[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Science and Technology Committee on the Research Assessment Exercise, Session 200102, HC 507, and the Government's Response thereto, Fifth Special Report, Session 200102, HC 995]
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you have an affiliation to Ipswich town football club. You know my feelings about that club. We have worked together on issues in Ipswich. I thank you for getting my name right the second time. Perhaps the Higher Education Funding Council for England might get the research assessment exercise right next time round too.
I am delighted to see so many right hon. and hon. Members in Westminster Hall. It shows their appreciation of the British university system and the endeavours of those who work in it to provide excellence throughout the academic world. We are revered throughout the world for the way that we educate our young people. I guess that the report ultimately says that we really can do better and that we hope we can persuade the Government to take up some of the issues that will allow that to happen.
The issue of funding in universities for research at all levels in the arts, the humanities and the sciences is extremely important. There has been an amazing swing over the past 10 years to private funding of research in universities as against state funding. That has troubled many people who work in the higher education sector. The independence of those who work in the universities is vital. MORI and other polls show that the public value people who are seen to be independent. If funding comes from corporations, it makes it difficult for individuals, however excellent they are and however independent they think they are, to get their message across.
Dr. Gibson : Of course that is true. At the same time, striking the right balance between blue-sky and functional research is difficult for any university, and certainly for Government Departments. We must try to get it right. We can never predict where blue-sky research will lead, but it must take place because amazing things can come out of it.
I return to the nitty-gritty of the Committee's second report of this Session, where we considered the REA. It has become part and parcel of university life, almost as important as car parking charges, office space and whether one has a carpet. Academics get excited by few things other than their own research but I can say from my years of experience that if car parking charges loom, if their office space has to be shared and if the RAE is looming, the adrenalin flows and the committee meeting structures develop overnight.
This RAE is clearly very important. It is taxpayers' money that goes into universities. We must ensure that those millions of pounds are monitored. Our Committee considered the way that it is done, the lessons we can learn and how we can move the system on. The results of the 2001 RAE show a dramatic increase in research ratings awarded to university departments. As research funding from the HEFCE is based on those ratings, it creates real funding problems when the money emerges to each and every university and their departments.
I shall make a quick point about the procedures for the debate. In line with the suggestion from the Liaison Committeeas hon. Members will know, the process involves the Chairs of Select Committees and two hours of penetrating debate with my right hon. Friend the Prime Ministerwe decided that we should have a substantive motion for the debate. We said that Westminster Hall was instigated partly to allow more opportunities for debate on Select Committee reportswe welcome thatyet restricting them to Adjournment debates diminishes their impact. However, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House ruled against our request.
We therefore believe that we should return to the Liaison Committee and say that debates might have a tougher flavour if they involved a substantive motion at the end. A vital part of the motion that we wanted for this debate was that we recognise that the research quality of the higher education sector has improved; we have considered the report's recommendations and the essential contribution that higher education research into science and technology make to society and the economy; and we call on the Government to fund the RAE results fully in the forthcoming spending review.
Instead of us all shaking hands, saying, "That was a good debate", and going home, such a motion would give pith to a debate and mean that we had something on paper. I hope that, through the Liaison Committee, we will toughen up some of the debates in this Chamber.
We launched our inquiry in November 2001, and the report was published in April 2002. We received 49 written memorandums from a range of organisations and individuals, and we had two evidence sessions, which involved the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Association of University Teachers, Universities UK and my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education. I welcome her to the debate.
I record with some sadness that an important debate in which many of us would have liked to participate is taking place in the main Chamber at the same time as this debate. I hope that we can ensure that the structures that organise debates consider that issue sensibly and allow hon. Members a chance to participate in both places within the House of Commons.
Some members of the Science and Technology Committeebrilliantly, I thinkvisited their constituency universities and operated in a semi-Select Committee environment. For example, I went to my local universitythe university of East Angliaand operated in a Select Committee environment there. That was an experience at the coal face with people who had been through not one but several RAEs and had built up experience accordingly. That fed into our report and was extremely important.
We considered the situation in England, of course, but noted the results from, and the decisions taken in, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We received the replies from the Government and the HEFCE on 21 June, and these were published on 26 June.
I shall give a few facts about the RAE 2001. Some 2,598 submissions were received from 173 higher education institutions, and 48,000 researchers were involved. There were substantial improvements in ratings. In 1996, 31 per cent. of research-active staff worked in 573 departments rated 5 or 5*, which are the top two grades; in 2001, the figure was 55 per cent. in 1,081 departments. In 2001, 64 per cent. of the research submitted was of national or international levels of excellencegrades 4, 5 or 5*compared with 43 per cent in 1996.
I congratulate all the individuals involved and commend the organisation within universities that achieved that very high standard. The way in which we have made such an improvement puts us second to none in all parts of the world.
We recognised, however, that gamesmanship could be involved in these things. After all, we are talking about the brightest people in Britain. I know that we in this place think that we are the brightest people in the country, but there are people outside who are equally bright, as we would acknowledge at a bad moment. They know how to play the systemdo not we all?and perhaps there was some selective entering and transferring of researchers, fiddling of the boundaries between departments and so on. Departments could increase their ratings by such mechanisms, but that was insignificant compared with the major improvement overall. We also had problems with the way in which the panels were selected to assess departments, with subject groupings and so forth, but those are minor points in comparison with today's difficulties and funding the vast improvement.
The Select Committee agreed that raising standards of research and encouraging universities through the RAE were important factors in developing research strategies. Those who say that universities are a crazy mix of people based in lovely campuses, on long holidays with permanent sabbaticals are so wrong. Universities have changed out of all recognition since some of us were students or started our careers. They know all about spreadsheets, they have examined the problems and they tackle them in a businesslike way as they try to react to Governments of whatever hue.
These positive aspects are important, but some of the detrimental effects of the RAE also emerged from our discussions. I went through it all myself and have the scars on my back to show it. I know about the friends
I shall outline some of the criticisms received from all quarters, and I invite right hon. and hon. Members to intervene if they would like to me to say more about them. It was argued that the RAE encouraged short-termism, distorted publication practice, discouraged interdisciplinary research, shattered staff morale and discriminated against women.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): On that point, I welcome the report's highlighting of the impact of the RAE on women and the under-representation of women in many departments. Does my hon. Friend accept that discrimination against women is deep-seated and cannot be explained solely in terms of women's greater domestic commitments? Universities also discriminate against women who do not have any children, so it is not enough to concentrate only on providing better child-care facilities or breaks for child care. The problem is more deep-seated and more fundamental action is necessary if universities are to use the full potential of their women employees.
Dr. Gibson : I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She has been a champion of that issue ever since I met her in the Palace of Westminster. The RAE is certainly a symptom and reflection of a more deep-seated problem. Few women run departments, and even today the Royal Society has only a few women members. That shows clearly that we must tackle a deep-seated institutionalised imbalance. I would welcome any new initiativesin the RAE or in higher education more generallyto deal with the problem.
We did not say it expressly in the report, but we need to examine what has gone wrong with higher education and why so many people at grassroots level are feeling so down at present. People in the higher education sector took part in yesterday's lobby. If more women gained top positions, it would help to encourage young women who do brilliantly in their first degree courses to continue into academic life. Mechanisms should be in place to make that easier. I welcome some of the Government's current initiatives to address these problems, but they were a long time coming and we are becoming impatient. Discussion of our analysis and results today should make a contribution.
Problems with the RAE have also contributed to departmental closures, as discussed in the report. Wider questions are relevant. What is the role of higher education and under what contracts do we employ people? Academics are now expected to do so much. When I first entered academic life, it was much easier for younger people starting out. I do not understand why it has become more complicated, but one is expected not only to teach but to be involved in community activities. One has to interact with regional development agencies, to undertake research and to consider knowledge transfer. There are tremendous pressures. No one ever asked me to start a spin-out company when I started
The policies are now much more aggressive, which people entering university find difficult. Questions may be asked later about whether departments can do all these things within the confines of a university, and whether the Government recognise that these important issues require different funding streams. Of course, when universities are trying to get research grades as part of the research assessment exercise, they forget that the buildings around them are dripping water and that the cement blocks that were built in the 1960s are no longer stable. We concluded that there have been benefits, but there has undoubtedly been collateral damage. Careers, which have distracted universities from other functions, have been a significant element of that process.
The most important issue for some people is the funding of the RAE. They achieve a higher standard, they feel good, the corks are popping all over the campus, and they wait for the cheque to come from wherever it does these daysit may be the vice-chancellor's office, if they are lucky. The HEFCE concentrated on funding 5* star departments at the top of the gradings. We believe that there is a shortfall of about £200 million in the system as a result of the improved grades. As many hon. Members know, 4-grade and 5-grade departments have lost money. I can take hon. Members to any university in this country: they will all say that their budgets are short by £80,000, £90,000 or £100,000. This is where HEFCE makes its savings. There has been an improvement in ratings, but the expected money on the existing formula has not materialised. The new universities, of which we were so proud, have been trying to get into the research culture, but have not been able to get that sort of money. Staff morale has fallen, and the structure is looking flaky. There is a crisis in university departments, and uncertainty about how they will adjust to having improved research, but having less money to do what they want to do. If people improve, their expectations rise. They want to do better and go from a 5 to a 5*, which we should encourage.
Bob Spink : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be a separate fund for the Science and Technology Committee to develop research facilities where they are currently weak, embryonic, or do not yet exist?
Dr. Gibson : The hon. Gentleman has read our script. We recognise the problem in our report. Some new medical schools told me that they have no money for research. Where is the equipment, the back-up or the ancillary staff to do that research? We need to define such new groupings. I am proud that the Government have set them up, but we must pump money into them. Some brave decisions need to be taken.
