Where have all the Botany degree Schemes gone?

What is it that makes a plant science degree more attractive to students? Naomi Broad finds out with help from Stephen Rutherford, Andrew Shore and Hilary Rogers.

Cardiff University Students
Cardiff University Students. Photo: Michael Hall Photography

Have any of you wondered where all the Botany degree schemes have gone? This is something I noticed when researching which degree I was going to study at University. I have always had an interest in plant biology ever since the first topic of naming parts of a cell during GCSE years. Starting a Biology degree in Cardiff University with only three plant-specific modules ahead of me was disappointing, but was a common theme among most UK higher institutes.

There was a shift in module choices whilst studying my degree. The only two plant-specific modules that are offered in second year changed from being mandatory to optional. The number of students enrolled onto these modules dropped by 70-72%, suggesting that when – given the choice – students would rather study other modules such as those that are animal or ecology-based.

When it came to choosing a final year project, I took the opportunity to explore why there was a clear disinterest in plant-based modules among my peers. In order to do this I sent out a survey to 1409 undergraduate students (receiving a response from 266) taking into account many factors that may have influenced their opinion of plants, such as their degree scheme, gender, upbringing and outdoor interests.

Although my final year project covered a large variety of factors, the most interesting correlations found were that plant interest fluctuated depending on whether students had a rural or urban upbringing and whether they were more likely to spend time doing outdoor hobbies. Students from a rural upbringing stated that they were able to name more plant species and those students were less disinterested in plants than students with an urban upbringing. Students that said they would participate in outdoor activities (such as hiking, berry picking and gardening) were less disinterested in plants and were also able to name more plant species.

My final year project is just scratching the surface of research that needs to be done in this area. It is important to work out why students are not as interested in plant biology as other aspects of biology so that we can continue to have students entering the plant research industry.

  • It seems unlikely that botany degrees composed mainly of plant science modules will be reinstated in universities anytime soon, for at least two reasons. One is shortage of applicants, which is way below the threshold to make the single subject a financially viable degree route for universities. Another is shortage of suitably qualified staff for whole-plant teaching because university staff appointments are closely linked to the grant-earning potential of job applicants – and the big money funding these days is in the molecular biosciences.

    Forty five years ago I was lucky enough to take a broad-based botany degree that covered plant science subjects that were as diverse as plant breeding, pathology, biochemistry and molecular biology, plant phytosociology, plant cytology and a host of other botanical disciplines. We even had a hands-on course in plant propagation and I still have plants in my garden that I grew from cuttings almost half a century ago. I graduated with the skills to graft an apple tree and analyse the molecular composition of an apple.

    Such broad-based botany degrees could perhaps be run today if the major botanic gardens had undergraduate degree-awarding powers and conducted the core of the whole plant teaching there, buying in the more molecular-based teaching from local universities. For some it wouldn’t be such a big leap, as gardens like RBGE and Kew already run masters degrees in collaboration with universities. But the big stumbling block would be drumming up enough applicants – and that depends on fostering interest in plant sciences in the pre-university years. As with so many things today, it’s a question of supply and demand.

    • Presumably the answer is to fix demand by persuading students and parents that there are jobs available at the end of the degree. But are there?

  • Really important – but is there a ‘one-stop shop’ that provides a prospectus for the kinds of employment that are available, with some case studies? In the fifteen years that I spent as admissions tutor in a biological sciences department I very rarely encountered applicants who had researched this kind of information before they signed up to a degree.

    Maybe we need more people like James Wong https://twitter.com/Botanygeek and http://www.jameswong.co.uk/ to enthuse to potential university entrants about the central role of plants in human health,wealth and happiness

    There now seems to be a growing assumption that graduates who have taken a general biology degree and have ambitions for a career in one particular discipline will go on to take a masters degree, so maybe promoting first degrees as a route straight into a career is raising false expectations?.

  • There are still a few Plant Science BSc courses available in the UK, for example ours at Nottingham, also Sheffield, Manchester, Edinburgh… They aren’t called ‘Botany’ any more, but they are still available for students with a passion for plants.