Leader: Losses that can never be undone

February 9, 2007

Perhaps we should be neither surprised nor concerned by the closure of so many science and languages departments in our universities or by the "subject deserts" such closures create.

Is it not, after all, wholly rational to close a physics department that fails to recruit enough students to cover its costs or to dissolve a supposedly research-active languages department that scores poorly in the research assessment exercise?

Even if one refuses to accept this argument, then surely we must expect regional differences in the type of higher education provision on offer from our universities. The mantra of senior management - "we must play to our strengths" - sums it up nicely. Why waste money supporting an ailing physics department when your meteorology department is world class and crying out for investment?

Market logic has forced the Higher Education Funding Council for England to set aside a £160 million safety net to preserve at-risk subjects and to prevent "subject deserts". It is a welcome commitment.

But academics realise that there are more fundamental issues at stake here than markets and money. When a department closes, it is not just that students must travel farther to study that subject (bad enough as it affects disproportionately people from poor backgrounds, who prefer to live at home while studying). It is about a further thinning of the fabric of intellectual life in the UK. Whatever the economic rationale for the closure of, say, a physics department, its demise reduces an institution's intellectual capacity. The loss is felt not just in a particular school or subject: the damage done to other departments in this era of interdisciplinary working is incalculable.

Once lost, intellectual capacity is not easily recovered. And the risk is that the more we treat knowledge like coal, steel or some other commodity we no longer produce on a large scale, then the easier it becomes to lose uneconomic departments.

Academics are the custodians of knowledge and, as a society with aspirations to be a serious player in the knowledge economy, we ignore their warnings at our peril.

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