The HEFCE says that it is the Government's fault. The Government have broad shoulders, and I imagine that they can take that criticism, as they provide the money. The truth is that the HEFCE carried out a review after the 1996 RAE, and it is up to it whether to undertake the 2001 RAE. It took evidence from a wide range of organisations and researchers, and called them
There was an expectation in the academic community that grades would rise. It was known what had been done; people had been told in pre-runs of the exercise that grades were improving and it had been acknowledged quietly, on the side, that they had improved. The HEFCE then existed in an environment in which the thought was, "Right. We're on the way now, and things are going to happen."
The HEFCE could, of course, have said, "Well, what could we have done about it if it was going to improve?" I will tell hon. Members what it could have done: it could have postponed the RAE exercise until it had some indication from the Government how the money might be found for improvements.
On which side is the research directorate of the HEFCE? It seems to have a religious belief in the RAE, and has not understood the implications of the process. When they appeared before the Committee, HEFCE witnesses were arrogant and dismissive when it came to facing the damage they had done. The Department for Education and Skills should not delegate so many important decisions to a quango, as the Committee said, given the DFES's alleged underspend. More money could have been found to help the exercise and to fund the improvements. The Committee expressed disappointment at the level of involvement of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is the Cabinet Minister with responsibility for science.
A press release yesterday stated that there are plans to carry out a new review of the RAE. The research directorate is wedded to the RAE concept and cannot see its limitations, or indeed, when it has had its day. Thus it should be seriously suggested that the review is not carried out or is stopped until an independent body is set up to carry out an in-depth review of funding for research in higher education and to come up with a comprehensive plan for future funding in all the diverse areas of research activities in higher education. However, it would benefit the chief executive of the HEFCE if such an exercise were seen to be independent and would regain much of the confidence in the academic community that has been lost.
It is no wonder that the Committee said that there was a strong case for more money for higher education research in the spending review, not only to fund the RAE 2001 properly, but to address the chronic underfunding and imbalance in the dual research support system which everyone supports but is much underfunded.
I want to say more about the HEFC because, as hon. Members can tell, we are not the best of chums. It attacked the Committee's report, which is why I take the position that I do. I want to defend but I want also to explain why it was absolutely wrong in some of its assertions. It said, naming the Committee and me, that we behaved
The Government's response is relatively positive about the report, but vague. "We will consider your points in review," hardly turns me on. The way to deal with it might be to get them back after review and question them again, so I put down that pointer. We shall see what comes about.
The one point on which we differ concerns teaching versus research universities. It is not a new question, but it is worthy of a debate. The Government suggested that not all good teachers need to do research and that some need only to be scholars, but one cannot be on top of a subject without being involved in some cutting-edge thinking or research. Scientific knowledge cannot just be passively consumed; it must be challenged and moved on if it is to be of any value. In my opinionand I think the Committee's opinion toobeing taught by researchers is what distinguishes higher from further education. I thought that we were moving away from that when polytechnics became universities, because for me universities mean undertaking research and encouraging people to do likewise.
Teachers in schools and further education colleges are very good at their jobno one is questioning thatbut not necessarily at research. As the Committee noted, the science base demands people who have a special kind of brain and do an honours degree or MSc. We need people who can do research and question everything in a basic textbook. They must take nothing for granted and challenge everything. As someone who has taught, I have never believed a scientific statement, because I know that someone will challenge it.
One knows too, if one engages in research, that there are issues that have not yet reached textbooks. When were prions first mentioned in textbooks? People in the research community knew about them for some time, but textbooks did not carry information about them because there was not consensual approval from universities.
Dr. Starkey : Given that the Government are committed to increasing the number of university students to half the peer group, is my hon. Friend suggesting that all the extra teachers should be, or are capable of being, cutting-edge researchers?
It is when students do a research projectit does not have to be in a laboratory; it could be a library or literature projectthat they become excited and knowledgeable and start to question the subject. If we are just going to put the 50 per cent. into rote teaching, we will not achieve the highest possible standards. We must consider new curriculums and new ways of teaching and inspiring students to use IT. Such experiments are taking place in universities, but I do not get the feeling that they are being brought together. I appreciate the problem of the extra students, but before we consider the extra teachers, we must consider the extra lecture theatres and labs in which to teach them. That is particularly important for the sciences.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I have followed the hon. Gentleman's argument fairly closely, but does he not accept that some people may be gifted researchers but cannot teach students or communicate with them? I agree with him about the concept of students doing more research themselves, but we cannot expect excellent researchers necessarily to be good teachers.
Dr. Gibson : I accept that, and I know that many people cannot do research because they are not able to interact with equipment. They are all fingers and thumbs. However, that all goes back to how we educate those people in school and teach them in practical classes. Sadly, we have found that many people who will end up as lecturers are not getting that practical experience.
I know many lecturers who I would not have let near students, but sadly they had to do it. That problem is all about the selection process. When I was first appointed to university, I was never monitored for efficiency in teaching. I was monitored for efficiency in research, and training young lecturers and giving them opportunities in sharpening up the act. They do not have to be written off just because it seems that they cannot teach; universities have the resources to improve their teaching skills. The picture is changing. I agree that there are good teachers and bad teachers and that some are better than others, but I believe that teaching skills can be nurtured and are not genetic. People can be trained to teach more effectively and can learn by watching other teachers. The major issue is how teachers are appointed in the first place. Nowadays, when people are appointed to universities they have to give a lecture or two to students, who fill in questionnaires about how they have done. Such developments are perhaps not widespread enough but we are beginning to address the problem.
I do not accept that the HEFCE's criticism of us is valid. We took a wide range of evidence and a wide range of experience was reflected in the debates we had in local universities and so on. Some people argue that the solution to the problem is to move to the liberal arts college model for the first part of higher education, which would make sense given the increasing gap between the knowledge needed at A-level and that needed to start an honours degree. If that happened,
What is the way forward? The Select Committee thinks that there is a role for the RAE but that it needs to be less dominant and part of a broader university research funding strategy. We suggested that the HEFCE's research budget could be divided into four sections. Top rank departments could be exempted from RAE funding according to their external research income. Other departments could, as before, enter the RAE as a means of selecting and funding better departments. Some departments entering the RAE could bid for development funds, and there could be a fund to support the indirect costs incurred through external project funding. Funding must relate to the different activities that universities carry out so effectively.
The Select Committee welcomes the RAE and looks forward to an analysis of it. We hope that our report will play a major part in the thinking on the subject. The British university system has excellence and, at a time when the pressures are on to get more people into the system, we will struggle without that extra funding and if the starvation principles that have operated for some time are not removed. The crisis in universities will continue if those issues are not addressed. I thank hon. Members for attending and listening to the debate. The HEFCE and the Select Committee will get it right and move things forward.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir. Nicholas Winterton): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I point out that if the many hon. Members who wish to contribute to this important debate show an element of self-discipline, I am sure that they will all be called.
It is important to put the subject into context. Universities in part exist to engender a powerful economy. I was taken with a note that the Save British Science Society sent me this morning. It informs me that universities contribute £35 billion each year to the UK economy. The society was also good enough to give a helpful breakdown of what that means by county. Public bodies invest £104 per head in universities and research institutes throughout the UK, and Wiltshire would receive £64 million if the same figure applied there. To my horror, however, I see that the Higher Education Funding Council for England spent nothing
The society tells me that only one of Wiltshire's Members of Parliamentor 17 per cent. of the totalhas a science degree, but the figure for all Members is 9.7 per cent. My office telephoned the society to ascertain who that wonderful person was, and I found to my horror that it reckoned that I was a scientist. Given that I am a medic, I think that the society was stretching the term somewhat, although one gets some idea of the way in which medics are perceived. However, it was nice to be classified as a scientist, and I am sure that my physiology and biochemistry lecturer at the university of Bristol would be delighted.
It is highly regrettable that Wiltshire has no universities, but it is important to note that it has many schools. Like all Members, I visit many schools, and I talk to teachers. The Committee is currently studying science education for 14 to 19-year-olds, and it has come across from science teachers in particular that there have been inflationary pressures on A-level grades in recent years. That is important in the context of 5 and 5* university departments which, we are told, have increased from 23 to 55 per cent. of the total over the past nine years. I hope that that huge number reflects reality, but we must admit that inflationary pressures operate and ask what influence they have had on the apparently massive uplift in the success of our universities. From the evidence that I heard, I could make no progress in determining exactly where within the spectrum reality lay. The jury is out, and we should be a little cautious about popping the champagne corks and celebrating the apparent uplift in excellence at our universities. I hope that the figures reflect reality.
In her evidence, the Minister used the citation index to back up the view that there has been an uplift in university excellence. She rightly said that the index had increased by about 18 per cent. over the past four or five years. That gives some support to the notion that universities are excelling in a way that they did not a decade ago, but again we must sound a cautionary note. All of us who have recently been involved in research know that the number of libraries and publications has burgeoned, while the number of outlets for publications, papers, monographs and books has increased beyond recognition. We must accept that part of the 18 per cent. uplift over the past four or five years may be due to the increased number of outlets for scientific work and the liberal arts.
It would be wrong to debate this subject without mentioning some of the dissenters. When taking evidence, we met quite a few people who were concerned about the RAE's effect on universities. Professor Susan Bassnett, the pro vice-chancellor of Warwick university, made a powerful point about the proportion of researchers in 5 or 5* departments:
Going a little closer to my home, the British Medical Association is not really impressed with the RAE. It said that it encourages researchers to stick to safe researchin other words, research that it knows will produce publications. Perhaps it is saying that, in a rapidly evolving field such as medicine, we need researchers who are prepared to take risks. We can all think of examples where risk-taking by scientists in the medical field has pushed back the frontiers of science; penicillin is the example that is usually quoted.
