Why I...think science fees should increase and arts fees decrease

October 18, 2002

Science, at least the physical end of it, is declining in popularity. The long-term trend is clear. As a result, science departments will have to close. But my fear is that, while reduction of some departments is inevitable and probably realistic, the process is proceeding in a dangerous manner because of an unwillingness to take difficult decisions.

If the real cost of teaching science is considered, including longer contact hours, physical space, equipment and safety issues, then science is in a pretty poor pass financially. And grants probably do not help redress the balance much.

What can be done? The first option is to contract the science base. With financial transparency, the arts can ask tough questions about where the matching funds for the latest Joint Infrastructure Fund or Joint Research Equipment Initiative bid actually come from. Further, they can point to the staff/student ratio disparity between many experimental science departments and arts departments, a differential not paid for by the government.

The bald truth is that the arts have put millions into science, helping to buy buildings and expensive professors, and still science departments often run deficits. Several 5-rated chemistry departments are facing "downsizing", and the crisis in mathematics has hit the headlines. It seems clear that there is a willingness to act among university finance managers, and the logic of their argument - adjusting universities to fit the money available - is inescapable. Inertia, therefore, will not save science.

But there is another option. All those who want to protect a broad science base need to spell out in plain language to the government the consequences of an ever-increasing financial transparency. Universities will contract their science base pretty dramatically over the next ten years. Of course, this will not affect Oxbridge and a handful of top institutions. It will, however, hit many other excellent institutions hard. I am not saying that we do not need to close science departments. We in the science community have to help put our own house in order. This means being honest where courses are failing to teach what they proclaim, where irrelevant material is taught because it always was and where the course serves no need but to keep lecturers in the style to which they have become accustomed.

But in exchange for putting our house in order, I would like to see some redistributive action from the funding councils. It is my view that neither the government nor the taxpayer will give significantly more money to universities (although I wish and think they should and know they can). But I do believe that they think science should receive support in preference to the humanities. Hence the fact that there is no equivalent of Jif for the arts.

I am not, however, a philistine, asking that money be moved out of the arts. Taxpayers are probably happy with the level of subsidy the arts has provided science, although they are not interested in the details of how this works. We must convince them and their servants at the funding councils that the fees they pay for science students are too low and those they pay for arts students too high. The subsidy should become fixed higher up the food chain at funding-council level to avoid redistribution being done on an ad hoc basis at individual universities, a practice that leads to the closing of world-class teaching and learning facilities and second-rate ones filling the void. I believe this is what the public wants. No doubt many people disagree and I welcome a debate. To my mind, the science base either wins this argument or gets stuck with option one.

James Naismith
Professor of chemical biology
St Andrews University

Do you agree? Join the debate hosted by James Naismith at www.thes.co.uk/commonroom

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