Leaner and meaner

A new round of cuts means that important departments are closing at some of Britain's top universities. Lucy Hodges looks at why vice-chancellors are planning to kill off degree courses with a loyal following
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The Independent Online

The axe is falling on university departments around the nation. The news that the illustrious chemistry department at King's College London faces closure follows hard on the heels of the decision by Cambridge to chop its architecture degree. Only weeks before, Durham University had pronounced a death sentence on the departments of East Asian studies and linguistics. European studies will also go, and the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is to lose its undergraduates, the university says.

The Government claims that it is putting more money into higher education, but its policy of concentrating research in the best places and reducing funding for universities that don't score the highest grades means that some unpopular decisions are having to be made.

Departments that fail to score the top grade - a 5 or 5* - are vulnerable. "Especially in the sciences, it's very hard to maintain a department with a grade 4 in the research assessment exercise (Rae)," says Professor Alasdair Smith, Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University. "The funding for grade 4 departments has been cut back so much, and in subjects like chemistry they are dependent on this research funding from the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE)."

Professor Bob Burgess, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, agrees. His university is having to take some tough decisions, he says. "We are looking very hard at what kind of programmes can continue. Those that are not cost-effective will have to be put under scrutiny." Like many university leaders, he worries that the Government's policy is short-sighted and may kill off departments that could one day be stars. He is also concerned about the effect that it will have on regional economies. "Are we going to see some subjects wiped out in some regions?" he asks.

Dr Roger Brown, director of the Southampton Institute, believes that chickens are finally coming home to roost. "What is happening now is a result both of the impact of the 2001 Rae and of universities preparing for the next research assessment exercise," he says. "There are also the vagaries of student demand."

Numbers of students ebb and flow, according to fashion. Some subjects - psychology and business studies - are highly sought after. Others, such as chemistry, have a hard job filling their places. "This is a lethal combination: the lack of student demand and lack of research support," says Dr Brown. "It will get worse with the introduction of top-up fees."

In addition, vice-chancellors are facing rising costs. The Government may say that it is investing more in higher education, but, on the ground, universities are actually having to make cuts of 3 to 4 per cent a year, according to Professor Mike Brown, Vice- Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University. "Things are very tight," he says. "If a department is not up to scratch - if it's not covering its costs - we don't have any choice."

As a new university, Liverpool John Moores did better than many older institutions in the amount of money it won for teaching. Its teaching budget was increased by 3.3 per cent, as against the national average of 2.4 per cent. That is because it benefited from the new methodology for rewarding universities that are good at attracting students from disadvantaged homes. But, according to Professor Brown, that 3.3 per cent did not cover the additional costs of National Insurance contributions and other items. "We worked out that we increased our income by £4m," he explains. "But our additional costs amounted to £5m, so we had to find another £1m to cover the difference."

A former polytechnic like Liverpool John Moores is not a research-intensive university and is not dependent for its income on the Rae. It relies on the money it gets from the HEFCE for teaching, and on what it can drum up from the private sector in contracts.

That contrasts with a university like Durham, which has historically depended on the HEFCE for big injections of money for research. There is a serious impact on Durham when its departments fail to score the top grade 5 in the Rae now that the Government has cut the funding for those scoring 4. "A university like Durham can only make ends meet and keep things afloat if they're in the Rae big time, which means grades of 5 and 5*," says Professor Brown. Durham's department of East Asian studies, for example, received a research rating of 4. This is especially worrying, given that there are nine departments of East Asian studies in the UK, and Durham's comes in ninth position.

Moreover, it attracts small numbers of students. Nine first-year students are studying Japanese, five are taking the subject in combination with management studies, and four are doing it with French. Fewer students still take Chinese. There are only five first-year undergraduates studying the subject; four are taking Chinese with politics; one is combining Chinese with French and two are taking it with Spanish. Moreover, no one is reading first-year Chinese with linguistics - and neither is anyone studying first-year Japanese with philosophy.

The fact that there are so few students means that the department is, relatively speaking, more expensive to run than others. But Durham's Vice-Chancellor, Sir Kenneth Calman, emphasizes that any proposed restructuring is not so much about saving money as about playing to the university's strengths.

Durham is proposing to separate the languages element of East Asian studies from the humanities and social science subjects, and to put the staff into the subject departments of languages, politics, economics and so on. "They think you have to have economists and social scientists in with the language people," says Sir Kenneth. "Our view is it would be better if they were separated."

For universities to play to their strengths - as the Government proposes that they do in the White Paper on higher education - they need to invest, says Sir Kenneth. "We need to stay competitive and on top, and that means that we need to increase our funding from research."

The decision to restructure is, however, causing a good deal of disruption. There is resentment from academics in the department of East Asian studies and further afield, among the organisations which promote that part of the world.

By contrast, the decision to cut architecture at Cambridge appears to be going through without a hitch. None the less, it has shocked those in the profession who regard Cambridge's department as the most prestigious and academic on the national scene, and raised questions about the health of architecture in universities around the country. It means that Cambridge will no longer produce qualified architects. It will continue to provide a three-year degree and graduates will then have to go elsewhere to qualify.

Like Durham's East Asian studies department, architecture at Cambridge received only a 4 in the 2001 Rae. A statement from Professor Alan Short, head of the department, announcing the closure of the Part II diploma, said: "In common with all Cambridge University academic departments, architecture is expected to engage in research at the highest level."

Another important factor is the new criteria which the Architects Registration Board has imposed for the Part II diploma. Academics in architecture departments regard these as incredibly burdensome and expensive. Professor Short's statement said: "After close consideration of the Architects Registration Board's new criteria, the Department has concluded, very reluctantly, that it is unable to resource the delivery of the prescribed professional content beyond the next two years while meeting its own and the university's research aspirations."

At King's College London, where chemistry faces the chop, some of the same factors are at work. The subject received a grade 4 in the Rae, up from a 3a the year before. But that wasn't good enough to stop the college instituting a review in March 2003. That review, in turn, led to a haemorrhage of staff, fearful that the department was for the axe.

Now only eight staff are left and chemistry looks increasingly precarious. The college insists that no decision has been taken to cut it, but the omens do not look good. Students who were due to arrive at King's to study chemistry this autumn have had their places cancelled.

And so it looks as though the department will close. The university world is shaking its head in gloom. "This was one of the jewels in the crown," said a spokesman for the Royal Society of Chemistry. "It has a good record. Sue Gibson, who was recently recruited to King's, is a leading chemical scientist. We are dismayed that this can happen."

But a spokesman for King's explained that chemistry was expensive to teach and that the college had already poured £7m into it. At the same time it was difficult to find students. King's always enters the Clearing system to make up its student numbers in chemistry, she said.

Some vice-chancellors are philosophical about what is happening. Tim O'Shea, principal of Edinburgh University, says there is nothing new about departments closing. If whole regions of the country were going to be denuded of a subject there might be cause for alarm. "If you suddenly found there was no chemistry or architecture in London or likewise in Scotland, there would be cause for concern," he said. "But all this is a normal fact of life."