No subject is safe as financial woes deepen

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As universities around the country pack up for the Christmas holidays, the future of many of their departments hangs in the balance this week.

As universities around the country pack up for the Christmas holidays, the future of many of their departments hangs in the balance this week.

Exeter, Dundee and Anglia Polytechnic University have announced the closure of chemistry courses in the past three weeks while Newcastle has scrapped physics.

Even the most popular and prestigious courses are under threat. Cambridge University's architecture department attracts more than eight applications for every place. But the 92-year-old department is threatened with closure after its research funding was cut.

The Independent learnt yesterday that Aston University has become the sixth institution this winter to threaten the future of science courses. It plans to close civil engineering because of dwindling student numbers. Next week Keele University will discuss plans to end physics and astrophysics.

The closures have sparked a debate about the loss of strategic subjects. Ministers are concerned that science and language course closures could damage the economy as the supply of skilled graduates in these subjects dries up.

And the situation looks likely to deteriorate. Sussex University became the latest this week to confirm cuts to subjects across the board to plug a deficit of more than £4m. And Brunel University admitted plans yesterday to axe 60 lecturers and replace them with high-flying researchers in an attempt to improve research rankings and attract more funds.

The closures at Exeter - which will also lose music and Italian - have provoked a furore. Professor Harry Kroto, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, and Evelyn Glennie, the percussionist, returned their honorary degrees from Exeter in protest at the cuts.

Academics claim that more than 3,500 jobs have been lost in universities because of a government drive to concentrate research funding in departments of international excellence. They fear that 16 of 50 physics departments are at risk and that only six of 40 chemistry faculties may remain by the end of the decade.

Eighteen physics departments have closed since 1997, a drop of nearly 30 per cent. Twenty-eight chemistry departments have closed.

The extent of the crisis was revealed by the intervention of Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, who issued an unprecedented call last week for the funding council to do more to protect subjects of "strategic national importance".

Science, Middle Eastern languages and the creative arts were among the subjects identified as deserving special protection. The intervention was unprecedented as universities are independent institutions. Mr Clarke stressed that the decision to scrap courses was for university leaders alone but said he hoped the funding council could devise ways of making key courses more viable.

The crisis stems from the shift of money away from less highly rated faculties, even if they conduct work of national importance. This shift in funding hit universities following the research assessment exercise (RAE) in 2001 which rates departments on a six-point scale with the lion's share of money awarded to those who score the top 5 and 5* ratings.

The old universities have suffered the brunt of cuts as they have more staff in research. It is the medium and low-rated departments at these institutions which are facing the axe.

The closures are due to universities' wish to reposition themselves in the hope of better rankings in the next RAE in 2008. This means cutting weaker departments and investing more in those that could score highly. Science departments have been hard hit as they suffer the extra burden of falling student numbers. The problem is compounded by laboratory-based subjects such as chemistry being expensive to run.

Professor Mike Wright, vice-chancellor of Aston University, said that the closure of its engineering department reflected a "worrying trend" that saw students opt for "soft subjects" such as media studies.

Dundee University argued that its traditional chemistry degree had only attracted six students. Its replacement, a new degree in pharmaceutical chemistry, has 86 students. A spokesman said: "Our new course in pharmaceutical chemistry is hard-wired chemistry in its best form."

DEPARTMENTS IN DECLINE

To be closed

  • Anglia Polytechnic University: Chemistry, geography
  • Aston: Civil engineering
  • Cambridge: Architecture - decision to be made in January
  • Dundee: Chemistry
  • Exeter: Chemistry, music, Italian, some education courses
  • Keele: Physics and astrophysics are under threat. Decision to be taken next Thursday
  • Kingston: Foreign language courses (although language modules can still be taken as part of other degrees). History of Ideas will be dropped from 2005
  • Newcastle: Physics, theology

Recently closed

  • Durham: East Asian studies
  • Imperial College: Agricultural sciences
  • Kent: Chemistry
  • King's College London: Chemistry
  • Queen Mary: Chemistry
  • Strathclyde: Environmental Planning
  • Sunderland: Geology
  • Swansea: Chemistry, anthropology, sociology and philosophy

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