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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 December, 2004, 11:22 GMT
Clarke calls for degree safeguards
Charles Clarke
Mr Clarke consulted Cabinet colleagues over the UK's needs
Education Secretary Charles Clarke has called on universities to protect subjects vital to the UK's trade and security, like science and languages.

He has written to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), asking how these could best be safeguarded.

Among the subjects listed are Arabic, Chinese, engineering and languages spoken in recent EU accession states.

Mr Clarke said it was important to have a "long-term view" of what the country required from graduates.

'Cannot force them'

The letter, to Hefce chairman David Young, comes amid controversy over Exeter University's plans to close its chemistry department because of large financial losses.

But a Department for Education and Skills spokesman said this had nothing to do with the actions of Mr Clarke, who had consulted Cabinet colleagues on 22 July over their needs.

Vocational courses related to growing industries such as e-commerce, were also singled out in the letter.

Mr Clarke said: "Specification of these particular subjects does not mean that they are more important than others.

Subjects listed for protection
Arabic, Turkish and Middle-East studies
Asian and former USSR country studies
Japanese, Chinese, Mandarin and other far-eastern languages
Science, technology, engineering and maths
Vocationally oriented courses, especially for technology and creative/cultural industries
Courses relating to EU accession states, particularly eastern Europe and Baltic

"But, they have been pinpointed because there are particular concerns that on current trends we may not be able to produce enough graduates in these fields in the future and have them provided for in enough regions across the country."

He said universities were "autonomous bodies", adding: "We cannot force them to keep courses open, or to offer courses of a particular length or type.

"However, as a strategic body, Hefce is perfectly placed to give me advice on what encouragement and incentives we can introduce to meet our key objectives."

Mr Clarke said this would not involve extra funds or "a new set of policy initiatives".

The government wants towards 50% of people under the age of 30 to go into higher education by 2010.

A spokeswoman for Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said: "Employers' demands for graduate skills are constantly evolving, and university programmes need to reflect those changes."

Last year, Mr Clarke suggested that study for its own sake was merely "an adornment to society".

In a later statement, he added: "It is the wider social and economic role of universities which justifies more significant state financial support."

Shadow education minister Chris Grayling said: "Significant university departments are closing with increasing regularity; we need action now.

"Rather than vaguely seeking 'advice', the next Conservative government will provide at least 10,000 bursaries a year to protect key subjects like maths, chemistry and physics, and our 21bn investment plan for universities contains specific provisions to support important scientific areas."

David Rendel, Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman, added: "It is a disaster that we are losing these key subjects.

"In an increasingly global marketplace the loss of key sciences and languages such as Arabic is of particular concern."


FROM OTHER NEWS SITES:
Guardian Unlimited Clarke to save threatened courses - 13 hrs ago
TelegraphAlarm over courses - 13 hrs ago
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