End 'willy-nilly' closures - MPs

March 25, 2005

MPs will call next week for regional panels to take control of which science subjects universities provide, The Times Higher can reveal.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is due to release a report on strategic science provision in universities next week, in response to the rash of department closures in key subjects such as chemistry and physics in recent years.

The committee's chair, Labour MP Ian Gibson, told The Times Higher this week that he wanted decisions about the future of these subjects to be taken away from the Government and put into the hands of groups of universities within the regions they serve.

Dr Gibson said: "It's all an attempt to stop universities closing departments willy nilly. They have accepted they aren't going to get any more money so they need to use what they've got in the most sensible way."

His preferred model is for a regional group - comprised of vice-chancellors, representatives from schools, the Regional Development Agency and trade unionists - to decide how many, and which, universities in the area need to provide so-called strategic subjects such as chemistry.

Robert Key, Shadow Minister for Science and a member of Dr Gibson's committee, agreed: "Universities must have a regional perspective and use some common sense on this issue."

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, which caused controversy last year when it closed its chemistry department, told the committee that there was already evidence of a regional support network in his region.

He explained that six institutions approached Exeter offering to take more chemistry students than they had on their books.

But the select committee's stance was met with some scepticism by the academic community.

Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, welcomed the push for someone to take responsibility for the current crisis.

But he warned: "This is an idealistic view of things. There have already been some attempts to set up regional collaborations, but often they work only if the regional agenda is the same as the institutional agenda.

"There is often tension in collaborations because one university considers itself to be superior to another."

The Russell Group - whose members see themselves as international rather than just regional universities - submitted evidence to the committee arguing against regional intervention.

Michael Sterling, chair of the group and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said: "In every region in the country you will find that universities are meeting together already."

But he added that vice-chancellors would be strongly opposed to being told that they could not close a particular department due to regional priorities.

Tony Ashmore, head of education at the Royal Society of Chemistry, said the plan was "better than what we have at the moment". But he said that its success would depend on whether vice-chancellors were prepared to put aside their own aims and engage in the consultation process.

One third of physics university courses have been dropped in the past 12 years. In the past year chemistry closures have been announced at Exeter; Queen Mary, University of London; King's College London and Swansea University.

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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