Lord Sainsbury outraged MPs this week by declaring that there should be no government or funding council intervention to prevent vice-chancellors from axeing science departments.
Two years ago, Charles Clarke, who was then Education Secretary, asked funding council chiefs to devise a plan to safeguard threatened science departments.
But on Tuesday Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee that neither his department nor the Higher Education Funding Council for England had the right to step in. He dismissed panic over the recent flood of chemistry department closures by saying that, with 73 chemistry departments, the UK had more than enough provision.
He said higher education was "a market" within which universities should remain autonomous.
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chair of the committee, said after the meeting: "It is very revealing that he is applying the economics of the supermarket to the strategic issue of science provision in universities.
Science is vital to the national economy; it cannot be left to the vagaries of a market decided by the vice-chancellors of disparate universities."
In March, Steve Egan, Hefce's acting chief executive, said the council would like more power to preserve vital subjects.
Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research at Hefce, said this week: "Hefce's interest is in what provision is available across the board. Where we choose to intervene is to ensure that across the sector there is sufficient capacity in key disciplines in terms of teaching and research."