The UK might be "better off" with fewer - but larger and better-funded - chemistry departments, the country's leading vice-chancellor says.
Chemistry is an expensive subject to run
Professor Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, said the current funding system left some departments severely under-funded.
Many expensive-to-run university chemistry courses were "vulnerable", he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Exeter University is to stop offering the subject, to cut its £4.5m deficit.
The decision, to be ratified by a meeting of academics on 20 December, has led to widespread protests among students and researchers.
Sir Harry Kroto, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, said this week that he would return his honorary degree from Exeter as a sign of his disapproval.
Exeter's chemistry department has not been awarded a top grade under the system which decides much of current higher education funding.
It has been rated as grade 4, meaning it is of national, but not international, excellence, denoted by a grade 5 or 5*.
Exeter says the funding formula, which gives considerably more money to grade 5 or 5* departments, means chemistry is causing heavy financial losses.
Vice-chancellor Professor Steve Smith has called the cut "strategic".
Prof Crewe told Today: "There's a good argument for saying that the country would be better-off if we had a smaller number of well-funded and well-equipped, large chemistry departments, rather than a larger number of smaller and inadequately funded chemistry departments."
He said he appreciated the government's extra funding of higher education and acknowledged that fewer students were choosing chemistry.
However, Prof Crewe added: "Many departments are doing very good research of national excellence but funded to a much lower level than they used to be."
This led to "very considerable financial losses" in some subjects, which were not sustainable.
On Wednesday, Education Secretary Charles Clarke wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England asking what could be done to safeguard subjects vital to the UK's trade and security.
Chemistry and other sciences were among those listed.
Mr Clarke advocated a "long-term view" of the country's needs regarding universities.
The Department for Education and Skills says its dual funding policy is the "most effective way" of ensuring excellence.
The Royal Society of Chemistry wants £300m more for university chemistry departments.