More university science courses likely to close

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The closure of more university courses in key subjects such as maths and science are inevitable, the head of the Government's higher education funding watchdog said.

Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), warned against getting into a "moral panic" when a university physics or chemistry department was threatened with closure, saying they were "19th-century" disciplines. Since 1997, nearly one in three physics courses has closed, leaving just 50 around the country.

Sir Howard was speaking at the publication of a report by a government task force charged with investigating ways of keeping courses in subjects of strategic national importance alive. It was ordered by Charles Clarke when he was the secretary of state for education.

But the task force, headed by Sir Gareth Roberts, president of Wolfson College, Oxford, rejected the idea of the funding council ordering universities to keep ailing departments open. Instead, it drew up a list of "strategically important but vulnerable subjects" where more effort should be put into persuading pupils to take them.

These included science; technology; engineering; maths; modern foreign languages and minority languages and university courses such as land-based studies (agricultural courses) and quantitive social sciences (such as statistics).

In addition, Hefce would try to persuade the Open University to offer courses in these subjects in areas where there was likely to be no university provision. It would also act as a "broker" if two neighbouring universities wanted to axe the same subject - by persuading them to amalgamate the course. The report rejected the notion that science provision in universities was "in crisis''.

Figures showed that there were more young people studying science in universities than a decade ago, but they had switched disciplines, with growing numbers opting for forensic science.

Sir Howard said: "They've all watched Amanda Burton (in BBC TV's Silent Witness) and read their Patricia Cornwell novels and that's one of the areas that's creating excitement among students."

He acknowledged there were now more graduates than job opportunities in forensic science but added: "These students will be graduating with a range of skills to offer a range of employers."

The report rejected the idea of funding watchdogs to step in and order a university to keep a course open, concluding: "Hefce cannot and should not attempt to prescribe what subjects should be provided or to interfere in proper institutional decisions about their [universities] strategic direction."

But the Institute of Physics warned that more university departments would be at risk of closure unless there was more generous funding for laboratory-based courses.

Dr Robert Kirby-Harris, its chief executive, said: "Physics is vital to the future of the UK's economy and a good supply of physics graduates are essential in realising Chancellor Gordon Brown's vision of making Britain the best place in the world for science and innovation."

Fall in student numbers

Figures are for key subjects 1999-2000 to 2003-04

1. Information technology and systems sciences -3,739 (20%)

2. Physical sciences -3,279 (11%)

3. Chemistry -2,409 (20%)

4. Mathematics -1,785 (9%)

5. Earth, marine and environmental sciences -1,415 (10%)