The influential Russell group of universities is not very keen either, perhaps surprisingly, given that it benefits from the system, and says that the RAE encourages short-termism. In that respect, the report's recommendation that we should shift to a seven-year period for assessing departments is welcome, because it would give scientists longer to produce a track record of publications and research and, of course, bring scientists in line with those in the liberal arts.
We are concerned that the exercise does not examine whole departments. It seems bizarre that portions of university departments should be shunted into the cupboard. I can think of other forms of investigation in the public sector where that would be completely incomprehensible. It would be bizarre if Ofsted decided to examine only part of a school, so that schools were allowed to demonstrate only their strengths rather than being examined across the board. One might take the view that examination should focus on those that are not achieving as well as they should be.
I am interested in what I believe is a developing distinction between research universities and those that are principally involved in teaching. The Chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee raised the subject of medical schools. The Peninsula medical school in the south-west is one such example. It just happens that, by and large, medical schools have, rightly, been established in universities that have a research base of some sort, but I think that there may be a tendency to move towards teaching universities, and that may be accelerated by the need to have medical schools that provide teaching for a specific purpose. I have certainly heard criticisms that some new medical schools are merely doctor factories. That may be acceptable. In medical schools, there has always been a problem in trying to incorporate some research and basic science experience into the medical training. We may see a shift towards universities that are principally involved in teaching, and I would not be surprised if medical schools were to take the lead in that. It is difficult to see how some universities, such as Plymouth, can provide a fully functioning, research-based medical school like the one at Bristol university.
The Minister treated us to the usual argument about decades of underfunding, but when she got to the nitty-gritty, she was not prepared to tell us what she meant by that. In its evidence, Universities UK said that investment worth £10 billion was needed. The Minister prevaricated when I challenged her to say whether she
There is the important issue of priorities, which we discussed in the Select Committee. The Minister established several priorities. She told us that strengthening research excellence was one, along with increased participation, teaching and technology transfer. We then had a debate on how she was going to prioritise the prioritiespriorities should be prioritisedbut she did not fully take that up. I was a little concerned by that, particularly when she told me about more priorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) pursued the matter with her. As priorities generate funding, he was concerned about how the Minister would divvy up the finite resources available to her if priorities were not well set out.
I will moan a bit to the Minister because it is all very well talking the talk we have had lots of talk about priorities and decades of underinvestment and so onbut she baulks at the specific, which shows an element of self-indulgence. We need her to give us a commitment on what her exact priorities will be and how much money she will give to universities, given that she feels that they have suffered from decades of neglect. I sound a cautionary note to universities because we are told that the Government have prioritised primary schools during their first tranche of education initiatives. However, having visited the primary schools in west Wiltshire, I see little evidence of that. My message to the universities in my area is "Do not hold your breath."
Alan Howarth (Newport, East): I congratulate the Select Committee and its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), on producing an expert, lucid and provocative report. Colleagues of the Committee have complete confidence that it will have an independent voice.
My hon. Friend made some feisty remarks about HEFCE. I hope that the working relations between the Select Committee and HEFCE will none the less remain cordial. It is exceedingly important, in the interests of the universities and of science and technology in particular, that that should be the case.
I add to my hon. Friend's tribute to United Kingdom academics and scientists. This is not the occasion to talk about the achievements of our academics working in the humanities field, but many of the issues that are addressed in the report apply equally to them. They share in the academic distinction that the research assessment exercise has revealed. I am pleased that the Select Committee, and the Government, in their response to the report, have paid vivid tribute to the remarkable achievements of academia in this country.
In a way, those achievements defy gravity. Given the Treasury brutalism of the 1990s, it is remarkable that, in 2001 and 2002, our higher education system produces world-class research, apparently on an ever-increasing scale, and educates students in ever-larger numbers. The
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, is, to my recollection, the best Science Minister ever. I am well placed to say that, having been Science Minister myself. I readily yield the palm to him. In recent years, I was a member of a ministerial group on science, of which he was the chair. His passion, knowledge, practicality and ambition for British science impressed me greatly.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education is a formidable Whitehall warrior. The report was a shade unjust to my hon. Friend if it suggested that she does not do absolutely everything she can to secure the funding that the system needs. In fact, the Treasury is the ghost at this feast. That brings me to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, a corporeal ghost. He has already to his credit the facts that he has increased the science budget substantiallyby 15 per cent. in the 1998 comprehensive spending review and by 7 per cent. in real terms annually since the 2000 spending reviewand that £1.75 billion has been invested in university science infrastructure jointly with the Wellcome Trust, which should always receive tributes in this place.
My right hon. Friend also wants us to note the significance of the research and development tax credit which, he suggested in a speech to the Amicus trade union, might be worth about £500 million to companies that are innovative in research. It is interesting that he has chosen that policy route; it is an open-ended commitment on the part of the Treasury, whereas the Government, in their response to the Select Committee report, insist that the research assessment exercise cannot command a demand-led budget.
When I was Minister in the Department for Education and Science, I looked at the case for extending tax breaks to businesses to encourage them to undertake more research and development. That is an excellent thing if it is affordable. It is good for business culture. Its weakness is that it does not take account of quality. It is no substitute for proper support for the science base through the funding councils and the research councils.
We await with bated breath the outcome of the spending review, which we shall know soon. There are anxieties about what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will feel he can afford. The Government have taken an enormous punt on health, which will pre-empt the allocation of many of the resources that may be available in future. Those responsible for ensuring that there is funding for transport and the police insist that their needs are large. Unquestionably, it is crucial that we invest in education and in research and development
Investment is needed in many aspects of higher education: teaching and research; infrastructurethe transparency review has revealed how much that needs; the widening of participation, which gets more expensive the further we widen; the scandalous situation of academic salaries, which again is unjust and foolish; and students, whom we should like to do more to support. That just covers higher education, before we consider further education and schools. The economic prospects seem a little less assured than they did a few months ago. However difficult it might be for the Government to find the money to support our university system, it is essential that they do so.
It is extremely unfortunate that HEFCE could not fund the implications of the RAE announced last December. It is essential that it should be able to do so. It is not proper to ask the system to go through a vast procedure, to raise expectations and then to let people down. Previous assessment exercises were more or less fully funded, more or less straight away. The problem was that HEFCE had too little money. It is fair to note that the funding available to it to increase research in 200203 was a 5.9 per cent. increase to £940 million. However, it did not have the resources to fund the improvements that the RAE showed up, although significant improvements were predictable. Such money as it had was already tied up because of the three-year funding regime. When the RAE was published in December, the system was going to have to wait until July for announcements about what might be available for the future and until April 2003 at the earliest to receive the fruits of the public expenditure review.
There are advantages in three-year funding; it enables everybody to plan. However, there are disadvantages. It was unrealistic to expect HEFCE to keep money in its back pocket in the event that it might need to spend more as a result of the RAE. It could not withhold significant sums from an already underfunded higher education system. Nor was it realistic to expect the Department to keep money in reserve. Thus, the Department was able to find only another £30 million to help HEFCE to deal with the implications of the RAE, although the Select Committee computed that some £206 million was needed. The Treasury, however, could have found that sum from the contingency fund. It was affordable for Government as a whole and it is regrettable that they did not take action immediately.
The result was that, as Universities UK has impressed on us, all except five-star rated departments are to have their funding reduced. That is hugely demoralising. The university system is riven with discussions and rumours about department closures and redundancies of academics. The Association of University Teachers fears that up to 1,400 people may be redundant. It is immensely important to find the funding that we need in order to make good the situation as soon as we can.
Benefits have derived over the years from the RAE, including the discipline that it has brought to bear on research management and the focus on excellence. The Select Committee has also drawn attention to some possible unfortunate consequences. All will be examined in the review. However, it would be unfair to expect academics to go through a further RAE without the assurance that whatever might be implied by its findings would be funded. Only pure masochism or, perhaps, professionalism would enable them to do that. It is excellent that HEFCE has asked Sir Gareth Roberts to undertake the review of the procedure that is about to start, although it is a shame that it will begin in a somewhat blighted atmosphere.
The RAE has highlighted many issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) has drawn attention to those concerning women academics. I should like to mention the transparency review.
I trust that the Government will not await the findings of the review of the RAE before acting on the findings of the transparency review. HEFCE has told us that United Kingdom research in 19992000 was in deficit by £1.35 billion. That is more than the whole of the quality-related research funding that it has to distribute. Some 20 per cent. of that is due to shortfalls in payment by industry and charities, but 80 per cent., some £800 million, is a shortfall in what the Government ought to be paying.
Ten years ago, we spoke in Government about the low-price culture. In those days it was imposed by Government, because Government Departments would not pay what the research cost. I was pleased, therefore, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his address to the Royal Society, said that the response of the Government must be to encourage openness, transparency and honesty. True, he was referring to agriculture, but that should apply in all Departments. He also said that improvements in the Government's handling of science should continue. What was happening was graphically explained by Professor Sir Howard Newby at the CVCP conference in November 2000, when he said:
The Roberts report on the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills is enormously important. It draws attention to systemic problems that must be dealt with systemically. We do not have the qualified teachers that we need in schools and fewer pupils are taking mathematics and physical sciences at A-level. Between 1991 and 1999, the number of pupils taking A-level physics decreased by 21 per cent. and the number of pupils taking mathematics decreased
There are problems of curricula and facilities in both schools and universities. The figures relating to postgraduates are also alarming. The number of doctorates awarded to UK-domiciled studentsnote, UK-domiciledfell by 9 per cent. between 199596 and 19992000. However, there are problems of stipends and training. Equally, we face difficulties at post-doctoral level with pay and career uncertainties. There is poor recruitment of academic staff in mathematics and physical sciences, and the age profile gives rise to concern. Again, disgraceful pay lies at the heart of the difficulty.
