I received an email over the weekend from the President of Reading University Students’ Union informing me that the Department of Physics (in which I studied) is being prepared for closure. Yesterday, the BBC picked up the story.
Enrollment in physics courses across the UK has been going down for years, and the fact that the department only attracted thirty-five students is a striking low. It’s not a surprise that the University’s Senior Management Board is considering drastic measures. But this is also the fourth department to be scheduled for closure in as many years. While I was working in the Student Union we were fighting the closure of the Music department, and since then they’ve closed Sociology and Mechanical Engineering.
Closing a university department is a complex business, and they tend to be phased out rather than closed suddenly. In this case, should the University Senate and Council approve the decision, they won’t close for several years but instead will stop taking new students after this year. There will be an attempt to ensure a good experience for the current students, but post grads and academic staff will naturally be looking for more secure positions so some ‘drain’ is inevitable.
Beyond that, the University of Reading needs to be very careful about these ongoing changes. Whatever economic sense it makes to close down certain departments, and however well other parts of the university might pick up their curricula, four closures in as many years is liable to breed uncertainty. How many staff or students are going to want to go to a university who have proven that they can and will pull the rug from under your department after you’ve made your commitment to it?