The funding council should be able to intervene to stop universities closing science departments but it does not have the clout, its acting chief tells MPs. Anna Fazackerley reports
The head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England admitted to MPs this week that he would like more power to stop universities closing science departments.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee lambasted Steve Egan, acting chief executive of Hefce, during an emergency inquiry into Sussex University's controversial decision to cut its 5-rated chemistry department.
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the committee, said that Charles Clarke, when he was Secretary of State for Education, had called on Hefce in 2004 to act on the threat to strategic subjects such as chemistry. At the end of an angry speech, he told Mr Egan: "You haven't done anything!"
Mr Egan said that the council was "seriously concerned" about the axe hanging over science, but he added: "Institutions are autonomous bodies and have the right to decide themselves what subjects they provide."
Mr Willis repeatedly urged Mr Egan to say whether the council would like to have more planning powers over universities.
Mr Egan replied: "I think in certain circumstances, yes, we would."
The exchange was typical of an extremely heated evidence session.
Alasdair Smith, vice-chancellor of Sussex, was interrogated alongside Gerry Lawless, head of chemistry at Sussex, whom Professor Smith admitted had been kept in the dark about plans to downsize or shut his department.
Professor Smith said his priority had been to keep negotiations out of the media spotlight. He accused the Royal Society of Chemistry of damaging the discipline by going public on his decision.
He said: "On the afternoon of the day the proposal went through, the RSC put out a press release - which, frankly, I find extraordinary - that it had heard rumours that Sussex was thinking of closing chemistry."
Mr Willis responded angrily: "I find it unbelievable, Mr Smith, that you can blame the Royal Society of Chemistry... when you didn't even have the courtesy to tell your head of department."
Professor Smith confirmed that Sussex had dropped initial plans to replace chemistry with a chemical biology department.
Dr Lawless said: "We did seek a lot of views. Without exception they all thought this was a crazy idea that we could have a department of chemical biology without chemistry. Without exception."
The university is now considering three options. The first is to maintain a broad-based chemistry department - something Professor Smith dismissed as unlikely.
The second is some sort of combination of chemistry and the life sciences.
And Professor Smith said the final option was complete closure of the department.
He told MPs: "I would prefer Sussex to have a chemistry department, but I don't accept the provision that a serious science university must have chemistry."
On this he crossed swords with Mr Willis again, who insisted that the idea of a serious science university without chemistry was "laughable".
Dr Lawless said he "completely rejected" the proposition that chemistry was not essential. He also stressed that applications to his department had increased rather than decreased.
Professor Smith insisted that the focus on chemistry was not part of a plan to run down science and that he was not expecting to axe physics as well.
But despite intense questioning by Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat committee member, he refused to say that physics was safe.
Professor Smith said: "I'm afraid nothing is safe anywhere. Universities have to look at their demand. I've very happy with physics at Sussex, but it would be a mistake for any vice-chancellor to say any subject is safe."