Chemistry Course Review



Introduction of a Three Year Degree


This paper makes the case for the introduction of a three-year classified Honours Degree program to run alongside the current MChem degree Course. The four-year MChem Course, with its distinctive Part II project, has worked well for over 50 years. Until 20 years ago Oxford had a niche position, most other universities only offering three-year courses. But this is no longer the case; most other universities now offer a four-year MChem with a significant research component, in addition to the three-year Batchelor’s degree. Furthermore, there are significant external and internal factors that make it important to reconsider our position now. These include the implications of the Bologna Process, the potential impact of the new regime of university fees, the general decline in applications to Chemistry courses in the UK and Europe,  and the lack of financial support for Part II research in the current Departmental financial situation.

It is important to recognise that the current University policy on student numbers is likely to impose severe constraints on any attempt to increase the number of students studying Chemistry at Oxford. Therefore the introduction of a three-year course would have to be accompanied by a decrease in the number of students on the four-year course. However, these constraints would be applied to the total number of students studying chemistry, so if 20 students a year were admitted to the three-year course we would, from a University perspective, only have to reduce our numbers on the four-year course by 15 a year.

Under present University Statutes a three-year course would have to be described as a BA (Hons) degree. Two alternative formulations are presented below, which differ principally in whether maximum numbers are applied to the MChem program (Scheme A), or to the BA program (Scheme B).

Scheme A


All students would register for the four-year MChem at the start of the Course, but on the strict understanding that the Department would have the right to transfer them to the three-year BA course at any time up to the end of the Third Year. At the time of admission there would be no distinction between candidates for the two courses.

Students would not express their intention to stay on for the Fourth Year until the beginning of Michaelmas Term of the Third Year.

Minimum standards for admission to the Fourth year would be specified; students obtaining third class marks in Part I overall would not be allowed to stay on, irrespective of their preference, and would be transferred to the three-year BA course.

A maximum number of students permitted to remain on the MChem Course would be specified (e.g.,120) and the students would need to make a formal application to do a Part II. If demand exceeded the number of places, a small panel in the Department, chaired by the Director of Studies, would make decisions on the basis of prelims and Part 1A results and tutors’ recommendation. Those not selected would transfer to the BA course.

Students staying on for the Fourth Year would not receive a formal classification after Part I (as at present). Students leaving after three years would be classified on the basis of Part 1A and 1B results.

The content of the BA Course would be identical to the first three years of the MChem Course.

Scheme B


The maximum number of students per year admitted to the BA degree would be set to a relatively small number, e.g. 25.

At the point of application, potential students would specify their preference about whether they wanted to take the three-year or four-year course. For both courses applications would be judged on merit. The University as a whole would aim to admit 15-20 students onto the three-year course, leaving between five to ten places to be filled later in the course.

The three-year and four-year courses would be identical up to the end of Michaelmas Term of the Third Year. In Hilary Term, the 3-year course students would do a research project, while the four-year course students would take the Third Year option courses.

At the end of the Third Year, MChem students would take the general papers and option papers, while BA students would take the same general papers and submit a dissertation.

Students registered for the BA could transfer to the MChem at any time before the beginning of Hilary Term of the Third Year with the permission of their colleges.

Students registering for the MChem could transfer to the BA at any time before the beginning of Hilary Term of the Third Year, provided that there were spaces remaining on the BA course, and with the permission of their colleges (places to be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis).

The MChem degree would not be classified until the end of the Fourth Year, as at present. Students registered for the MChem but leaving after three years would receive an unclassified honours degree.

The restriction on numbers for the BA course could be justified in terms of the greater proportional level of training in providing one-term research projects.

Points in favour of either scheme


(a) The Bologna Process (see Appendix 1), to which the United Kingdom government has already signed up, is designed to bring convergence of European course structures by 2010 and to encourage student mobility.

