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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 April, 2005, 02:10 GMT 03:10 UK
University science 'needs reform'
Several universities have closed science departments
University science departments must specialise more to avoid further closures, MPs have warned.

A report by the Commons science and technology committee says the current "winner-takes-all" funding system means some departments are under-funded.

Universities should work together to ensure they each concentrate on different specialisms, it adds.

Science is vital to the UK economy, but too many university departments dealing with the subject have closed, it says.

Exeter and Newcastle universities have recently respectively scrapped chemistry and pure physics degrees, which are among the most expensive courses to run.

'Cliff edges'

Under the current funding system, those given a world-class (5 or 5*) rating receive considerably more money than those of just national excellence (grade 4).

The MPs recommend reducing the steepness of "cliff edges" between different funding bands.

England has a "very high number of universities competing for relatively limited funds", the report says.

It urges universities within the same region to work more closely together, in a "hub and spokes" system.

This means every region should have at least one university science department with a 5* research rating - the "hub" - within it.

Departments elsewhere - the "spokes" - could specialise in areas such as teaching, with a fuller sharing of expertise between the two.

'Too many closures'

Countering possible claims that this might compromise universities' independence, the report says it is "reasonable, and indeed necessary, to ask universities to take account of national or regional interests in the decisions that they take".

Science is vital to the development of the UK economy, according to the MPs.

Committee chairman Ian Gibson said: "There have already been too many closures of university science departments.

"The government can't keep papering over the cracks and hoping that this problem will go away. A radical solution is needed.

"The new government needs to bang the heads of vice-chancellors together until they start looking beyond their own doorsteps to the wider national interest. Otherwise it can kiss goodbye to its economic goals."

But a spokesman for Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said: "Collaboration is already a natural and integral part of higher education in the UK at all levels of academic activity, in both teaching and research, and the sector is in the best position to explore how this can be enhanced and built on.

"A rigid structure that is imposed by the funding councils or government - as the committee suggested - would be not be desirable."

The MPs' report is called Strategic Science Provision in English Universities.

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