Volatile reactions at Exeter

Students are in shock at the news that their chemistry degree is being axed. Steve McCormack hears their protests
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The news that chemistry is to be axed at Exeter University has sent shockwaves round the academic community, provoked withering scorn from the Royal Society of Chemistry and generated impassioned debate about the balance between the economic realities of higher education in 2004 and the obligation to defend traditional science education. Harry Kroto, a Nobel Prize winner and professor of chemistry at Sussex University, this week handed back in disgust an honorary degree that Exeter conferred on him.

The news that chemistry is to be axed at Exeter University has sent shockwaves round the academic community, provoked withering scorn from the Royal Society of Chemistry and generated impassioned debate about the balance between the economic realities of higher education in 2004 and the obligation to defend traditional science education. Harry Kroto, a Nobel Prize winner and professor of chemistry at Sussex University, this week handed back in disgust an honorary degree that Exeter conferred on him.

But lost in the cacophony of this argument are hundreds of young people whose immediate futures have been turned upside down: the students on courses run by a department that won't exist in a matter of months. Around 300 chemistry undergraduates and some 50 postgraduate students face an uncertain future, and one they feel has been sidelined by university authorities distracted by financial deliberations.

No one can fault the logic running through the paper from the university's vice-chancellor, Professor Steve Smith, on chemistry's fate. It was pure Mr Micawber. Chemistry is losing Exeter £3m a year. So the axe had to fall, and with alarming speed. The department will close next July, and at least 50 academic and technical staff will lose their jobs. The subject is bearing the brunt of cuts across the campus, which will also see Italian and music degrees disappear.

The news has left chemistry students and staff shell-shocked, and set off a reaction as volatile as anything cooked up in a test tube in the university's brand new laboratories opened only months ago, when the future looked far, far brighter. "I didn't see it coming. There was no consultation," says Professor Duncan Bruce, head of the chemistry department. "It's another vice-chancellor taking a pop at an easy target."

Dr Adrian Dobbs, the lecturer in charge of student admissions, is devastated. "I feel I have been letting students in, particularly first years, on false pretences," he says.

Despite the subject declining in popularity nationwide, chemistry admissions at Exeter had been rising sharply over the past three years. In October, a record 112 students began degrees in the subject.

Among those new arrivals was Danielle Miles, 19, from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, who had travelled a particularly precarious path to her single honours chemistry degree. At school, her chemistry teacher had left, mid-year, leaving her to continue alone for the last six months of Year 13. As a consequence, her A-level grade was lower than expected. But she'd done a good interview and been accepted.

"Getting here was the happiest moment of my life," she recalls. "Now I have a feeling of helplessness about the future."

Emily Timmins, 18, from Loughborough, has just started a degree in chemistry and law. "I made a massive change in my life coming here, and now, eight weeks after starting, it's been shattered," she says.

The students' anger was fuelled by the fact they heard of its demise on a local TV news programme. "It's an utterly disgusting way to find out about the closure of your department," seethes Araminta Ledger, a second year chemist. She was among hundreds of students packing a meeting addressed by the vice-chancellor last week.

It became clear in the students' minds at the heated and fractious confrontation that the university did not have anything approaching a concrete plan to ensure that degree courses could be completed after their department disappears.

"They don't seem to have thought about us," says Ledger, who is not convinced by the "vague" assurances from authorities that Exeter undergraduates will be able to finish their degrees.

"We're worried that because the original teaching staff, who are fantastic, are having to leave, we'll be left with lacklustre teaching by people who don't really care."

Smith, a professor of international politics before becoming vice-chancellor, sympathises but rejects the charge that their concerns haven't been addressed. "We've given them the legal and moral guarantee that we will teach them the programmes that they came here for," he says.

Just how that can be done, with so many specialist staff being made redundant is unclear. But Smith maintains that some teaching expertise in chemistry is being retained, for example, in a newly created school of biosciences, and promises additional teaching staff will be taken on. The university will also, he confirms, help students who choose to transfer to other universities to complete their courses.

But these assurances don't seem to have placated the parents of Exeter's students. Jeremy Ledger, father of Araminta, questions the university's ability to ensure undergraduates end up with a degree of the same value as if the department were remaining. "I feel they've let me down," he says. "They've lost my trust."

For the Royal Society of Chemistry, the closure at Exeter represents a loss of diversity in provision around the country. Departments falling even slightly below the excellence represented by a five-star rating in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) are under constant threat of closure, despite the fact that they play a key role in industry and education.

These are the places, according to Tony Ashmore, from the Society's education department, that produce scientists who analyse and develop the ideas coming out of the more prestigious establishments, and scale them up to industrial proportions. "It is the less glamorous and sexy side of chemistry," he argues. "But, by God, is it important."

A statement from one of the numerous industrial concerns linked to Exeter underlines this point. International chemical research company, Tripos Discovery Research, which has a base in Cornwall, considers Exeter's chemistry department a local centre of excellence, whose loss will create a void in the South West. Tripos works closely with academic staff at Exeter, frequently takes sandwich-course students, and has often gone on to recruit graduates and PhDs into permanent posts.

But the most biting criticism has come from the Society's immediate past president, Sir Harry Kroto. He points the finger at the Government for pouring big resources into subjects that generate little money for the economy, while the ability to educate scientists and engineers is being dismantled.

"I am appalled by the tendency of vice-chancellors to redirect money intended for critical science work into candyfloss study with minimal use to this country's future," he says. But Smith is unrepentant, arguing that the university's resources are being spread too thinly, and that, from here, growth needs to be selective. "I was not prepared to cross-subsidise chemistry for another two years," he says. In higher education policy, "increasingly, the trend is to save excellence", he points out.

That will be of little concern to the university's chemistry students. They're learning, albeit brutally, that, even in a climate of steady expansion of higher education, securing a smooth passage to academic success does not depend simply on passing your exams.

education@independent.co.uk

Comments