What should the government do to stop chemistry departments closing?

The closure of Exeter and Anglia Polytechnic Universities’ chemistry departments brings the total to five closures in the last 18 months (see p9). What should and can the government do to stem the flow?

Many of the closures are not the result of low student numbers, applications to Exeter reportedly rose by 21 per cent last year with five students applying for each place. Instead, the decision is blamed on the high costs of teaching chemistry and insufficient funding.

The formula used by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to calculate funding does not adequately take into account the actual cost of teaching chemistry, leaving departments subsidising their teaching from research funds. This is all very well for five and five star departments, but many departments with only four stars, such as Exeter, say the books just don’t balance.

The closure of these less research-intensive universities is a concern. It could be argued that chemistry research may best be concentrated in fewer, larger, better funded departments, but what about the provision of local, part time, and sandwich courses, and those concentrating on technical competence rather than research genius (see Chemistry World, December 2004, p12)? These types of courses are essential and have born the brunt of the recent closures.

The interdisciplinary work between chemistry and biology and physics will also suffer as departments close. Can universities effectively teach in these areas without a strong chemistry department?

Departments will continue to close until Hefce’s funding formula provides sufficient money to teach chemistry. Hefce is currently gathering the actual costs of running a chemistry department to prepare a new funding formula. But it will be a couple of years before a new formula is ready.

How many departments will have closed by then? While universities are, and should be, autonomous, government needs to step in to ensure vice chancellors are able to make strategic choices about what courses to run, rather than shedding courses as a reaction based purely on costs.

Education and skills secretary Charles Clarke has written to Hefce to ask its advice on how strategic courses, including chemistry, can be encouraged to stay open. The letter, expected in the summer, finally materialised last month, hot on the heels of the latest announcements.

That encouragement is surely money to balance the books. Yet Clarke has expressly stated that no additional funding will be made available, saying ’this is about working with the resources we already have’.

Hefce is likely to say it will help by providing funding to threatened departments out of its strategic development fund, if research councils and regional development agencies also chip in. But Hefce’s fund is limited. Clarke’s letter covered a lot of courses and some of them, notably chemistry, are going to be expensive to save.

The government needs to allocate additional interim funds if it is serious about preventing more departments from closing.

Karen Harries-Rees, editor