Parents angry at earth's move

December 4, 1998

Sheffield University's plan to close its earth sciences department has provoked a storm of protest from students and parents.

Despite assurances that students will continue to receive high-quality teaching, a campaign has been launched to reverse the decision and complaints made to education secretary David Blunkett, a local MP.

Sir Gareth Roberts, Sheffield vice-chancellor, said the intention was to transfer research-active staff to higher graded departments.

He said: "The department of earth sciences is the smallest department in the faculties of pure science and engineering. Following lengthy discussions it is proposed that staff in this department be transferred to cognate departments from next academic year."

There are ten staff in the department and no compulsory redundancies are envisaged. The department had slipped from a 3 to a 3B in the l996 research assessment exercise.

Sir Gareth added that other universities, including Imperial College and Glasgow, had rationalised their equivalent departments for the same reasons.

Students and their families are sceptical however, claiming the university is putting profit ahead of students. The parents of Catherine Skinner (pictured), a first-year undergraduate in the department, have written to Sir Gareth complaining about the lack of consultation and asking him to reconsider.

"In particular we are concerned about the implications for her to continue to read environmental geosciences. We have only just been made aware of facts that would have made us reconsider her decision to go to Sheffield."

Sue Skinner said her daughter, 19, had been upset by the news. "She seemed shocked and somewhat lost," Mrs Skinner said. "Our concern now is that staff will go elsewhere and her options will diminish."

Neil and Kay Taylor have a son in the department with four A levels at grade A who, they said, could have chosen any university. The Taylors have also complained to the vice-chancellor and to Mr Blunkett.

"We are appalled that this has been decided without any consultation with students or parents," they said.

"As parents who are spending a considerable amount of money in supporting our son through higher education we are concerned his degree may now be devalued by the closure of this department ... and that this will lead to a restriction of modular choice and pressure to convert to other degree courses."

Third-year student Judith Cooper is leading a campaign to reverse the decision, claiming that the university is "prioritising profit and prestige over students".

She said: "Despite the university's somewhat vague assurances that their courses will be concluded in a rather haphazard way among a variety of departments, none of which has any interest in these students, they signed on to their degree programmes with the understanding they would be taught by, and graduate from, the department of earth sciences."

Lucy Wyatt, of Sheffield Association of University Teachers, said some staff were concerned about the plans, particularly those whose interests did not transfer easily to another department. "In these circumstances it is difficult for the university to give any guarantees," she said.

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