I do not want to be too downbeat. We can be cheerful at the fact that the Government understand the problems. The Government commissioned the transparency review and the Roberts report, and they endorse the review of the RAE process that is being undertaken by HEFCE. The Government's response to the Select Committee report is far from defensive and acknowledges the issues. The biggest question is how much money they will produce to support the system, and we shall know that shortly. If they do not produce a step change in funding, I fear that the great creative endeavour of UK science could unravel, which would be a cultural and economic disaster.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton): Order. Once again, I appeal to all hon. Members to heed my request for succinct and brief speeches to enable every Member who wishes to speak to participate in this important debate.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome the opportunity to follow the distinguished gentleman who has just spoken, the right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth), who was a Science Minister in his day. I have not been a Science Minister, although I happen to be disciplined in the queen of sciences. To declare an interest, one of my daughters is a general practitioner and another teaches science in a secondary community school. I am an office bearer on the parliamentary Scientific Committee.
Although I welcome the report, I believe that it has given us grounds to seek a wider review of research and university funding. There is no point in saying that things must be done in certain ways if the finance is not available. I speak from my experience in Northern Ireland where, during the 1990s, research funding in universities decreased by 53 per cent., whereas in the UK as a whole, it increased by 9 per cent. It is important that we achieve a better balance. Although improvements have been made in universities in Northern Ireland, research funding to the university of Ulsterwhich did remarkably well in a recent reviewis to be cut by 4 per cent. in the year 2002-03. When we compare universities in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, we see that £24 per head is allowed for science in Northern Ireland, compared with £58 in Scotland, £44 in England and £35 in Wales.
I was fascinated to discover in the paper presented to most of us by Science that of the 18 Members of Parliament who have a scientific degree, only one is from Northern Ireland. That works out at 5.2 per cent., compared with 9.7 per cent. of all MPs who have degrees in science. However, they miss an important aspect. Universities in Northern Ireland have produced some outstanding homespun scientific industries; one need think only of Northbrook Laboratories, Galen and Randox Laboratories, all of which emerged from the work done by the research departments at Queen's university.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned gamesmanship, and people in the sector are perhaps learning the parliamentary skill of spinning. However, he is right that not everything can be put down to gamesmanship, and if the nation is to benefit from the world of knowledge, we must recognise and support the positive developments that have taken place.
However, the funding and the improved RAE showing that were expected as a reward for that pain have not materialised. That begs the question of what incentive our universities have to take difficult decisions and to improve their research abilities if their funding does not improve or is, indeed, cut. Funding should reflect the dramatic improvements that were made across the spectrum from 1996 to 2001. We should recognise those improvements, and not sit back and say, "If you could make improvements with that amount of funding, we're not going to give you more in the future." That is not what we should do.
I hope that we shall redress the anomalies, such as the dichotomy between research and teaching. Ultimately, a university should not be penalised for providing good teaching but not doing enough research. We should not focus only on the superb research, and forget that all research should be evaluated. Often, research that does not appear to be important at the time becomes the seed from which other knowledge springs. All research should, therefore, be evaluated and acknowledged.
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): I begin by declaring a non-pecuniary interest as a member of the advisory council of the Institute of Historical Research at London university, which has just been subject to the RAE process.
I have a long-standing interest in this issue as a former Open university lecturer. I was also the editor of "History Today" for 12 years, when, rather like the Chairman of the Committee, I listened long and hard to academics in the humanities and across the board complaining about the RAE. It is worth reminding hon. Members that such criticisms are not new; they were
That is important. Those in HEFCE can say until they are blue in the face that those other areas are looked at and, with respect, so can the Government. However, as other Members have pointed out, the hard fact is that interest follows the money and unless money is made available to those other areas for extending pastoral care, outreach in the community and teaching, the focus will change.
The Select Committee is to be commended on this excellent and robust report; such a report was necessary. I especially welcome the comments on the effects of the RAE on interdisciplinary study and on the distortion of scholarship. We are right to talk about the fears for blue-sky research in a system that sometimes seems to place too much emphasis on process and not enough on discovery. That point was touched on in an article by Sir Harry Kroto and Tony Staceboth distinguished professors at Sussex universityin The Times Higher Education Supplement in February 2002.
As someone who comes from the humanities field, I want to point out that there is a problem there too. The director of the Institute of Historical Research, Professor David Cannadine, made that point forcefullyI think at his inaugural lecturewhen he said:
There is a significant lack of transparency about the reward to be gained from this process. Again, in giving evidence to the Select Committee on Education and Employment in April 2000, Dr. Roger Brown of the Southampton Institutea distinguished critic of the operation of the RAEwas asked the following question by Professor Middlehurst:
The report mentions the collateral damage that can be caused by an over-emphasis on the RAE. I have touched on that point already. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) is deeply committed to the outreach and teaching processes. However, if there is not a weighting for other activities and if we cannot find some form of structure that is not so top-heavy, inevitably the bright 30-something young lecturer or academic, faced with the dilemma of whether to devote attention to research or to other activities, is likely to put the other activities to one side.
I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has said; HEFCE has been both complacent and arrogant in its response to the report. There is ample evidence also that RAE, as it functions at present, inhibits collaboration. That is also true in the humanities. There are significant interdisciplinary problems in the sciences, but there are also problems in the humanities, particularly in the new universities.
The RAE, whether it wishes to or not, can also devalue teaching. There are no fiscal incentives for teaching as there are for the research, even though money may go in. The chairman of HEFCE admitted as much himself and the Minister made that point in the evidence that she gave to the Select Committee. She rightly refused to rank research above increased participation, teaching and technology transfer. That point needs to be made. We must also avoid creating an apartheid between teaching and research. The new universities must not lose out. Again, I think that HEFCE is complacent and smug, especially in view of the Association of University Teachers' statistics, which show that 75 per cent. of its funding is currently allocated to only 26 universities.
We must give credit for innovative ways of communicating and disseminating research and best practice in teaching both online and in published form. That is not something that the RAE does easily at the moment. We should ring-fence funding more directly to reward those who have won it for high ratings and prevent charges that this money is not accounted for properly.
I should be appalled if the RAE fixed the current academic situation in aspic. A Government who are committed to broadening education and higher education participation and a party that was the proud founder of the Open university should not support uncritically a system that threatens to preserve a hereditary elite of departments or universities via the RAE. That is why it cannot just be left to HEFCE. That is why the Government and my hon. Friend need to take a more active part in the process.
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): First, I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and the Minister for the fact that I will not be here for the winding-up speeches due to another commitment.
The tone of the debate so far has been a little negative. We ought to recognise that what we have seen over the course of the past four or five years is an improvement in the standing of our university research institutions. As the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) remarked in his opening comments, 31 per cent. of research staff were in 5* departments in 1996. That has increased to 55 per cent. in 2001. In Hampshire, 76 per cent. of staff submitted to the research assessment exercise are in five star departments. That is a great tribute to the universities of Southampton and Portsmouth, one of which is longer established, and the work that they have done to improve the standard of research in those two institutions.
Money should follow excellence, and we have a mechanism that has examined the quality of the research produced by universities. We may cavil at the games that universities play on who is in and out of the research exerciseit is important to revisit that process for the next round of reviewsbut we should reward institutions that are academically successful. We must remember that in the environment in which universities operate, the market for high quality staff is not restricted just to the United Kingdom. They also compete in the international arena for good quality academic research staff. If we are able to fund world-leading departments, the chances are that we will recruit more of those staff to the UK and, crucially, retain those whom we have nurtured and prevent them from escaping in the 21st century version of the brain drain.
The Committee examined whether HEFCE was properly rewarding the knowledge transfer activities of universities, and there was some doubt about whether universities were getting full value from their work. It was interesting to note that many felt that the panels that visited universities were a little light of industrial representatives who could have made a valuable contribution in assessing the quality of research and knowledge transfer. HEFCE should examine that problem in conjunction with employers and industry.
One piece of evidence to the report that reinforces that concern was the evidence that more patents were submitted by departments with low ratings for research output. That demonstrates that departments are producing research that requires patents but not getting full value, and we must examine that.
On community involvement, I represent an area that is dependent on technology transfers from universities for its future prosperity. After visiting schools in my constituency, I am conscious that we are not seeing scientists in classrooms or encouraging enough pupils to follow through to A-level and degree science. They are not being pulled through the school system because they do not see role models from universities and industry. If the pressure is always on academics to publish research, whether that is in salami-sliced packets or not, they may feel that activities that are not rewarded by an explicit funding stream are not valued. That might stop them going out into schools and the wider community to promote the message that science is important to the nation's economy.
On regional presence, the Department's response to our report said that it felt that there was a good regional coverage of research facilities. That clearly does not include the county of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), which received no money from HEFCE because it has no universities. That is one area where there is not a wide coverage of research facilities, but I am concerned by the increased concentration of resources. The funding weights, which show that resources have been moved from departments rated 5, 4, 3a and 3b, also demonstrate that we might see a greater concentration of funding in particular universities and the risk that, over time, good quality research will not exist in certain parts of the country. That is a major concern. If students and industry are to have access to high quality research facilities, the local economy will miss out.
