A Government promise to protect nationally important but vulnerable academic subjects may extend only to the top research-intensive university departments, The Times Higher can reveal.
The approach emerged this week after Exeter University announced that it would shut its chemistry, mining engineering, Italian and music departments, which have struggled financially since being given 4 ratings in the last research assessment exercise. Other 4-rated science subjects will also suffer staff losses and "disinvestment".
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is drafting plans to protect subjects of "strategic importance" that suffer from poor student demand - including the physical sciences and modern languages - but it said this week that no policy had yet been set.
Steve Smith, Exeter's vice-chancellor, said: "We did ask Hefce whether the cavalry would be arriving. We were told that any protection would apply to 5 and 5* units only."
The academic community reacted to the news with alarm, warning that the policy could result in regional deserts where students living at home would find it impossible to study subjects such as chemistry and key languages.
David Giachardi, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said:
"Preserving only high-prestige departments that are difficult to get into will exclude many people."
The society is particularly worried about the South of England, which has few 5 and 5* chemistry departments outside the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London. In the past 12 months, chemistry department closures have been announced at Queen Mary, University of London; King's College London and Swansea University.
This week, Anglia Polytechnic University told The Times Higher that it would no longer recruit students to study straight chemistry.
Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said 4-rated departments were at risk in all subject areas.
"There are a lot of institutions in a similar position to Exeter, and this is the sort of virus that could spread through the system. This is a barbaric approach to academic planning."
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chair of the Russell Group of universities, said: "You have to decide whether to support your 4-rated departments as being upwardly mobile towards a 5. You might choose to disinvest in those on a downward trajectory."
Professor Smith told his staff that Exeter was "spreading its jam too thinly". Science departments with a 4 rating cost Exeter £3 million a year, he said, and such losses "clearly cannot go on".
Engineering, computer science, pure maths, statistics and operational research departments - all 4 rated - will have to make a case to be entered for the next RAE.
But Professor Smith said: "It's not taking money out of science, it's about refocusing. And that's a bloody tough decision to make."
Duncan Bruce, the head of Exeter's chemistry department, said: "This was totally out of the blue. There was no consultation with the main body of staff."
Alexander Gilbert, a second-year chemistry student at Exeter, said: "The university has assured us that we will be able to finish our degrees. But the question is to what standard - with no infrastructure and no lecturers?"