davey’s campaigning activities), it is encouraging to see that there is also cross-party recognition that action needs to be taken on key issues for physics.

Our aim now is to make sure we work with the next government, whatever that may be, to find solutions to these challenges and build a 2030 Britain Powered by Physics.