From talking to parents and others, I am acutely aware, as is the Minister, that more students are living at home because of the problem of financing university participation. If students are forced to draw only on their local universities for higher education and if good quality research becomes concentrated in fewer universities, those staying at home might not have access
The concentration of funding, coupled with the Government's desire to increase participation in higher education to 50 per cent., might force usperhaps implicitly, rather than explicitlydown the United States route, where there are teaching universities and universities dealing with research and teaching. Colleagues on the Science and Technology Committee with more experience of universities than me expressed concern about a new binary divide opening up in higher education. When the comprehensive spending review is published next month, we must have a proper debate on the role and function of universities. We shall have to decide on our priorities.
It was important that the Science and Technology Committee exhaustively reviewed the application of the research assessment exercise in universitiesat least as far as science and technology subjects were concerned. Aspects of the RAE have proved controversial, and those who were directly involved in the exercise in the past knew about the problems. I am pleased that the publication of the report has catalysed the HEFCE into promoting a report of its own. Under the chairmanship of Sir Gareth Roberts, I hope that it will examine the subject in greater depth.
We recognised that the RAE concentrated the minds of academicsin particular those who managed research in university departmentsand resulted in better management of resources and facilities. Quality has improved, as the report states, but it has done so selectively, not across the board. I am especially concerned about the pressure on blue-skies research. We must promote the Harry Krotos of this world, and they must be given time to think. In universities today, too little time is available to think about research; we must lever that time back in again, otherwise we might miss out on some of the greatest inventions.
The RAE has had some beneficial effects, but we have also seen collateral damage. All of usespecially the HEFCEmust ask whether the exercise has been beneficial to university life as a whole. University life is not all about teaching and research: many aspects involve interaction with industry and the rest of the community. The RAE has certainly been a bureaucratic exercise. Sixty assessment panels assessed 200,000 publications submitted by 50,000 academics in the last RAE in 2001. Whenever we ask about the costs, it is difficult to obtain a hard figure. Is the expenditure of money and time worth while overall?
Universities contribute £35 billion to the UK economy. In some constituencies, including my own, they are major employers. Bolton Institute is one of 119 higher education institutions, albeit not yet a university even though it awards its own undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. I hope that it will be a university before too long.
My anxiety is that many university science, engineering and technology departments are closing. We cannot blame that all on the RAE, but some of the damage is collateral to it. As a result of the 2001 RAE, 55 out of 119 institutions have suffered real-terms cuts in research funding. Some are set to lose more than £1 million, others much more than that. Cranfield university is set to lose £3.1 million; other losers include the university of Greenwich; Queen Mary, university of London; and my old alma mater, the university of Hull. The Institute of Cancer Research is also set to lose money, which will be of interest to our Committee Chairman who takes a great interest in cancer research.
Only the research of departments with a 5* grading has been protected in the current RAE. All others have lost funding in real terms. The Committee estimated that the 2001 RAE required funding of £206 million, but the Government offered only £30 million. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what representations she has made in the 2002 comprehensive spending review to ensure that universities catch up in what in recent decades has been a loss-making exercise.
Cuts in research funding mean the loss of jobs, and in some cases the loss of departments. It is estimated that the RAE might cost 1,400 academic and support-staff jobs. Yesterday, we were lobbied by the Association of University Teachers, of which I remain an honorary member. I met representatives from Bolton Institute and from the university of Salford, where I taught chemistry for 31 years. Seventy jobs30 academic-related and 40 support-staff jobsmight be affected at Salford, although some of the people involved will be redeployed in that or another university. A similar number of jobs are affected at UMISTthe University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technologyand 80 to 120 jobs might be affected at the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary, university of London. Those are significant numbers.
Those are examples of the damage that we are doing to our universities not only as a result of the RAE, but for other reasons. I was pleased by the Prime Minister's important speech at the Royal Society on 23 May. He said that he was committed to supporting and expanding the science base, which, after all, is our future. However, things are not so good on the ground. I am hopeful that the Government will reverse that position when the next comprehensive spending review is published.
Since the start of the RAE, 18 chemistry departmentsat least, units of cost referring to chemistryhave been lost. We expect 11 more chemistry departments to suffer the same fate as a result of the current RAE. If that happens, only about one quarter of the 119 institutions that I mentioned will teach chemistry. More and more students live at home because of pressures of fees and maintenance costs, but whatever the reason, every student who has to live at home should be given the opportunity to study chemistryor any other subjectat a local university.
I am worried about the middle league of universities. In the RAE, there is a struggle upwards to achieve. Those that get 3a or 3b will not be funded at all, despite the recommendation of the AUTwith which I agreethat they should be. Middle-league universities wrestle with themselves about whether they can keep research going. For example, one department at Salford university is set to close. Even though its staff have worked so hard that they have managed to get into fourth position and set the university on an upwards trend, Salford has decided that its chemistry department is in the middle league and can no longer be funded.
There has to be time to think in universities or we will miss out on some of the greatest innovations and discoveries. At the moment that time does not exist because huge pressure is put on academic staff. Businesses should be subject to business pressures, but it is unfortunate that universities are too. That is not always right.
The Committee is right to point out that the RAE process has positive effects of stimulating universities into managing research and ensuring some strategic direction in the apportioning of funds. However, as the report says, there are several problems with the RAE process, which distorts research practice in many ways. An excellent example of that is the way in which university presses rush out publications. The university of Wales press, for example, has published about a dozen books in the past monthit usually produces at most one or two a month.
As the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) said, the RAE process distorts in another sense, and I shall concentrate on that in my brief remarks. Inherent in the RAE process is an explicit tendency to concentrate resources on existing centres of excellence. There is unresolved tension between the research driver and the third, regional mission in terms of technology transfer and regional presence.
The RAE process is an example of something that economists suggest should never occur: increasing returns to scale. If an institution achieves high-quality research it receives further funds, which enable it to consolidate its position of strength. It is a virtuous circle for successful institutions, whereas weaker university institutions can be locked into relative weakness.
As we have heard, that is of concern in Northern Ireland; it is also of concern to us in Wales. The report picked up two aspects of that issue, the first of which is local research. I read the Government response on that, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that local research tends to be regarded as parochial. Even Wales-level researchnational research to usin the social sciences and economics is not thought to have sufficient international stature or to be of sufficient interest to be published in refereed journals. That is of concern in terms of embedding university institutions within their
On research funding, the Government have placed the role of HE institutions at the forefront of the policy agenda in regional economics, in the Dearing report and in the White Paper on competitiveness and science and innovation. There have been substantial improvements to the science base in Wales. I am glad that Cardiff now has the seventh-best performing university institution in the United Kingdom. There has also been a significant improvementa quadruplingin the number of departments in Wales achieving 5* plus ratings since 1996.
Nevertheless, there is concern in Walesas there is throughout the UKabout whether that improvement can be sustained with existing funding. For instance, Wales receives only 3 per cent. of research council funding. I acknowledge that that is a slightly different issue, but I have made the point that there are territorial dimensions to research funding. The Minister will be aware from the higher education review in Wales that Higher Education Walesthe umbrella body for university institutionshas called for additional investment of £90 million through the next CSR. It, too, will be waiting with bated breath for the Chancellor's response.
That is important because of the role that such institutions play in economic development. We are all aware of the importance of knowledge capital to driving economic growth, particularly in peripheral regions and those that are economically disadvantaged. The Minister will be alive to that tension, which was amply demonstrated by the debate about the synchrotron facility, which was situated in the Rutherford Appleton laboratory rather than in Cheshire.
The interesting debate about whether there is a role for the regionalisation of science policy mirrors a debate that has been taking place in the European Commission for many years between the directorate-general for regional policy and that for innovation and competitiveness. There is tension focused on global competitiveness: there is a clear argument for concentrating on existing centres of excellence, but if we do that, there is a danger that we will lock poorly performing regions into their current economic position.
The experience following the debate in the north-west is instructive. A regional science council has been formed, and there is interest in Wales for a Welsh science council. The Government's response leaves that door open, but might it be possible to consider a parallel network of science and technology councils throughout the UK alongside the network of regional development agencies in England and the existing institutions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? That would allow a creative interplay between regional development policy on one hand, and science and technology policy on the other.
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): The question that we should address is simple, although the answer is rather complicated. Does the outcome of the RAE contribute towards generating scientific excellence, or excellence in any other disciplines, within our university system? Especially after having participated in the Select Committee's own exercise on the RAE, I have to say that the jury is out.
The only thing that we can be certain of is that the apparent gradings of research have improved. However, gradings are just that: they are measured by artificial scales and do not necessarily mean what they seem to mean. Anyone who has been involved in research knows that every measurement process can introduce its own kind of bias.
To what is the dramatic improvement in performance due? Are researchers trying harder? Some of them may be. Or are they being measured differently? Are universities getting cleverer in some cases at manipulating the system to maximise their apparent performance, or is the improvement due in some measureI suspect that it isto the extra resources that the Government have put in since 1997? It is not difficult to get an accurate answer to that question. Whatever anyone thinks about the report on the RAE, it has been enthusiastically welcomed by university faculties, so we have struck some chords somewhere and we have some valid points to make.
There is no doubt that the system has been manipulated. For example, my local university, the university of Sussex, has achieved a remarkable increase, with a very high percentage of departments rated at 4 and 5, although not 5*. The university took the consciousand clearly quite unwisedecision not to ration the faculty members that it put into the RAE; it put them all in. If it had been selective, it would have come out with some 5* departments and an increase in funding from HEFCE. As it is, it faces an £800,000 cut in its HEFCE funding.
