Leader: Mixed messages on key subjects

November 26, 2004

The proposed closure of a range of courses at Exeter University has provided a dry run for funding council officials wrestling with the problem of how to preserve endangered subjects. Inevitably, national attention has focused on chemistry, although there may yet be controversy over languages and some branches of engineering. The demise of other high-profile chemistry degrees (notably at King's College London) has prompted fears that the UK's research competitiveness may be damaged and whole regions left without a base to study one of the key sciences. For Exeter, the economic case is inescapable: the university cannot afford a £4 million deficit and, although student recruitment is comparatively healthy, without a higher research rating chemistry is not going to pay its way. There is a feeling, too, that as a relatively small research-led university, resources are being spread too thinly. The administration has decided it cannot justify cross-subsidies, although it would have liked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to do it on a larger scale.

The Royal Society of Chemistry, too, would like Hefce to act, especially since recent closures have all been concentrated in the south of England and Wales.

But the Exeter case illustrates how difficult it will be to decide when and where to intervene in the new higher education market. If Exeter's department is propped up, what will be the implications for Plymouth University's (albeit more specialised) chemistry courses, or those at Bath University? Both have the same research rating as Exeter and even 5* Bristol University might argue that the market was being rigged. Yet it is becoming clear that without a wider strategy, the number of departments will continue to dwindle in chemistry and other areas of national importance.

Assuming that some intervention is to be sanctioned, the criteria will have to be absolutely transparent. It appears that Exeter's chemistry cannot be saved because it lacks a grade 5 research rating (the source of its difficulties in the first place). Until now, however, the national debate has been mainly about the impact of top-up fees and the provision of degree places. The university's decision relates to research funding, and its proportion of local students as well as the relative proximity of alternative courses make it hard to argue the case in terms of regional teaching provision. If the territory of the argument is to switch to research, there are powerful voices who will insist that even the 18 departments with 5 ratings cannot continue to compete internationally. It is easy to see how confused the arguments are likely to become, even if there is agreement on which subjects are sufficiently important to merit intervention. There must be a suspicion that regional provision will become a smokescreen behind which a few highly prized departments, defined mainly by their research and with few local characteristics, will be given preferential treatment over their peers.

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