Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, this week asked funding council chiefs to devise a plan to safeguard "nationally important" subjects, but ruled out government intervention to save departments facing closure.
Mr Clarke has written to the Higher Education Funding Council for England to ask for advice about securing the future of five subject areas, including Arabic, Eastern European and Far Eastern languages, the sciences and courses linked to the "cultural and creative industries".
The letter came as Newcastle University joined the list of universities axeing subjects, with plans to close its physics department and to stop taking physics students from next year.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee, Mr Clarke said he had consulted Cabinet colleagues about which subjects were of strategic importance to the UK.
He said regional quangos might be asked to ensure certain subjects did not die out in their areas. He added that he might consider bursaries to stimulate demand, mirroring the latest Tory higher education policies.
But Mr Clarke ruled out direct intervention in the affairs of institutions to prevent course closure and refused to comment on plans by Exeter University to close its chemistry department.
He said it was not his role to "second guess" vice-chancellors, but added:
"This is a historic shift in government policy: that is, it is the responsibility of the state to have a view on subjects of strategic national importance."
Meanwhile, Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, told the Science and Technology Select Committee he had consulted Howard Newby, Hefce chief executive, on whether the Government should intervene to stop Exeter closing its chemistry department.
"There is a very strong view, which I hold, that universities are autonomous," the minister said.
Sir Alan Wilson, director-general for higher education at the Department for Education and Skills, told The Times Higher this week that he did not envisage any rescue fund - and said the Government favoured work to stimulate student demand.
"It would not be possible - nor would it be right - for the Government to intervene in any closure," Sir Alan said.
Peter Main, director of education at the Institute of Physics, warned that he expected more closures. He said: "Almost all physics departments are in trouble financially. The funding model just isn't working."