Several hon. Members have mentioned Harry Kroto, who is a member of the faculty at the university of Sussex. Let us suppose, for the sake of RAE assessments, that he was a piece of property and the university was choosing a faculty to submit. It would not submit Harry because he does not publish that often, but when he does, he gets Nobel prizes. We really have to question the value of that quite seriously.
Hon. Members mentioned blue-skies research, which is absolutely essential. What pays for blue-skies research? HEFCE funding. Because they have not manipulated the system and got stars, the university of Sussex and many other institutions that have either retained or increased their RAE ratings face cuts and cannot sustain blue-skies research as they shouldor if they can do so, it is only with great difficulty. There is no doubt that departments will close. It is an inexorable process.
The RAE and its adverse consequencesI hate to keep focusing on the adverse consequences, but they exist, so let us recognise them and count themcome on top of a very long period, which includes the 18 years of Tory rule, during which universities have not had proper funding, and faculties and the other support professions working in universities have been drastically underpaid.
If we were to realise the input into our society that universities have traditionally made and the need to maintain and build on it, whether it is for the intellectual or commercial health of society or whatever, we would understand that universities have a central role to play. They have been subject to gross under-investment for far too long. There are tremendous returns for the nation from investment in universities, but subjecting them to almost Thatcherite management assessment proceduresthat is what the RAE isthen giving them less money when they have improved their performance, will not produce the goods.
The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), among others, referred to a dichotomy between research and teaching. There should be no dichotomy. If institutions are to be worthy of the label "university" research and teaching must go hand in hand. As a student, I was fired up by lecturesindeed, by any form of contact with scientists of repute who were at the cutting edge of research. One cannot describe the difference between hearing something from the horse's mouth and hearing someone who is simply repeating the textbook, however good a scholar he might be. We put such contact at risk by encouraging a dichotomy, by underfunding universities, and by distorting funding as the RAE has done.
The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), said that the Government's response to the report was broadly favourable. I think that the Government understood much of what we said. We had what could almost be called a stout rebuttal from the HEFCE, but that means very little given that it has said that it will set up a review. I agree with hon. Members who have suggested that any review should be carried out not by the HEFCE, but by an independent body. If they are looking for a body that could really do the job, I would suggest the Science and Technology Committee, although, this time, we would like to be paid, thank you.
There must be some way of measuring performance, but it need not be as bureaucratic as the RAE has been, or involve people in working to meet its requirements for most of five years, every five years, as the RAE has done. Incidentally, why must science faculties go through those hoops every five years, given that faculties of humanities and the arts do so only every seven years? There is no logic to that.
The RAE has resulted in scientific literature being stuffed with potboilers, because people do not wait to finish their research. They do not wait to publish the blockbuster paper, but have to publish their work in
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The winding-up speeches from Front Benchers will begin at 5 o'clock, and four other hon. Members have indicated their interest in speaking before then. We shall adjourn at half past 5 o'clock.
Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): My colleagues the hon. Members for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) have already mentioned the importance to the north-west of regeneration through science. I will not repeat the statistics, which I imagine we all received from the Save British Science Society, because I am sure that no one in this Chamber doubts the importance of science to regenerating the economy.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Biochemical Society annual general meeting. The major part of the morning's proceedings was taken up with the research assessment exercise. It came through clearly that there has been a dramatic increase in ratings. Some anxiety was expressed that the validity of those ratings might be a bit suspect, but there seems to be considerable confidence in the ratings increase because of the international peer review aspect of the research exercise. We should celebrate British science and the value for money that it brings, because for every £1 million spent it is first in the world in terms of publications and citations.
Concern was expressed at the meeting that some research departments had not included all their researchers in the exercise. The Government should take up that issue because it results in a degree of invalidation and makes it difficult to compare like with like. As members of the Biochemical Society recognised, the RAE has had a beneficial impact on quality, but there is no doubt that there is unnecessary bureaucracy and damage done to morale. It was repeatedly said that the exercise had produced improvements in quality, but funding had not followed. Hon. Members have already referred to the lack of comparability between remuneration for research posts and that for professional posts in other spheres.
There is less emphasis on quality teaching. Until a year ago in June, I was a science teacher, and I have listened carefully to the comments that have been made about teaching universities and research universities. I would be very concerned if we moved towards a situation in which there were universities that were only teaching universities. The vibrancy that comes from being part of a university community that produces research is important for young people.
However, I take issue with some of the comments made by the Chairman of the Select Committee. Researchers do not necessarily make good teachers: teaching is a completely different activity from research. It must be backed up by the sort of understanding that does not necessarily come from a university environment where research is seen as the main focus of
One or two hon. Members mentioned that the decline in study of the physical sciences at A-level results from lack of contact with scientists, but as a teacher of A-level chemistry, I found all too often that the experience given to students by people engaged in active research was way over the students' heads and impossible for them to understand. In those circumstances, it was almost a waste of time. Young people need to be taught, and teaching is a different activity from reporting.
Mrs. Calton : I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of the point that I was going to make. With the increased participation that we hope to achieve, there must be a recognition that some of the young people who come into our universities might require a much more careful teaching regime than some of their highly qualified predecessors did. That is not a matter of high versus low qualifications; it is because in this country we have a tendency to think that just because a person has not studied a subjectlet us say chemistry, although it could be any subjectbefore university, he will not be capable of learning it. In fact, other countries have demonstrated that young people can pick up such subjects at university. They do so through effective teaching programmes rather than through an assumption that if they are sat and talked at for long enough by people who are stimulating enough, they will necessarily learn what they have to learn. There is far more to it than simply putting people in contact with university academics.
The Biochemical Society was concerned that the RAE would lead to the stifling of speculative research, referred to by hon. Members as blue-skies research. I have wondered once or twice what people will make of this debate in five years' time, when the blue-skies idea has moved on. The RAE just about rewards the good, but seedcorn is definitely needed for the up and coming. The clear message from the Biochemical Society was that expectations have been raised and dashed.
I am concerned that in my region the RAE has ended up as a driver in the proposed amalgamation of UMIST and the University of Manchester. There will be job losses in successful departments. I have had letters about that from constituents in the past few days. One said, among other things:
I ought to declare an interest: I am a graduate of UMIST. My concern is that despite the undoubted potential benefit of amalgamation in terms of bringing together those with academic and commercial backgrounds, that does not seem necessarily to be the driver.
Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): I congratulate the Select Committee on its excellent report. There is much that I was going to say that I will not now say, and much that I did not intend to say that I will now say. Having said that, I do not think that I will have time to say very much.
There is definitely a need for quality research. The RAE has an important role and must be seen to be effective in that role. Clearly, excellence is required. If we consider the number of organisations involved in higher educationthe HEFCE, the research councils, the Department for Education and Skills and the Office of Science and Technology in the Department of Trade and Industrywe can see that many bodies have their fingers in the pie.
People have mentioned the UK's achievements, including our position as second highest in terms of publications and citations. That is an important parameter, but it is not necessarily an indication of quality; rather, it is an indication of quantity. Previous speakers have raised important issues about the quality of publications and citations. We must ensure that research is not carried out merely for its own sake, but that it makes an important contribution to the body of knowledge, so that where possible it can be exploited commercially and in other ways.
As someone who trained as an electronics engineer in the polytechnic sector, where the quality of teaching and links with industry were excellentalthough my institution did not have a research backgroundI know that some of the polytechnics did a great job. To turn them into universities is one thing, but to expect them to behave exactly as the old universities do is difficult and not necessarily desirable. As a postgraduate, I spent four years at university in Manchester doing several qualificationsone of which, strangely enough, was a university of Manchester certification of educationand I totally agree with the analysis of the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton). I have met many lecturers who teach and many excellent academics and researchers, but not many who can do both.
I spent six years working as a design engineer at the Daresbury laboratories for the Science and Engineering Research Council. I also worked at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, now the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, in Malvern, so I have seen
Although it is important to encourage and fund excellence, we should not penalise the good. The best should not be the enemy of the good, and the more science and research that goes on, the better. From my political perspective, underfunding had a Thatcherite tone until 1997. That attitude should not be allowed to continue today.
Output is important in research practice, but it is also important that research does not take place in a vacuum. I have visited the United States several times, and I have always been impressed by the way in which universities are enmeshed with Government organisations, private companies and even the defence community. A whole establishment exists around science, and research is not seen simply as the academic pursuit of good science for its own sake.
Other hon. Members have mentioned morale and careers, so I shall not go into those issues. They have also made excellent points about pay and about the participation of womenthe arguments about the latter being applicable in many other spheres of working life.
In his speech to the Royal Society, the Prime Minister drew attention to national priorities, some of which are controversial, such as genetic modification and the biosciences. Excellent work is being done in nanoscience, and subjects such as light-emitting polymers, e-science, the biomedical sciences and the post-genomic world are important for the future. We should focus on the long term, not just on the short and medium terms.
When I was at Daresbury, much of the work that was being done on the synchrotron generator and the Van de Graaff generator was aimed at blue-skies research. Such research is not a passing fadI part company with the hon. Member for Cheadle in that regard. We need blue-skies research, and it must be publicly funded. If it is not, it will not for the most part be conducted at all, because only mega-corporations have the necessary finance.
Mr. Hendrick : I will not give way, because other hon. Members want to speak. If the hon. Lady wants to raise the issue privately with me after the debate, I will be happy to chat with her. There is much to be done in blue-skies research.
Objective assessment is important in terms of rating, raising standards and improving strategies. Good research clearly contributes to the available body of knowledge and it can be commercially exploited, although it need not be. The aerospace industry is strong in my area, and it is important both because of the spin-offs to developing industries and because of the spin-in from companies that do their own research. However, although industry contributes a great deal to research, it
Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale): Congratulations, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your knighthood, which is well deserved. I also congratulate the Science and Technology Committee on its excellent report, which will allow me later on to raise the specific constituency issue of the future of Daresbury. The laboratory is not quite in Cheshire, but in the borough of Halton, although I will not argue about the geography.
