Leading article: Chemical breakdown

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The Independent Online

The news that Exeter University is to axe undergraduate chemistry has shocked the Royal Society of Chemistry and pointed up the crisis in a subject which is essential to the country's economic wellbeing. It is not only Exeter that has dropped chemistry. So has King's College and Queen Mary, both part of the University of London, as well as the University of Kent. The Royal Society is surprised that Exeter is taking such action when the university has seen a 21 per cent increase in applications this year and when its vice-chancellor, Steve Smith, was so gung ho about the subject in his speech to the British Association meeting at his own university earlier this year. Exeter had a highly-rated chemistry department with a good spread of staff across the age range.

But the reality is that chemistry is an expensive subject, particularly if you have scored a mere four in the research assessment exercise (RAE) instead of the top grade, five, as Exeter did. A university needs to have a grade five and to be recruiting students well to have a financially healthy chemistry department. Steve Smith clearly calculated that it would be too expensive to get Exeter up to the level of a grade five in the next RAE in 2008. So he swallowed hard and wielded the axe.

The crisis in chemistry, like the crisis in physics, is a national problem. The big question is what to do about it. The Higher Education Funding Council has looked at the issue of funding it more generously but that plan was defeated by a Hefce board meeting last year. To what extent should less popular subjects and non-viable departments be subsidised by the taxpayer? If you look around the country, you will still see plenty of viable chemistry departments. Someone wanting to study chemistry in the West Country would be able to apply to Bristol for a conventional chemistry course or to Plymouth for chemistry with an environmental flavour.

The real problem is that the country is experiencing a crisis in recruitment to almost all science and engineering degrees. Students simply don't want to study these subjects. They are seen as difficult and not as interesting as a humanities programme or a subject such as forensic science. Charles Clarke - and the chemistry profession - needs to look at how the subject is taught in the schools. Is teaching and the academic curriculum turning young people off?