Minister demands personal notice of science courses at risk as study reveals dire state of physics, writes Tony Tysome.
The Government is demanding early notice of university plans to axe "strategically important" subjects as it emerged this week that nearly a quarter of the country's physics departments are in a vulnerable state.
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England this week requesting that Hefce notify him at the earliest possible opportunity of any universities planning closures in subjects such as physics, chemistry and mathematics.
In the letter, he also stresses that universities should inform Hefce as soon as possible about departments under threat.
Although the Government said it would make no direct intervention to protect subjects at risk, Mr Johnson says that if universities better report closure plans, Hefce officials can make an "early intervention" to ensure that student numbers in these subjects are not eroded regionally or nationally.
The letter came as an Institute of Physics investigation found 12 physics departments - almost a quarter of the total in England, Wales and Scotland - were vulnerable and at risk of closure.
And it followed confirmation that Reading University was to axe its physics department. It would be the 20th institution in the UK to shut a physics department in less than a decade.
In his letter, Mr Johnson says he expects Hefce to report to him in confidence "whenever the closure of a department of a vulnerable subject is being considered". He also wants the funding council to set out how provision can be transferred elsewhere to maintain national and regional capacity. He adds that this instruction applies to all current and future proposals for strategic subjects.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, told The Times Higher that this was not a government attempt to rescue vulnerable subjects by micromanagement.
But he warned: "We are not saying to institutions, 'Just do what you like.'" The primary goal, he said, was to get Hefce to report directly to the Education Secretary so that news would not be filtered through a line of officials.
He said it was also important that any early intervention become "a public process" to reassure everyone that the system would maintain student numbers in vulnerable subjects.
Mr Johnson's letter brought a guarded response from vice-chancellors, who reiterated the importance of universities having autonomy to manage change.
Universities UK said: "We are not clear... what role the Secretary of State can play in this process, and we will look to discuss this in more detail with the department."
The IoP warned that any early or public interventions by the Government or Hefce could be the "kiss of death" to vulnerable departments because such an action would deter students from applying.
Philip Diamond, assistant director of higher education and science at the IoP, said the minister's request implied that information was slow in reaching the funding council "because the process is not being adhered to by vice-chancellors as closely as it should be". He added that universities might be unwilling to report possible closures early "because no one wants this information to get into the public domain".
The institute's survey identifying the dozen vulnerable physics departments was conducted before the Government's recent announcement of an additional Pounds 75 million over three years to help prop up strategic subjects.
Mr Diamond said he hoped that the money would persuade universities to freeze any closure plans for two or three years until government efforts to encourage more students to pursue science had time to make an impact.
But, as Reading's action shows, time is short. It decided to close physics after a vote by its council on Monday. Gordon Marshall, the vice-chancellor, said it was driven by dwindling student uptake and running costs that outstripped what Reading would receive from the Government's £75 million science booster.
Reading had spent £500,000 a year for the past five years to prop up physics but its share of the £75 million would be about £180,000, Professor Marshall said.
John Blackman, head of physics at Reading, said: "What has happened at Reading is symptomatic of what is happening across the country. It is inevitable that more will close unless student numbers rise."
The University and College Union said its research had shown that Reading's decision was part of a "potentially irreversible" decline that could see parts of the UK unable to provide courses in both science and maths.
Speaking after a protest rally of about 200 staff and students at Reading on Monday, Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, said: "Today's decision to axe Reading's physics department makes a mockery of the Government's well-intentioned plans for the UK to be any sort of leader in global science."