Rammell defends hands-off science tack

July 28, 2006

The Government set itself on a collision course with MPs this week as it rejected key parts of a report on science provision in English universities.

Responding to the Commons Science and Technology Committee's May report, which says that the Government has "no effective lever" to stop universities closing science departments, the Government insisted that institutions should be free to decide for themselves.

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said: "We are not complacent, but the recent data are encouraging, with the national demand for and supply of courses in many science-based strategic subjects improving, with student numbers rising faster than the national average."

But Phil Willis, the committee chair, said he was "enormously disappointed"

with the Government's response. "There is a desperate need for more science students. This committee fully respects the autonomy of universities, but wants to see the Government take a more proactive stance."

Mr Willis wants universities to notify the Higher Education Funding Council for England of problems in science departments far sooner and give the funding council more powers to intervene.

The May report was highly critical of plans by Sussex University to close its chemistry department.

"We are obviously relieved that we stopped that closure," Mr Willis said, "but plan to return to this subject on an annual basis." He said that the committee would be meeting with Hefce and Mr Rammell early in the autumn to discuss science in universities.

Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "The Government and funding council have yet to acknowledge that laboratory-based science subjects are underfunded. This will become increasingly evident as accounting in universities becomes more transparent and the extent to which other departments cross-subsidise the sciences becomes clear. If this cross-subsidy is withdrawn, many departments may well be in trouble."

The joint Government-Hefce response said that robust data from the funding framework would not be available until 2008.

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