Why Exeter University defends the closure of its chemistry department

When Steve Smith closed the chemistry department at Exeter, he was subjected to abusive e-mails and letters. But he did the right thing, he tells Lucy Hodges. The university is stronger than ever - and attracting record amounts in research grants

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:25

Last year was a bad year for the University of Exeter. In fact, Steve Smith, its vice-chancellor, goes so far as to say it was a "very" bad year.

That is because he closed the chemistry department to howls of anguish from his own chemists, the Royal Society of Chemistry, students and the academic unions, and to a barrage of rude e-mail messages.

A total of 149 staff were shed from departments that scored a four in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Such departments do not bring in enough money - though they do bring in some - and strategic decisions have to be made about whether to invest in them in the hope they will do better or whether not to bother. With chemistry, an expensive subject anyway, it was decided to pull the plug completely on the subject.

"We decided, on the basis of a lot of external advice, to do it once, to do it deep and to do it quickly," says Smith in a pained voice. "We were put under the most intense public spotlight. There were 117 national news stories about Exeter closing chemistry. It was the second item on the TV six o'clock news. Although it was very difficult, we have come through it and we have already put 113 academic posts back into the university. I suspect in the 12 months, May 2005 to May 2006, we will have added a total of 150 posts."

The university has published three big advertisements for new staff. One advert included 52 posts, a second contained a series of jobs on the campus near Falmouth. In addition, the university is appointing 13 new professors.

"We're doing really well on the appointments," he says, moving into PR mode. "We're appointing phenomenally strong people. We're having very high numbers of applicants for lectureships so we think the situation is improving." Moreover, income from research grants is up a staggering 70 per cent.

Smith is good at reeling off the figures. "Even on this year already, it's up 21 per cent on that 70 per cent," he adds. "This is incredible. We see it as a vindication that if you put your resources in a smaller number of groups of a large enough size, you can move on. Our candid view is that last year was horrible, we would never want to do it again."

What Exeter has done has been to play to its strengths, to concentrate on what it is good at rather than spend its money on keeping everything going. Instead of spreading its cash thin across the whole university - some of it in loss-making departments - it has chosen to invest in profit-making areas.

Exeter submitted 84 per cent of academic staff in the 2001 RAE. This time it hopes to submit more - between 92 and 96 per cent. Last time 57 per cent of staff were in departments scoring a 5 or 5* and 43 per cent were in units scoring less. Smith wants to improve on that. The university is hoping to have 80 to 90 per cent in the top-scoring category next time round. "We have really taken away the four-ranking performance and replaced it with five-ranking," says Smith. "That's a major shift."

Anyone intent on introducing change of this order needs to have a lot of self-confidence and nerves of steel. Smith may not seem a hard-boiled sort. But he knew what he was doing and he implemented his plan openly. Students respect him. "Even though we disagree on a number of issues [notably the closure of chemistry] it is my personal opinion that Steve Smith is good for the university and takes student issues seriously, unlike many other VCs around the country," says Alain Desmier, president of the Students' Guild.

Shedding the 149 staff cost £5.8m and was difficult personally. The vice-chancellor's instinct was to give the unions all the available information. Despite this, some people thought there was a secret plan to close other departments. "They would come up to me on campus and say 'Vice-chancellor, is it true we're closing geography?' I would say, no, we have never discussed closing geography. But they were still not convinced. I had quite a lot of broken glass left outside the house on the doorstep, I don't mean spilt by mistake. I mean large pieces of glass. It was broken wine glasses turned upside down. There was a lot of nasty stuff about me, nasty posters and nasty letters. I think I had 382 nasty letters of complaint."

But Smith is sure that he was right to do what he did. The institution was drifting, he says. It had too many subjects that weren't big enough. "A large part of the institution was performing below sustainable international research quality and you either manage slow decline or you change it," he says. "In a way, that was the stark choice."

One of the consequences of the decision was that Exeter went into the red. It incurred a loss because of all the payments that had to be made to staff being made redundant and the money came out of its reserves.

But that loss has now been turned round. This year the university is on course to go into the black, which is a major achievement, according to Smith. And the introduction of top-up fees this autumn should help things further.

The vice-chancellor has cause to feel that Exeter is turning a corner in a number of areas. Another is the social mix on campus. The university is criticised for being too much of a green welly place, for taking too many students from fee-paying and too few from state schools. Smith has been putting that right.

In the past year he has set up a series of scholarships through Exeter College and other local colleges and schools. Thirty-six were introduced last year and this year the university has pledged that a quarter of the top-up fee income - just over £1m - will be channelled into bursaries for needy students. There will be 700 national bursaries of up to £2,000 each, 70 local ones of up to £4,000 and 50 for outstanding students.

"That has meant that our applications and admissions from state schools has gone up," he says. Exeter had 67 per cent from state schools the year before last and just under 72 per cent this year. Two years ago Smith stated that his ambition was for the university to remind people of a Mercedes car rather than the Volvo Estate that most people associate it with. Today he says that he wants the university to be a nice, second-hand Mercedes, not too expensive but comfortable, something that people can afford.

"It doesn't need to be big and brash," he says. "I want the Exeter education to be as good as there is in the UK. I want to build the brand so that students who graduated 10 years ago see it as somewhere they want to be associated with. I think the brand did slip. It slipped a lot between the 1960s and 10 years ago."

His ambition is to have the university in the top 20 by 2010. In 2001 it came 34th in The Independent's league table for research. But it was 10th out of 128 in the recent national student satisfaction survey, a position that pleased him greatly but may not have been merited by the university's IT provision. His next aim is to ensure that computer facilities for students are up to spec. "We want to make sure they are fit for this year rather than 1975," he says. So, in the next few years students can expect a learning resource centre giving 24-hour access.

Like all universities Exeter was hit by the lecturers' boycott of exams and assessment. In the one-day strike in March, 73 lecturers went on strike out of a total of 400 Association of University Teachers members on campus (there are 1,200 people altogether at Exeter who qualify for membership). The university could do a local deal with the academics, he believes. It could certainly afford to offer more than the university employers offered nationally. "In our budget we have nine per cent for pay next year, and five per cent a year in each of the years after that," he says. "That includes extra payments for the new framework agreement and incremental drift."

The knowledge that universities such as Exeter could pay more may have been one reason why the unions prolonged the dispute. The problem is that not all universities can afford a generous offer. Smith, who will take over as chairman of the 1994 Group of small and beautiful universities in August, believes that the universities are nearing the end of national pay bargaining. But, if the deal being negotiated as we went to press sticks, there is more life left in it yet.


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