Contrary to the bleak national trend, admissions to study chemistry were up this year at the University of Exeter. But Tony Legon, head of the 4-rated department, said it was still a struggle to survive financially.
"It is very difficult to fund a chemistry department nowadays," he said.
He acknowledged chemistry was an expensive subject but felt the unit of resource awarded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England per full-time equivalent student was too small to sustain a chemistry department, given the average number of undergraduates.
"The other problem is that funding based on the research assessment exercise is too small as well," Professor Legon said. He shared the widespread concern that as universities became more businesslike, chemistry might be pushed out in favour of cheaper subjects. "In a system that depends on how much money you bring in, in the short term there must be a concern. Subjects that happen to be popular at a given time will expand at the expense of other subjects."
In August, Exeter's chemistry department will merge to form part of a new combined School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, in an attempt to be more cost-effective. There will still be a separate chemistry department and the changes are expected to result in the loss of about three jobs.
"We're not in the business to make money, but we recognise that the books need to be balanced. We don't have a deficit in chemistry at Exeter. The university won't allow that," Professor Legon said.