Times Higher reporters look at pressures on courses in basic subjects worldwide
A flurry of threatened undergraduate course closures in the UK rang alarm bells in the Department for Education and Skills as professional bodies for disciplines such as physics and chemistry warned of impending meltdown in academia's critical mass.
Just before Charles Clarke left for the Home Office, he sought advice from the Higher Education Funding Council for England on how to protect courses of national strategic importance. David Young, chairman of Hefce, identified the pivotal issue when he said: "Our approach will involve steering a difficult path that fully recognises the autonomy of universities and colleges on the one hand, and takes account of national and regional interests on the other."
Internationally, there is a broad spectrum of regimes from the market-forces model of the US to the rigid bureaucracies from which continental European universities are only slowly beginning to emerge.
The core curriculum dominant within generalist undergraduate programmes in the US requires universities to offer the full range of courses; the elite can maintain a broad mix, but cash-strapped state universities are under pressure to achieve flexibility through state-wide systems.
In much of Europe, the state has always provided for a complete range of courses - until now, when greater autonomy is being accompanied by more self-reliance and responsibility.