Subjects that are vital to the economy could be seriously damaged by changes in the way the funding council pays for teaching in universities, subject leaders and employers warned this week.
Leaders in engineering, environmental sciences and communication and media studies predicted that the Higher Education Funding Council for England's proposed cuts to their teaching allocations, under a review of its funding method, would devastate their fields. Biosciences would also receive a funding cut.
"This is extremely serious for a range of subjects key to the economy," said Donald Davidson, chairman of the Committee of Heads of Environmental Sciences. "The cuts will cause problems in terms of staffing levels and quality when the government is trying to strengthen Britain's science and technology base."
In its consultation paper Developing the Funding Method for Teaching From 2004-05 , Hefce says it plans to change its system for weighting subject areas according to how much it costs to teach them.
It currently has four weighted bands: band A attracts the highest level of funding for expensive subject areas such as the clinical elements of medicine, down to band D, which covers the cheapest areas such as humanities. Hefce plans to create an additional band by splitting B into B1 and B2, and to move some subjects into lower bands altogether.
Most engineering subjects, except chemical engineering, face a cut of 7.4 per cent as they are downgraded from B into B2.
"The effect will be severe," said Sa'ad Medhat, head of education at the Engineering and Technology Board, which represents 600,000 engineers.
"Inevitably courses will close. If a department is not economically viable because of the level of funding and the cost of delivering courses, managers will have to face economic facts."
A number of other subjects would move from B into B2, including anatomy and physiology, pharmacy and biosciences, as well as agriculture and earth, marine and environmental sciences.
CHES chair Professor Davidson said: "It is bad for all the subjects, but for environmental science it represents a double whammy, because, after the last research assessment exercise, two-thirds of all our departments are largely dependent on their teaching income."
Also hit will be communications and media studies, which would move to band D.
Christine Geraghty, chair of the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association, said: "We have always argued that good media studies courses with strong practice elements are expensive to run properly and this cut will seriously damage some of the best courses in the country.
"We will be making strong representations about this threat.
"Ironically, this is being done in the name of conjuring up money for widening access when media studies courses are often a popular choice for the kind of students whom the government says it wants to attract."
A spokesman for Hefce declined to say how much the cuts in engineering and media studies would amount to in total, but said: "The proposed changes to subject-weighting factors reflect evidence from a study of relative expenditure per full-time equivalent student over recent years. In relation to media and some engineering subjects, the report presents the evidence for our proposals based on what institutions have been reporting.
"We do not allocate funds for specific subject areas, but rather for institutions as a whole. It will continue to be for institutions to decide how their departments are resourced. Our proposals are subject to consultation and the board will consider these issues in the light of the responses we receive."