Pioneering chemistry department set to close

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The Independent Online

The university chemistry department which pioneered DNA testing has cancelled all offers of places to students this autumn, fuelling a crisis over the future of the subject in higher education.

King's College London, one of the élite 19 universities in the Russell Group, has taken the step as concern grows that more universities may have to close chemistry departments and the number of chemistry undergraduates is dwindling.

The college, which has been reviewing the future of the department, said it had to cancel offers when at least seven academics left. University leaders said they could not recall a similar case of a university department cancelling all offers.

It also could not have come at a more embarrassing time for King's College, which has just celebrated the 50th anniversary of its discovery of DNA testing. The work that enabled James Watson and Francis Crick to uncover DNA's structure was carried out by Rosalind Franklin at the college.

The news is the latest in a long line of blows for chemistry in higher education. Six other universities have already closed their chemistry departments: Aberystwyth, Essex and four other London institutions, Royal Holloway, Brunel, East London and City.

Officially, the future of the King's College department is still under review. But academics fear it is likely to close. They also fear that other universities may follow suit. Peter Atkins, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, said: "It is deeply depressing - especially for an institution which has made as much contribution as King's College has.

"At the very least, they have an obligation to secure alternative places for the students. It's not the point [to offer them alternative courses at the college]. They should everything possible to relocate them within London.''

Tony Ashmore, registrar of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "It is a long established, well-respected depart ment which goes back more than 100 years.

"It is quite a shock that they're contemplating a withdrawal of the subject. It is only a few weeks ago that we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA by unveiling a plaque."

A spokeswoman for King's College said: "The college is currently conducting a review of the department and a number of academic staff have subsequently taken up academic posts at other universities within a short period of time.

"Regretfully, it has now been decided that there will be no first-year entry for the 2003/4 academic year."

College staff have consulted the University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), over its problem and held talks with neighbouring colleges of the University of London - Imperial, University College and Queen Mary - to see if they will take on the students.

"We have also helped to identify other options, for example to study another course at King's or to go back to other institutions that have made them offers," said the spokeswoman. She estimated that between 30 and 40 students were affected by the decision to cancel offers of places.

Students already on courses and in their second, third or fourth year will not be affected. Figures show that the number of first-year chemistry students in British universities has fallen from 7,490 in 1997/8 to just 5,735 last year - a drop of nearly 25 per cent.

Several reasons have been put forward for the decline - including a lack of qualified science teachers in secondary schools. Teachers' leaders have argued that this has discouraged students from taking up the subject.

The number of people opting for teacher training courses in chemistry showed a steady decline in the latter part of the 1990s, from 515 in 1996 to a low of 369 in 1998. This year has seen an increase in applications to 710 with the help of government incentives - such as "golden hellos" of £4,000 to teachers of shortage subjects - but these teachers will not have completed their training until 2004.

Leaders of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) at King's College say they have been involved in redundancy negotiations with employers. They said that they had been notified that as many as 250 staff could lose their jobs in a more widespread review of the college's activities over the next 12 months. "They are hoping that people will take up voluntary severance," said Trevor Murrells, AUT secretary at the college.

But the college says there are no plans for compulsory redundancies and that any job losses would be because of a previous merger of the college with the medical schools at Guy's and St Thomas' hospitals.