U.K. earth sciences: some more equal than others?
U.K. Earth Sciences: Some More Equal Than Others? WHEN RONALD OXBURGH, professor of mineralogy and petrology at the University of Cambridge, was asked 2 years ago by Britain's University Grants Committee to come up with a scheme for rationalizing university earth science departments, the solution he produced was straightforward.
Oxburgh proposed that departments be placed in one of three categories with differing sizes and functions. Sophisticated research resources would be concentrated in a relatively few large departments. Others, somewhat smaller, would conduct some research but concentrate primarily on teaching honors students. And a third category would teach only first- and possibly second-year undergraduates.
The scheme had an obvious logic. But it came under immediate attack in the universities, where many saw it as the thin end of a wedge creating a clear hierarchical distinction between research and teaching departments, and perhaps eventually between two types of university.
Oxburgh's proposals raised alarm in fields far removed from the earth sciences, for similar reviews of other disciplines are currently being carried out by the UGC as part of a strategy aimed at increasing the concentration and selectivity of teaching and research resources in Britain's universities (Science, 18 March, p. 1371). The effort reflects government demands on universities that they should look for more cost-effective ways of using limited research and teaching resources.
The UGC has now responded to the criticisms of Oxburgh's proposals with its own scheme for rationalizing earth science departments. The UGC's plan, announced in its final form last month, accepts Oxburgh's premise that a concentration of resources is needed if Britain is to remain internationally competitive in the field. One result is that dedicated earth science activities are to be phased out from almost one-quarter of the 34 universities where the subject is currently taught.
However, rather than Oxburgh's proposed three "levels," the UGC has decided to adopt the more egalitarian concept of a "spectrum" of departments. There will be two main...