Taken at face value, Alan Johnson's letter on the fate of departments in strategic subjects is sensible but inconsequential. The Education Secretary wants to be kept informed of closure plans but does not propose to intervene even if he disapproves. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is encouraged to monitor regional provision and facilitate collaboration, but not to meddle with institutional autonomy. A cynic might suspect that the whole exercise amounts to little more than a wish to be seen to be taking action, however ineffective, at a time when departmental casualties are again threatening to become a political liability. The Institute of Physics certainly fears that another rash of embarrassing closures might be in the pipeline.
The alternative interpretation of Mr Johnson's letter is that he is preparing the ground for a proactive approach, which might do more harm than good if preliminary discussions about the fate of vulnerable departments became public. Even if universities were pressured into shelving closure plans, wider disclosure of a department's weakness might easily seal its fate by discouraging potential applicants.
Hefce's £160 million investment in strategic subjects, which prompted Mr Johnson's letter, should be given a chance to work before second-guessing begins in earnest. The funding council may need to do more to support science research, which is more of a problem than student recruitment in many vulnerable departments. But, as the Education Secretary acknowledges, in the quasi-market that the Government has created, final decisions must rest with the university. Hefce's action should reduce the number of departments that find themselves in the position that faced physics at Reading University, but it will not be a quick fix. If, as consultants have reported, there is a "structural and substantial oversupply of student places" in six physics departments in the South East of England, market pressures were always likely to be too strong for all to wait for the impact of the funding council's initiatives.
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