Chemistry cuts lead to fears for other subjects

March 17, 2006

Sussex has been criticised for closing a 5-rated department as part of its strategic plan. Tony Tysome reports

Staff still reeling from Sussex University's decision to close its chemistry department now fear that physics, engineering and continuing education are in the line of fire.

There has been a widespread condemnation of vice-chancellor Alisdair Smith's decision to "refocus" chemistry and in effect merge it with biology to create a chemical biology department.

The Royal Society of Chemistry and former Sussex staff, including Nobel prizewinner Sir Harry Kroto, have poured scorn on the proposals that will see the number of chemistry staff halved to seven. Students plan to call for Professor Smith's resignation.

Sussex confirmed that the chemistry proposals were part of a wider strategic plan that would mean up to 60 academic redundancies across several disciplines by the summer. It has yet to identify other departments it will target for redundancies, but it is understood that physics, engineering and continuing education are in the high-risk category.

A mock research assessment exercise was used to identify "weak" research departments. It was designed to help Sussex address a £4 million a year deficit and release £3 million a year to recruit up to 70 staff in "strong" disciplines - which include biochemistry, English, international and development studies, psychology, computing and history.

Academic union leaders warned this week that they would resort to industrial action if the university pursued its strategic plan, which could include compulsory redundancies.

Professor Smith said that the decision to "disinvest" from chemistry came after years of struggling to recruit students and the loss of key members of staff, whose departure would make it difficult to maintain the department's 5 rating in the next RAE.

"There are other areas of the university that have a stronger case for investment. To continue with broad-based chemistry would allow it to soak up resources needed in these areas," he said.

The university said it would "teach out" current chemistry programmes and take in one more cohort of students.

Staff and students at Sussex described the plans, unveiled without warning last Friday, as "academically and financially flawed".

Gerry Lawless, head of chemistry at Sussex, pointed out that his department had doubled its student intake in the past three years, and applications for places were up by 40 per cent last year.

"They are trying to close our department because the university is facing financial ruin. But their plan is both finan-cially and academically flawed.

"A single member of our department is responsible for half the intellectual property of the whole university. And you just cannot teach biochemistry without broader chemistry," he said.

Sir Harry, who left Sussex last year after 37 years to take up a post at Florida State University, said Sussex had never done anything to encourage key chemistry staff to stay.

"If 'invest in excellence' had been the motto five years ago, the university would not be facing a potential RAE problem with chemistry," he said. "They are in deep financial difficulty and now it looks like chemistry is going to pay for someone else's mistakes. That is a great pity as it has contributed significantly to the university's reputation."

Writing in this week's Times Higher , Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at Oxford University, called the Sussex closure "a shameful act of philistinism".

He asked: "How can a vice-chancellor worth his salt take one of the UK's great chemistry departments and stamp it out like an academic cockroach?"

Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "The RSC believes that no university can claim to be a real university without chemistry."

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