Peter Knight: If chemistry goes, who will notice?

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The Independent Online

The subjects that universities teach are always changing. As new areas of knowledge develop and become interesting, more students apply to study them and extra courses start up.

The subjects that universities teach are always changing. As new areas of knowledge develop and become interesting, more students apply to study them and extra courses start up. Old subjects lose their popularity and relevance, and fade away as demand for places on them falls. Similarly with research: more grants means success and growth, while a lack of external money leads to a graceless decline and ultimately the closure of a department. Despite the difficulties that universities are sometimes supposed to experience when managing their own affairs, they are good at adapting and evolving to meet constant change in the higher education marketplace.

Now that the serious parliamentary business of the future of fees has been settled, we are entering the silly season for higher-education policy, and proposals abound to interfere with the ability of universities to close courses and with departments to manage their own destiny. Now that politicians have introduced the gentlest whiff of market forces by supporting the ability of universities to set variable fees, there follows fear and trepidation in case something undesirable happens.

The question that always seems to start the debate is: "What happens if all the universities in a region decide to respond to a fall in student demand and simultaneously close their chemistry departments?" I have not deliberately picked on chemistry, miserable and depressing subject though it is; the argument is being forcefully advanced by the Royal Society of Chemistry, which feels that the lack of a chemistry department in each region is a matter of strategic importance.

The proposition has gained sufficient credibility for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, no doubt egged on by the DfES, to suggest that universities should be forbidden by the financial rules from closing departments unless they have given at least one year's notice of their intent. This will allow the enthusiastic planners in the funding council to fritter away scarce public funds while they decide which empty courses they want to keep open and which they should allow to close. A sort of academic set-a-side: we'll be paid to do nothing while someone decides to do something.

But wait a moment. Who says it matters in the slightest if a region ends up without a chemistry department? Would anyone notice? I very much doubt it. If a company in the region needed chemists, it will do exactly what it does now, and advertise nationally, its recruitment not being constrained by regional boundaries. If research was needed, a local company will be likely to go to the leaders in that particular field, and that may well be another department in a different region or even another country. The idea that higher education should be so parochial as to be only relevant to a particular area is fatuous. It is not as though there are customs posts between the East and West Midlands; ideas and people can, and indeed do, cross these administrative boundaries as though they did not exist.

The study of chemistry is not as popular as it was 10 or 20 years ago. Applicants rightly have different ideas about what they wish to study, and a university ignores the wishes of its applicants at its peril. If there is a critical need for a particular professional skill, such as the teaching of mathematics, then the Government probably does have a duty to intervene and use inducements to maintain the numbers. You could even argue that there is a strategic interest in maintaining some minimal provision of chemistry in the UK higher education system on a "just-in-case" basis but that is a long way from being able to argue that there must be some element of regional planning. After all, there has never been an even distribution of subjects across all regions. There is no veterinary science in the West Midlands. There is no town planning in the South-east. But we do have motorways, railways and modern communications, and while there are no doubt a few Doubting Thomases who still look down their long, snooty academic noses, there is also the Open University. The OU is able to provide study opportunities across the whole country - including the chance to study a fair chunk of chemistry.

Universities should be left free to respond to student demand. If they are to continue to grow and develop new areas of knowledge then it is essential that older, less popular courses and departments should be closed. If that means the early demise of chemistry in some regions then, trust me, not even the chemists will notice the loss.

Dr Peter Knight is vice-chancellor of the University of Central England