Chemical imbalance

December 17, 2004

I read with incredulity Sir Howard Newby's article ("Lump sum won't balance out the market forces", December 10) the week after Exeter University said it was closing its chemistry department. He referred to a "precipitate decline in student demand" and stated that "increasing the unit of resource for chemistry will not, on its own, produce a single extra chemistry student".

One would presume that Exeter is closing chemistry because there is insufficient student demand. But when my son (who has just completed his first term there) accepted a place, he was told that "applications for our chemistry degree programmes are up this year by 18 per cent. This compares with a national decline."

If student demand is not the problem, either the funding council's grant for chemistry (Sir Howard's responsibility) or Exeter's financial management (the responsibility of Steve Smith, the vice-chancellor) must be inadequate.

The real problem is that Exeter's chemistry received a 4 rating in the last research assessment exercise, which means that despite conducting research that is virtually all at a standard of national excellence, with some evidence of international excellence, Sir Howard's funding council will no longer fund it adequately.

My son loves Exeter and chemistry. His teachers are excellent and enthusiastic. Now he will have to choose whether to stay and take another subject or to transfer elsewhere to continue with chemistry.

Sir Howard says he resents receiving "advice" letters from Charles Clarke; if I were Education Secretary I would be dispensing a lot more advice to ensure that his funding council is adequately funding excellent teaching in strategically important subjects such as chemistry.

Richard Macve
Professor of accounting
London School of Economics

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