Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Universities UK

  1.  Universities UK (our name changed from CVCP on 1 December 2000) is pleased to supply, as requested, a supplement to the memorandum we submitted in Summer 2000, reflecting the response of universities to Excellence and Opportunity: the Science and Innovation White Paper, and also related funding allocations.

  2.  The White Paper was warmly welcomed and enthusiastically supported by universities, building as it did on the earlier Competitiveness White Paper, which set a bold strategy for exploiting the UK knowledge base, particularly in our universities. The White Paper rightly identifies the central role of science and innovation in economic progress and improving quality of life. Equally rightly, it acknowledges the world-class quality of UK research, which has been sustained despite years of under-funding. That is a process that could not continue—it is good to see that progress has been made towards addressing the challenge. We also welcome the formal acknowledgement in the White Paper of the importance of the "dual support" system for funding university research, and also of the Government's key responsibility for funding basic research.

  3.  Universities have also welcomed the financial settlement for science and research, which accompanied the White Paper. The focus on new building, refurbishment and equipment will do much to redress a backlog that had grown up over many years and to which we had drawn special attention to this issue in our submissions to the Government. Indeed, in a number of respects the White Paper shows that the Government has listened carefully to the views expressed by universities. For example, the Government responded to submissions from universities about the mechanism for the allocation of the new funds, and has decided to adopt a formula-based allocation, based on quality and volume, rather than the costly and burdensome bidding process employed for the previous system, the Joint Infrastructure Fund. It was recently announced that the requirement for universities to provide 25 per cent of SRIF awards from their own or third party resources would be waived in the case of collaborative proposals; we regard this as a welcome incentive for inter-institutional co-operation. The early stages of the Transparency Review already indicate that public funding for research is allocated for the purpose for which it was given, and indeed that it is under-written from other sources. The task now is to ensure that government support for research is at least sustained at this level.

  4.  Generally, the White Paper is well-focused and the resources that accompany it will give a much needed boost to universities to help them play their part in realising the objectives identified. It should also feed through beneficially to the economy in due course. We would argue that in some cases it does not go far enough to tackle the problems it identifies.


  5.  The White Paper correctly identifies the current excellence of UK science education. It acknowledges a decline in graduate numbers in some science subjects, but it borders on complacency about the recent decline in demand from UK students for places in these subjects. For many years talented overseas students have been attracted to UK science and technology courses but this supply is threatened by increased availability of good quality undergraduate and postgraduate courses in their countries of origin as well as the entry of other suppliers of education into the market. The presence of overseas students has to some extent been masking the decline of the UK student intake to science and engineering in recent years.

  6.  The moves to attract science graduates to teaching are welcome, although in the current climate, their success could exacerbate the problem of graduate supply to business. The real answer must be to increase significantly the undergraduate intake to science and technology. It is possible that pupils' disenchantment with science begins as a result of being taught at early stages by non-specialist teachers. There is much to be done to make the curriculum relevant and attractive at the secondary level. The "Young Ambassador" and "Young Foresight" programmes are welcome, but they may need increased resource to be effective.


  7.  The White Paper also identifies a supply problem at the postgraduate level, where shortages of graduates and market forces tempt the best graduates into industry rather than research. This trend poses a long-term threat to the quality of R&D in both industry and universities. The proposal to increase stipends for research assistants is welcome: the question will be whether it goes far enough fast enough and whether it takes sufficient note of market trends in particular subject areas.

  8.  New funds to attract leading researchers to the UK are also welcome, but to be effective they will need to be accompanied by resources for postgraduate and post-doctoral support, as well as the continuing problem of overall salary levels in HE. Career prospects for post-doctoral researchers are a significant issue. Only a small minority can aspire to securing a permanent position in universities and so an early introduction to the world of industry and business is in their long-term interest. The Research Careers Initiative remains the main vehicle for progress at a national level and deserves support. It is only through a genuine partnership between industry, universities and government that these challenges can be met.

  9.  Companies increasingly seek to recruit graduates and postgraduates who are able and prepared to be involved in a broad range of company business, but they look to outsource their R&D to universities, for financial reasons and because of the speed of technological change. Science and engineering graduates will thus need to be both well versed in their specialisation but also entrepreneurial and flexible. Researchers will also need to be able to support fundamental research but also to offer high quality flexible research programmes to meet industrial needs. They will work in university-based research centres alongside industrially-sponsored groups, perhaps sharing facilities jointly funded by research councils and industry. The development of such a model—in which all parties agree on transparent resource allocation—could provide a tremendous boost to the UK economy; the alternative is that UK industry will turn to overseas centres for its R&D.


