Investigations into chemistry cuts at Sussex University have highlighted weaknesses in Hefce's strategic powers, say politicians.

Katharine Sanderson/London, UK

Investigations into proposals to cut chemistry teaching at Sussex University have highlighted weaknesses in the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (Hefce) strategic powers, say politicians.

Steve Egan, acting chief executive officer of Hefce, gave evidence at an emergency evidence session of the parliamentary science and technology select committee, called to investigate the decision to stop teaching chemistry at Sussex. Egan told the committee that Hefce cannot force institutions to teach subjects they are not willing to teach. ’If we had more powers we would be able to intervene,’ he said.

Any money a university receives on the strength of a department’s rating in the research assessment exercise (RAE) can be distributed university-wide in any way the vice chancellor decides, Egan explained. ’The decision is a matter for the institution itself,’ he said. Gerry Lawless, head of chemistry at Sussex, said around ?700 000 brought in by his department had been allocated elsewhere in the university.

Select committee member Des Turner, MP for Brighton Kemptown, told Chemistry World that it became ’painfully clear’ during the evidence session that Hefce was helpless to intervene, and has no effective strategic role.

Egan admitted that Hefce is now ’seriously concerned’ about chemistry in England, but repeated that individual institutions are independent and allowed to make their own strategic decisions.

Egan said he was ’disappointed’ that Alasdair Smith, vice chancellor of Sussex University, gave Hefce just one weeks’ notice of the proposal to restructure the chemistry department to one of chemical biology, with the loss of all physical and inorganic staff. Turner said the procedure followed by Smith had been ’appalling’, and had done enormous damage to the department.

Smith admitted that there had been ’very limited consultation with the department of chemistry’ before the proposals were made public at the beginning of March. The original plans for the restructuring have been abandoned, said Smith, but a number of alternatives are now being considered. Smith said he did not accept that a ’serious science university’ must have a chemistry department. 

Geoff Cloke, a professor in Sussex’s chemistry department said the faculty is now compiling a ’creative and financially sound plan’ for the future of a broad chemistry department ’to the benefit of the university as a whole’. This plan will be submitted to the vice chancellor and senate, and the final decision will be taken in early May.