The University of Exeter, in England, is proposing to abolish its degree programs in chemistry and replace its existing School of Biological & Chemical Sciences with a new School of Biosciences.
The announcement comes in the wake of the closure of chemistry departments at King's College London; Queen Mary, University of London; the University of Wales, Swansea; and other British universities. A final decision on the Exeter University proposal, which is part of a strategic overview, will be made by the university's governing body, the Council, when it meets on Dec. 20.
The incoming class of students who enrolled for Exeter's chemistry degree programs will be the last, according to the university's vice chancellor, Steve Smith, who presented the proposal to university staff late last month.
"Our growth needs to be selective," Smith says. The university is currently "spreading its jam too thinly," and chemistry in particular is a very expensive subject in a challenging undergraduate market, he adds.
The focus of the new School of Biosciences will be on the molecular biosciences, building on strong foundations in ecophysiology and plant sciences, and will also include ecology and conservation biology, Smith says. "It will draw upon existing strengths in chemistry at the interface of chemical biology and medical sciences," he adds.
Staff members in the chemistry department have reacted to the announcement with a sense of disbelief, shock, and outrage, according to James H. R. Tucker, reader in supramolecular chemistry at the university.
"If the proposal is enacted, 29 academic staff in the school, including 20 in the chemistry department, will be made redundant at the end of this academic year--next July," he says. "In addition, at least 20 technical staff will lose their jobs."
Tucker points out that Exeter chemistry degree programs are among the most popular in the country. "We've had full intakes of undergraduates in recent years," he says. Applications for its chemistry degree programs this year were up 21% compared with a national decline in applications for chemistry programs of 8%.
The Royal Society of Chemistry in the U.K. has responded angrily to the proposal, saying it represents a major blow to the economic prospects of the southwest region of England. "This move will wound the region severely, and we call on the vice chancellor at the University of Exeter to clarify the situation and to reconsider and study the implications," RSC Secretary General David Giachardi says. "It renders the [region] largely an academic wasteland in terms of chemistry provision. It is hard to believe that a university of Exeter's status would make a move as damaging as this."
In a similar vein, former RSC president Sir Harold W. Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes, is returning his honorary degree to the University of Exeter in protest of its impending decision. "It's scandalous," he tells C&EN, and "yet another shortsighted slash-and-burn act of philistinism by a British university."
And in a related development, British Cabinet minister Charles Clarke, who is Secretary of State for Education & Skills, wrote to David Young, chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) last Wednesday "seeking advice" on how to protect key subjects of national strategic importance, such as chemistry, in higher education. HEFCE is an independent body that distributes government funding for teaching and research to universities and other higher education institutions in England.