The report does three things. It draws attention to the fact that science research is underfunded, and calls on the Government to commit at least an extra £206 million in the comprehensive spending review. It also draws attention to the fact that several bodies are responsible for funding scientific research. The HEFCE funds universities, while the Office of Science and Technology directly funds places such as Daresbury laboratory. Those bodies must work together to ensure that science research has a future.
Paragraph 55, on page 24 of the report, notes that we need to introduce a regional dimension if we are to sustain a broad-based approach to science that extends across the whole economy and is not centralised around a few centres of excellence. I take precisely the same view.
I do not have many scientific qualifications and I have no degree in science, although I have a chemical technician's certificate from Stretford technical college. My degree is in education. In passing, I should congratulate my son, who told me today that he has got his BA (Hons) in history from Lancaster university. I am delighted for him even though he did not go into science. We shall certainly be popping a cork later.
Daresbury laboratory is the home of the synchrotron radiation source, which is a second-generation light source. For those who are not familiar with what goes on there, it accelerates nuclear particles to as close as possible to the speed of light in a circular accelerator; they are then drawn off in straight lines and the resulting bright beam is used to x-ray all sorts of thingsall in real time. It has given us the solution to the structure of anthrax, has been influential in the study of the HIV/AIDS virus, and was instrumental in bringing forward the genome project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) mentioned. What is more, it tells us why Cadbury's chocolate tastes niceit is because of the temperature at which it crystallises. Mr. Cadbury worked that out a long time ago, as laboratory staff were delighted to point out to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited.
The third-generation light source, the DIAMOND project, is Daresbury's brainchild. It was designed at Daresbury, planning permission was obtained there, the geology of the site is absolutely right, and the local authority was signed up for it. Then the Government in their infinite wisdom decided to site it at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory.
The third-generation light source is crucial to British science. The Prime Minister said to me that if a project could be found that would sustain the Daresbury laboratory in future, the Government would back it. He challenged people in the north-west to find one, so we set up the Daresbury and north-west science group, bringing together academicsthe report says that academics should work together with scientistsin a whole community approach. Professor Weightman of Liverpool university was a leading light of the group, and he proposed the CASIM projectthe centre for accelerated science, imaging and medicine.
CASIM will use a fourth-generation light sourcea medium-energy technology that accelerates protons as close as possible to the speed of light, and peels them off to x-ray matter almost in real time. It is blue-skies science with an absolutely practical application. It will be essential if we are to take British science forward. The imaging part is backed by expertise already in the north-west, and the medicine partthis is the most exciting aspect of the projectis to do with breast cancer. There are a number of problems with breast cancer, one of which is determining the exact location of the tumour
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is talking about an issue that is as important to me as it is to him, but it is not entirely relevant to the debate on the research assessment exercise. If it is, perhaps he will show me the connection.
Mr. Hall : I shall bring myself to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If you look at paragraph 55 on page 24 of the RAE report, it mentions regional competence in the field and scientific excellence. We need this project in the north-west to ensure that we have a balance of scientific research across the whole of the scientific community.
The imaging will enable us to precisely locate the tumour in a woman's breast and to fire protons at itsmart bullets, which will go directly to the centre of the tumour with no collateral damage to surrounding tissue. If we can use that science in its practical application, we shall have a wonderful achievement.
My final point is that the location of the CASIM project has not yet been determined. It has passed through an excellent scientific peer review with glowing colours and the Government are now in a position to decide where to site it. We in the north-west have the expertise and the knowledge; it is our brainchild, and we have been challenged by the Prime Minister to bring the project forward. It is a leading world scientific research project and we want it at Daresbury laboratory in the north-west.
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to you for allowing me to catch your eye, given that I was unable to be here earlier. I gave prior notice to the Chairman of the Select Committee, but I apologise to you for not being here at that time.
In the time available I shall concentrate on just two points. First, the Committee's report was motivated by the fact that the quantum of research for science and technology after the RAE would be lower than it was between 1996 and 2001. There are many reasons for that, some of which are bound up with the fact that the number of active researchers in some subjects, such as physics, was substantially lower. However, the Committee viewed the overall effect with something approaching horror. The response of the Minister who gave evidence to the Committee, bodies such the HEFCE, and the chairman of Research Councils UK, Dr. John Taylor, is best described as the Committee hearing the sounds of violins playing as those authorities fiddled while the temple of science and technology was ablaze.
It is not good enough for any of those people to say that they noticed that the quantum of research for science and technology had gone down and that it is a pity. It is not good enough to say, as the research councils did, that it is up to universities to decide how to distribute the money and that if a university wants to give it to its chemistry department that has a 3b rating, it can, but that they knew that when the results came out the university would not do so but instead start thinking about closing departments that were no longer up to speed.
It is not reasonable to have a market, because science and technology skills are essential to the economic welfare of this country in the 21st century. It is vital for the future health, wealth and prosperity of this county that our youngsters have the opportunity to develop those skills, as many hon. Members have said today. It is important for our country to be able to provide the support that people in other countries need from those skills. That aspect of the report is fundamental. We want a Government response that says that they are committed to increasing, not lowering, the quantum of research for science and technology.
The second important element of the report is the ghost of the binary divide, to which several hon. Members have already referred. When my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) was speaking about not expecting polytechnics to do as much research as universities, I noticed that the Minister nodded enthusiastically. Her nods are consistent with a willingness to accept the binary divide and split universities into those that research and those that teach. That aspiration is appalling because of its consequences for the vision of a society that is sophisticated in science and technology. I shall dwell on only one example, which concerns nursing.
The consequence of the RAE was that whereas 14 nursing departments in universities used to have long-term funding arising from their RAE ratings, only 10 will have that afterwards. That fact produced horror and alarm in the Council of Deans and Heads of UK
It is worth examining the health of nursing research. The year 2001 saw a 20 per cent. increasefrom 36 universities to 43in submissions to the nursing panel. The same year saw a 37 per cent. increase from 455 to 623 in the number of staff submitting their projects, and a superb increase from three to 10 in the number of departments rated at 4 or above. Those figures all suggest that everything was pretty healthy in the nursing research world. However, much of the new research had taken place in the face of huge difficulties with resources. The results were achieved by working extraordinarily hard, often with little in the way of research support.
The 12 departments gaining a 3a were almost all in the old polytechnic sector. They had scrambled up, sometimes with a minimal amount of support, and accomplished nationally recognised research with international dimensions. For all that, they were offered one year before the cord was cut.
That is unacceptable for all the sciences. I have focused on nursing because it illustrates how muddled and confused is Government thinking on these matters. If someone tried to pull that off with a health report, people would think it was nuts. The problem is wholly concealed in the university system. Nurses are trained by nurse lecturers who have a first-rank research commitment, which, as many hon. Members have noted, makes their teaching much more effective. Trying to do that anywhere else would be regarded as crazy, but because a form of joined-up government is required between science policy and education and health, that misery has been foisted not just on nurses, but on environmental scientists, physiologists and others. The science funding system is under severe threat.
As a member of the external advisory board for Oxford university's Faculty of Literae Humaniores and of the National Committee for Philosophy, I should perhaps have declared a non-pecuniary interest. I would have liked to say more about those subjects, particularly history and philosophy of science and developments in mathematical logic. I shall desist
Mr. McWalter : Yes, it is. The Minister says that it is not, so I shall have to repeat the argument. The overall quantum of research funding has increased, but it is lower for science and technology. I thought that the figures were very clear, but they may need to be produced again. Secondly, I hope that the Minister will
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): This has been an excellent debate, ably introduced by the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee. It shows the value of having the opportunity to discuss Select Committee reports in Westminster Hall, albeit when equally important debates are being held in the Chamber in which many hon. Members want to be involved.
The debate has concentrated on science, which I hope does not introduce a false dichotomy with the humanities. The RAE covers both, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) pointed out. I hope that hon. Members will agree that science and technology are of great academic, social and economic importance. I hope that they will also agree on the primacy of research in the scientific framework that we must develop in this country.
We need the RAE if we are to have a system of allocating funds. If that system is to provide the dual support that we in this country currently enjoy, there must be some assessment of quality of research. We must ask whether the current system has exercised that function adequately, or whether it has introduced more distortions and failed to reward excellence. If the latter, we must also ask how it can be developed in the next few years to become better at identifying excellence. As the Select Committee says in its report, we must consider whether the RAE values excellence. It certainly recognises excellence, but does not necessarily reward it.
The RAE is largely valid and credible, but evidence has been adduced to the Committee that that is not the case in some areas. We must ask whether the process is overbearing or bureaucratic. Evidence to the Committee suggests that those on the receiving end often find that it is overbearing or bureaucratic and are concerned by that, although the HEFCE, which carried out the exercise, does not believe that to be the case. If we are going to have this monumental exercise, which involves a great deal of work by many people, we must ask whether it is seen to be fair and worth while. However fair or unfair it may seem to those on the receiving end, the lack of rewards this year raises a question mark over whether it has been worth while.
As many hon. Members have said, it would appear that the results are excellent this year. Some people asked whether that was because of a devaluing of the criteria used for judging excellence. Neither I nor the Select Committee believe that. There is undoubtedly some manipulation at the margins: in any assessment exercise, departments will try to play the game and secure an advantage. However, that does not devalue the basic validity of the exercise. We should be pleased that a growing number of research departments in this country appear to be carrying out good quality research as assessed in this country and against their international peers.
