Hundreds of academic jobs are being culled across Britain as smaller and middle-ranking universities restructure subject provision to compete for research cash.
Key figures in the sector warned of a "shaking out" of the market as smaller universities in the "squeezed middle" - a phrase coined by Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England - reposition themselves to compete in the 2008 research assessment exercise.
New statistics from the Association of University Teachers show redundancies running at more than 660 this year.
Sussex University this week became the latest to confirm cuts in the number of staff and to subjects across the board.
Alasdair Smith, Sussex's vice-chancellor, has written to staff warning that the university is running a deficit of more than £4 million and must cut spending by £3 million in 2005-06 and £4 million the following year.
He said that there was no "predetermined list" of subjects that would face cuts. But he said redundancies would be unavoidable.
Brunel University council will meet next week to approve plans to replace 60 academic staff with new "research stars". Peter Mitchell, who represents Brunel at the AUT, said: "From our meetings with Brunel, it is clear that research and publication levels will be the key factors (in selecting staff)."
Dundee University this week became the latest university to abandon core chemistry courses. A spokesperson said that the university had decided to close physical and inorganic chemistry to focus instead on the more popular pharmaceutical chemistry course.
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, who two weeks ago announced the closure of the university's chemistry and music departments, said: "There is a group of universities making some tough choices, including any with a large number of departments rated 4 (in the most recent RAE). This is the shaking out of the market."
Professor Smith said that the transparent approach to costing, the impact of funding cuts after the most recent RAE, and the prospect of the 2008 exercise were sharpening vice-chancellor's minds.
Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the AUT, said that most institutions had conducted mini RAEs internally, a process he described as "hauling staff in and demanding to know what research they are doing". He said that a number were now considering a root-and-branch restructuring based on the results.
He added: "But as they don't know how the new RAE is going to work, this is absolutely crazy."
Writing in this week's Times Higher , Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, has offered sanctuary to Exeter's chemistry department, Cambridge University's threatened architecture department, "and all the other homeless, tempest-tossed departments".
Scotland looks set to capitalise on the demise of physical science departments across the country. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council last week announced awards of more than £37 million to create new "super teams" in chemistry and physics research.
The money will fund 180 chemistry researchers and 200 physics researchers and their teams across six universities in Scotland.
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