In the future, the pattern in continental Europe will be for students to obtain a Batchelor’s level qualification (normally after three years), a Master’s level, after another two years, and then spend three years on a PhD. Our four-year ‘Masters’ qualification is likely to be regarded as an extended first cycle degree, rather than as a true second cycle qualification. In recent years

UK science courses have been moving more towards a four + four system rather than a three + two + three framework. Generally, UK universities, (including Oxford) seem to be taking a defensive attitude towards the Bologna Process: i.e. how can the Process be tailored to our existing system while universities in continental Europe are moving very rapidly towards convergence on the three + two + three system? It would be advantageous, in terms of being attractive to high quality European students, if we were able to offer courses that were compatible with the direction that most of Europe is taking; thus offering the option of a three-year degree could be attractive both to UK students and to those from continental Europe. (See further discussion below.) Reducing the number of Part II students would also free up space and time for the development of a Masters level course compatible with the European second cycle qualifications.

(b) Only about 50 percent of our students initially move into ‘chemistry related careers’ or further training/education in chemistry.

A significant proportion of students (see First Year survey and questionnaire) appear to have no intention of following a chemistry career from the beginning of the Course. While many of these students engage enthusiastically with the Part II, and benefit from it in a variety of ways, there is undoubtedly a subset with a minimal level of commitment to this part of the Course.

(c) The cost of consumables to fund Part II students is perceived as a problem by many members of the Sub-Faculty, particularly groups with a heavy synthetic research program.

These costs are subsidised from research grants, and many supervisors have questioned whether this is either an appropriate or a sustainable use of funds. Reducing the number of Part II students could allow better use of these financial resources.

(d) There will be a significant increase in student debt for those admitted from 2006 onwards, and thus it seems likely that students will question whether taking a four-year course is a worthwhile personal investment; they would undoubtedly welcome the option of being able to leave after three years, especially if their perception is that there is little to gain from the perspective of their future career.

Some students may be put off from applying if they do not have the option of a three-year exit, and it would be inadvisable for us to stand out from other universities as inflexible in this regard. Nearly all other Universities offer three- or four- year alternatives for chemistry courses: Cambridge; Bristol; Durham; UCL; Nottingham; Warwick; Leeds; Edinburgh; Southampton, and York. (Imperial College offers Chemistry and Management as a three-year course, but not a pure chemistry course.)

(e) Reducing the number of Part II students per group, perhaps to two or three, would improve the quality of their education by increasing the personal attention they would receive.

(f) The majority of Oxford science degrees offer a three-year option

Four-year only

Three-year only

Three or Four year



Material Science


Engineering and Computer Science

Biological Sciences

Human Sciences

Experimental Psychology



Computer Science

Earth Sciences

Maths and Statistics

Maths and Computer Science

Points Against

Points against either scheme

(a) There is perhaps a danger that some of our brightest students will leave before the Fourth Year and enter non-chemistry professions; it is possible that staying on for the Fourth Year would convince them to stay in chemistry, or develop valuable skills for a range of future careers.

(b) It has been suggested that there is also a possibility that some of our students, who are likely to move on to a PhD/DPhil,  will be snapped up after a three-year Batchelor’s degree by other institutions directly into a PhD program.

(c) There could be some loss of income if the number of Part II students is reduced, although in view of the underfunding of research expenses, it needs to be established whether there would be an actual financial loss to the department overall.

(d) If Part II numbers were reduced, some small research groups would find it hard to function.

(e) We might increase the fraction of students applying to our course ‘just because it is Oxford’.

(f) Our three-year course might not be accredited by the RSC because of having an insufficient practical element.

Further Discussion

Of the two schemes proposed, Scheme B has the merit of allowing us to keep careful control of the numbers ‘deserting’ from the Part II year. The introduction of a research project into the Third Year also would help to protect against the possibility of non-accreditation, either by the RSC or the Eurobatchelor label (see below). The three-year course would be seen as a more distinct entity under Scheme B, and therefore could more easily be advertised to a target audience (for example, students from continental Europe, home students from poor backgrounds, US or Far East students paying high fees). Scheme A has the advantage of greater simplicity of procedure at the time of admissions. It would also ensure that no one stays on to the Fourth Year who does not really want to.

