In the closing weeks of 2004, two UK universities announced their intentions to withdraw undergraduate chemistry courses

In the closing weeks of 2004, two UK universities announced their intentions to withdraw undergraduate chemistry courses. 

The University of Exeter revealed plans to close its chemistry department and Anglia Polytechnic University (APU) will be withdrawing chemistry as a subject. Alongside this, several reports on the restructuring or the closure of science departments in the UK have been published.

The proposal for the closure of the chemistry department at Exeter was made on financial grounds. The announcement by vice-chancellor Steve Smith cites the planned introduction of variable tuition fees in 2006 and the fact that chemistry is an expensive subject to teach as factors in the decision. The current student intake for chemistry at Exeter will be the last, although recruitment figures for the subject are reportedly high.

Conversely, according to an APU spokesman, chemistry has declined in popularity with undergraduate students, and chemistry will only be taught as part of a course in forensic science. The proposals from both Exeter and APU were expected to be confirmed at the time this issue went to press. Several other universities have suggested, or carried out, mergers or department closures, increasing discussion on the future provision of scientific disciplines.

Although chemistry is acknowledged to be an expensive subject to teach, some departments subsidise teaching costs from other sources. The decisions made by both Exeter and APU have met with little public approval. Shortly after Exeter’s announcement, Sir Harry Kroto, Nobel laureate and former president of the RSC, returned his honorary degree to the University of Exeter in protest and has called on others to follow his lead. Even the students’ parents have joined forces as Parents Against Cuts at Exeter (Pace), forming a campaign to try to prevent the closure from going ahead.

The RSC opposes both the current proposals. David Giachardi, RSC chief executive, says that the Exeter closure ’will wound the region severely’, adding that the move by APU will leave ’a huge hole in the regional provision of chemistry teaching, especially part-time and vocational training’.

The importance of vocational training was highlighted in November 2004 by Paul Boateng MP, chief secretary to the Treasury, when the science and technology committee met to review proposals for the government’s 10 year investment plan for science (see Chemistry World, December 2004, p12).

Simon Campbell, president of the RSC, said that ’although the government says it has generously increased money for physical science research at universities, the teaching of undergraduates is woefully under funded’.

The money allocated to departments to fund their activities is calculated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce). The process is currently under review, to improve the way funds are allocated. Meanwhile, there is concern that departments will remain under threat of closure. ’Just ?300 million in short-term funding would secure their existence until 2008, when new methods of assessing the true cost of teaching will be introduced,’ added Campbell.

Vikki Allen