Birkbeck College

January 24, 1997

Physics and chemistry are in trouble. Physicists blame falling student numbers and cuts, while chemists finger the research assessment exercise

THE Association of University Teachers has launched a nationwide campaign to save Birkbeck College's physics department from the axe.

The AUT this week launched a mass lobbying campaign over Birkbeck's radical plans to generate income and reduce expenditure in the face of a projected deficit of nearly Pounds 2.7 million by 1999/2000. The union has written to 400 professors of physics and about a dozen key MPs and peers urging them to bring pressure to bear.

A senior Birkbeck physicist has also expressed serious concern that, under current financial pressures, all science is under threat at the college. He said that, despite college reassurances, there is fear among his colleagues in chemistry and biology that their departments may be next to go. Birkbeck closed its maths department about two years ago.

Basil Hiley, professor of theoretical physics at Birkbeck, said: "It is generally held that it is impossible to have a creditable science representation in universities without physics. We are on a slippery slope no matter how much they say they support science."

Details of the closure proposals were contained in last October's report by the college's strategic working party. The report justifies closure on the basis of the physics department's notional deficit of Pounds 397,000 for 1994/95, its low research income (Pounds 39,000 in 1994/95) and small size (68 full-time equivalent students). It also showed that chemistry recorded a notional Pounds 251,000 deficit in 1994/95. The physics department has submitted alternative measures to reduce its deficit and says total research income is Pounds 596,000 for that year. Governors are due to make a final decision in March.

The working party also commissioned Coopers and Lybrand to investigate the college's resources centres. The subsequent report recommended that the centres' four administrative officer posts be re-evaluated. The working party subsequently recommended that the AO posts be abolished and regraded to the lower clerical status. A governors' sub-committee will decide their fate later this month.

College secretary Christine Mabey said: "We understand the concerns of academics but Birkbeck remains 100 per cent committed to science and we will consider all alternative proposals at our governors meeting in March. The governors also decided that a subcommittee should be set up to consider the proposed redundancies having taken the view that they could not go into the minutiae."

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