  10.  We welcome the support announced in the White Paper for knowledge transfer and research commercialisation. Indeed the list of support schemes grows increasingly long and complex, and we hope that the new HE Innovation Fund, announced in the White Paper, will in time provide the opportunity to make knowledge transfer funding higher profile, more streamlined and less bureaucratic. The White Paper contains many separate and distinct initiatives, which need to be developed strategically into a common view and plan of action between government, business and universities. We are concerned lest a situation persist in which universities, suffering from initiative fatigue, focus on funding that suits them and their internal plans, and companies find it too difficult and wearisome to navigate their way through potential opportunities. A truly joined-up approach is something we are still seeking.

  11.  Certainly we applaud the intention behind HEIF that it grow and become a permanent funding stream for knowledge transfer. Universities enthusiastically embrace the notion of "reach-out" or knowledge transfer to stimulate local and national economy, as a "third mission" alongside teaching and research. We trust that HEIF will evolve into a formula-driven rather than a bidding-driven scheme, based on flexible, generic objectives and measurable contributions to the economy. Universities will contribute more effectively to this goal if allowed the freedom to develop their own approaches rather than responding to a narrow and prescriptive set of criteria.

  12.  We commend the recognition in the White Paper and related spending decisions that universities are central to the growth and success of the knowledge-based economy. We believe that the survey of university-industry interaction, announced in the White Paper, will provide evidence to debunk the myth that UK universities are good at research but poor at exploiting it for the public good. Nevertheless we can all benefit from sharing good practice. That is why Universities UK is shortly to publish a guide to the management of university consultancy. And we will also work with government, as invited in the White Paper, to disseminate good practice in the effective management of intellectual property.

  13.  Many universities enjoy excellent relations with large businesses where their interests coincide, often to do with high level R&D and/or consultancy, although it can also be on the basis of work placements and the supply of skilled graduates for employment. These relationships have proved in many cases to be fruitful, but they need to be put on a more open, transparent, full-cost basis. Less common, but often achieving a higher profile, are relationships across a spectrum of large to medium sized firms in a particular sector (eg the motor industry or chemical engineering).

  14.  A more difficult relationship, but one which all are agreed is a key to our future economic success is the relationship between a university and one, or a cluster of, SMEs, especially in high-tech areas, which the White Paper identifies as central to future prosperity. The relationship is not an easy one for either side and we need help to make it work. The White Paper offers a number of potential solutions, and additional funding for interaction will certainly help universities build capacity for co-operation with business. However, we are less sure about stimuli on the demand side; we need to raise the low level of R&D investment in UK industry (recent figures are promising, and the Chancellor's pre-budget statement raised prospects of further incentives, but there is more to do). We also need a financial driver for SMEs who are often under such day to day pressure that the promise of jam tomorrow (ie future profit) is not compelling, and where there is cynicism about the usefulness and bureaucracy of Government intermediary bodies. RDAs may be able to contribute here, by focusing their resources on such things as cluster formation, incubators and business clubs. Until that happens, the UK will suffer from what a CVCP study this year called "a lack of absorptive capacity" to make the best use of the outputs of universities.

  15.  The commitment to further rounds of incentives to boost seed corn funds and entrepreneurialism in universities is also welcome. By spinning out their own companies, universities will obviously contribute more to economic development and begin by example to build stronger relationships with high growth SMEs. The Small Business Research Initiative proposal should also boost connections between SMEs and universities, if it allows universities to be involved with SMEs in the procurement process. This is the type of win-win situation where there are clear incentives for all players and which will lead to further co-operation in due course as the partners develop mutual trust.


  16.  The White Paper's emphasis on science and technology can overshadow the part to be played in innovation by other disciplines. The White Paper appears to regard knowledge and innovation, and the contribution that they can make to the economy and the quality of life, as solely to do with science and technology. But many of the new ideas in the knowledge economy, including innovation in the increasingly important creative industry sector, will come from research in other disciplines, including the arts and humanities. That is one argument for the establishment of an Arts and Humanities Research Council. We also need the insights and training offered in the social sciences and in business and management. Nor is it only research with evident commercial potential that is to be valued—universities are where fundamental long-term work takes place.

  17.  Our major concern, however, is with the wider funding needs of HE. There remain major teaching infrastructure needs and resources to enable universities across the board to recruit and retain high quality staff. The White Paper includes welcome measures to improve recruitment, but much more will be needed to attract the staff we need to work in our laboratories and supervise the research students who will be attracted by rises in PhD stipends. The needs of those universities—unlikely to be major recipients of research infrastructure funding, but who make an important contribution to the national research effort, not least by the teaching of graduates with research potential in key students—are also highly relevant.

  18.  We are aware of the science budget allocations to the research councils, but note that the details of the methods for allocating SRIF, UC, SEC and HEIF funds have still not been announced.

11 January 2000

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