I would argue that the fear of our best students being poached after three years (point (b) above) is unfounded.  Cambridge Chemistry apparently manages to survive by having a three-year/four-year option, as does Oxford Physics and Oxford Mathematics. There is no evidence that they are losing their best students elsewhere, and these departments do not seem to have the same sense of insecurity about this. Oxford would like to think it has one of the best Chemistry graduate schools in the world - why do we need to be fearful that good students will be snapped up by second-rate institutions prepared to take BSc students straight into a PhD program? The Part II year offers a unique opportunity for students to sample genuine research, without a commitment for three to four more years. Providing we are strict about requiring at least an MChem as an entry requirement for a DPhil, the Part II will undoubtedly remain an attractive option. If we do not have the confidence to open up our system a little, and risk some competition, then something needs to be done about our graduate courses. Harvard and Berkeley do not have the luxury of a Part II system that funnels home-grown undergraduates into graduate school. Moreover, it would be naive to simply bury our heads in the sand and assume that the Bologna process will go away. Most other European countries are moving very fast on this, and as stated above, our four-year MChem degree is unlikely to be recognised as a masters level qualification in Europe, or as a valid entry to a PhD program outside the UK. It is possible that the UK will try to defend its current position by explicitly proposing its four year + four year system as equivalent to the European three + two +three. However if UK universities start accepting people into a PhD program with only a 3-year batchelor’s qualification then it seems likely that those PhD programs will not be accredited.


Recently a new form of European accreditation for chemistry degrees has been established in which first-cycle courses may apply to be given the label of the ‘Eurobatchelor’ degree.

The accreditation is given by an organisation known as the ‘European Chemistry Thematic Network Associataion’, which has some financial backing from the European Commision. It is too early to know whether this label will become important. If it does become important as a standard providing right of access to Masters level courses, then a key element of the accreditation will be the requirement of a research component to the three-year degree course. It is suggested above under Scheme B that a research project could replace the Third Year options papers.

Second-cycle qualification

At the present time the only taught Masters course we offer is a one-year MSc in theoretical chemistry and this is taken by only one or two students a year.

The course consists of three components; written assignments on a series of lecture courses, a dissertation, and an oral examination. Although the course in itself might be considered to be too short to be recognised as a true Bologna process second-cycle qualification (normally two years), it could be envisaged that, in combination with the equivalent of a Part II year, the two years together would become a Bologna compatible second-cycle program. It is technically possible, but relatively rare, for students to take an MSc by research at Oxford, but more often than not this degree is used as an early exit route for DPhil strugglers.

It has been suggested that we could also link the first year of a DPhil program (PRS) with the Part II year to award a masters qualification (M.St. ?), perhaps with the addition of some lecture courses and additional assessment. As suggested above, many UK students will continue to follow a four + four (or four + three) model, and have no need of the intervening Masters qualification.

A tentative proposal would be that we work towards offering students the best of both worlds: either, (a) the current four + four or (b) a three + two + three structure.

The four + four route would essentially remain as at present. Students would take the four-year MChem and then directly enter a DPhil program or PhD program at another UK university. We would also accept students into a four-year D.Phil. program from other (mainly UK) universities provided they had a four-year MChem degree or equivalent. It is unlikely that students with the four-year MChem would be accepted into PhD programs in other European countries, however.

The three + two + three route would mean that students would graduate after three years with a BA (Hons) and then start a two-year M. St. or MSc program instead of the Part II/PRS. Some would leave to take this component elsewhere and we would also attract students from other European countries into this program. After that the students would move on to doing a three-year D.Phil. or PhD. A prerequisite of this scheme would be the introduction of the classified three-year BA (Hons) degree.