Universities that "restructure" by axeing departments to invest in new subject areas can do more harm than good, a vice-chancellor has warned, writes Tony Tysome.
Brian Cantor, vice-chancellor of York University, argues that such moves risk damaging staff morale and the quality of teaching and research at an institution.
His comments, which follow last week's furore over Exeter University's plans to close several departments, fly in the face of accepted wisdom among university heads who are "repositioning" themselves before the next research assessment exercise and the introduction of top-up fees.
Professor Cantor argues that the secret of York's success is that it has never restructured. And he pledged to maintain that policy despite the university's plans to double its physical size over the next decade.
In an interview with The Times Higher , he said: "One of the merits of this place is that it has never had to restructure. If you do, you lower staff morale and then it becomes difficult to rebuild it. I believe the academic business is one with a fairly lengthy time scale because it is an intellectual endeavour, so the danger of moving things round is very high."
His remarks drew a critical response from other vice-chancellors.
Richard Davies, vice-chancellor of Swansea University, who pushed through controversial plans to close three departments and axe undergraduate teaching in another this year, said institutions that did not restructure were "dead in the water".
He added that, as a relatively young institution, York does not carry as much "baggage" as others and may therefore have less need to make major changes.
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University where cultural studies and earth sciences were "restructured" two years ago, disappearing into social sciences and geography departments, said the scale of change needed was affected by the size of an institution.
He said that relatively small institutions such as York could be making proportionately the same amount of change as a large university such as his, without wholesale restructuring. Nevertheless the need to make changes to respond to the market and to competition was a fact of life.
He added: "Restructuring is a natural process. It is not because your institution is in difficulty, it is because you need to be refocusing what you are doing in the light of what the competition is doing."
Simon Hackwell, of consultants KPMG, said many institutions were restructuring to increase their capacity to compete globally, to make their organisation more student focused or to cut costs.
He added: "I think what makes a successful institution is being in tune and understanding your markets. It does not necessarily follow that, because you understand your market, you have to get the scalpel out."