There are significant concerns about whether the current system has introduced distortions, such as to universities' priorities for maintaining and funding their departments. There is also concern about distortions in
Mr. Heath : I see that I correctly interpreted her remarks. The distortion of recruitment of both researchers and academic staff is a real problem. Those departments that are seen to be excellent will recruit the best academics, and the rating will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I also worrythis point was raised in the Committee's deliberationsthat there may be a growing distortion in undergraduate recruitment. Universities' prospectuses now tend to show if they have excellent RAE results, and that will attract the most able students. Again there is a self-fulfilling prophecy: those who want to teach the best students and be involved in the best research will go to the best universities, and that will denude the wider spread of able academic staff and undergraduates. There is a danger of distortion in external collaboration between disciplines and between institutions because of the perceived danger that that might affect the RAE scores.
I worry that we are rewarding research excellence at the expense of scholarship. Scholarship is rather important. My tutor was the world's greatest authority on the carotid body, but on nothing else. The carotid body, as anatomists and physiologists will know, is important, but it is not necessarily the whole of the systolic system. However, he was a scholarly man who knew how to direct his students towards those who knew about other subjects. That, and not simply the narrow band of research, should be rewarded.
The effect on teaching has already been mentioned. Until we get a premium on excellence in teaching to match the premium on excellence in research there will be a distortion in the whole university system. Dearing said that, yet it is still to be acted upon. It is perverse that the Minister has less time than anyone else to answer all the points that are made, but I hope that she has time to address the question of whether there is a developing binary divide between teaching institutions and research institutions. I wish that we were open about that. If we are to have excellent teaching institutions that do not attempt research, let us be clear that that is what we are creating. I hope that the Minister can give us that clarity today.
The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) mentioned the lack of a strategic framework in both regional and structural terms in this country for science departments. That concerns me. It is another unexpected consequence of the system. The main problem is that we do not have the funding to reward the RAE system. Let us not get away from that. I am concerned that the HEFCE appears to be washing its hands of the problem because it only distributes the money. The Government seem to be washing their hands of the problem because they only supply the global sum. If the response from the DFES is an extra £30 million when £206 million is needed, there is obviously a very real problem.
The right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth) quoted the Government's response that the budget cannot become demand led. Perhaps it cannot, but I am not sure that I agree with the Government. The budget should be excellence led. At the moment it is not, which artificially restricts what goes on. There could be no better example of that than the medical schools. I went last week to talk to the dean of Barts and the London medical school. The school was formed in 1996 after St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London hospitals were merged. It was assessed in 1997 and did not do very well, as might be expected. Having improved its research profile, it now finds that instead of the 40 per cent. increase that it should have had it has a 30 per cent. loss amounting to £2 million.
How can we expand medical education in this country, when the London hospitals alone are losing 500 academic places this year? That is their estimate of the result of the exercise and of other things such as the allocation to medicine compared with other subjects, the reduction in the course weights for laboratory and clinical subjects, and the loss of generic research stream. That is a very real problem. My concern is that the HEFCE's response is complacency, and the Minister's response, as seen in the Government's official response, is wishy-washy, albeit helpful. I hope that she will be able to harden up that response and tell us that there is a joined-up strategy for excellence in science, and that she will deliver it.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I begin by apologising for the absence from the debate of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). As many hon. Members will know, there is a clash between what is happening in this Chamber andI almost said the real Chamberthe other Chamber, where there is a debate on individual learning accounts in which my hon. Friend has to take part. He is sorry not to be present for this debate and I am delighted to be here in his place.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and his Committee on a thorough and incisive report. This is a serious subject, which has been well researched; the Committee has dealt with it seriously. It has given those of us who are not members of the Committee a good insight into the problem, and there is a problem.
Every hon. Member present probably agrees that higher education in the United Kingdom has been a world leader for a long time. We have an interest in creating and preserving the very high standards in the higher education establishments throughout the UK because of the beneficial effect that they have on the economy in terms of producing jobs, high quality graduates, good research and so on. It is a preferable area in which to invest and in which to create and preserve excellence. It is our duty as a nation to do that because the work of scientists and engineers brings benefits throughout the world, not only to the UK. We are discussing the very basis of that work and we all appreciate how crucial it is.
I am concerned about what I have read in the report and what hon. Members have said in the debate. I congratulate them; many experts on the subject are gathered in this Room, which is quite unusual in the House of Commons today. There are many people present who really know what they are talking about, which is why we have had such a constructive debate. I do not mean to flatter hon. Members, but it is rare to be able to say something like that.
It is worrying that the amount of time spent on this bureaucratic exercise is inevitably detracting from the work that the academics involved could, and should, otherwise be doing. As with so many of the Government's plans for the allocation of resources or bidding for funds, so much bureaucracy is involved that the system becomes top-heavy. As the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, there is also the encouragement of short-termism, which is again not necessarily a good thing in terms of research projects that last longer than a year. One-year funding is not always the right way of approaching that matter, although we all appreciate the tensions that exist between the Treasury, funding sources and the beneficiaries of funding.
I am also concerned about the discrimination against women; I am sure that the Minister will pick that up in her remarks because it is worrying. I am also concerned about the apparent bolstering of an elite at the expense of promoting new ideas. We should give a fair chance to establishments that have not yet reached the high status that some have achieved, as a result of their expertise or the length of time that they have been in the business.
Of most concernas many hon. Members have mentionedis the suggestion that HEFCE was complacent in its response to the Select Committee's report. I sincerely hope that the Minister will not be complacent in her response to the Select Committee and to HEFCE. The work that has gone into the report should be taken into consideration. The subject should not be considered for three hours this afternoon and then closed so that Ministers can say, "It's all right. We have debated that report and that bit of business is done." I hope that the Minister will undertake to act on the report's key recommendations and not merely say that the Government have dealt with it by discussing it. They are fond of paying lip service when that sounds good; putting their words into action is another matter.
The Government have also promised a review. As has so often happened, such a promise raises expectations that are subsequently kicked into the long grass, and then dashed. I hope that the Minister undertakes to put the report before the review body to make sure that the work done by the Select Committee is taken into consideration. I also hope that when the Minister receives the results of the review, she will act on its recommendations. If not, it will just be more
Mrs. Laing : Yes, I am afraid so, although in my younger, formative years I studied physics, chemistry and mathematics. Coincidentally, I was fortunate enough to meet Professor Sir Harry Kroto this morning and to hear him deliver an inspirational lecture that made me wish I had spent more time studying physics. One of the underlying points that he made was that politicians would be better off if they had a decent scientific and logical education[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] I thought that there may be some assent to that suggestion. I entirely agree that the study of science trains the mind and I am glad that I had a little of such training in my early years. Sir Harry Kroto made me realise the importance not only of teaching science, but of generating information about scientific research on the internet and developing free thinking and ideas.
I am glad that all hon. Members who spoke recognised the importance of investment in science and technological research. I am sure that the Minister will say that she recognises that, too, but as with any debate, we all know that there is competition for funds. When Her Majesty's Treasury comes into play, the question is not what we want, but what we will be left with when it has torn things to bits. I therefore wish the Minister luck in her battle with the Treasury to secure the funding that is properly due to science and technology research.
The Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education (Margaret Hodge) : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am glad that you got my ministerial responsibilities the right way round. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship since you received your recent honour, so I start by offering you many congratulations.
I also congratulate the Committee on its splendid report. I assure the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and the Committee that, as always, we take its recommendations seriously and we will have regard to the contributions made in this debate and the recommendations as we take the matter forward.
The standard of debate has been high, and as Harry Kroto has been mentioned several times, we should congratulate him; he becomes president of the Royal Society of Chemistry three weeks today. I must admit, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and I had horrible science teachers. Had we had better ones, we might have got a little further.
Equally, I acknowledge that there is still underfunding. Indeed, the Government have been pretty open about that. The transparency review considered the way in which research is funded, and shows that a 36 per cent. real cost subsidy is going into research. We know that there is a large capital backlog, that not enough money is going into renewal and that although quality-related research funding has increased over the past 17 years, it has not increased at the same rate as the research council investment. An imbalance is growing in that respect.
We do not spend enough relative to other competitor countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and relative to our main competitor economies, such as America. Business does not invest enough in research and development either. Only 3 per cent. of businesses do that, so there is a long way to go, as we recognise.
Equally, with an assessment exercise based on quality, there will always be winners and losers. We must accept that fact in the dynamic world of research into which we want to move. I may be muddled and confused, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) said, but QR funding for nursing has increased by 83 per cent. in cash terms. Some may have lost, but others have gained. That is true in medical researchwhich the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentionedand in other areas. Departments will lose and gain. That is part of the dynamism of an assessment exercise based on quality. It is a way of keeping improvement going in the system.
I also acknowledge the issues relating to engineering and science. That is why we have had the Roberts review. Again, we take seriously that issue, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth). A number of hon. Members talked about the unintended consequences and distortions of the RAE, which is one reason why we want to go ahead with the review. Positive ideas have arisen from the report and the contributions that we have heard today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) always suggests positive ideas and we will examine them as we progress with the review. Has the system been manipulated? Such questions in a sense become academic. We should focus on real improvements in the quality of research, on which we want to build.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) spoke about discrimination against women. She is right that it applies not only to research, but throughout the higher education system. Only six or seven vice-chancellors are women. We are constantly trying to improve that.
I want to move on to blue-skies research. The purpose of RAE and QR funding is to give universities the freedom to engage in such research. The research council's money will focus on particular projects. The irony is that we are sometimes criticised for placing too much emphasis on blue-skies research and not enough on applied research. Today's debate touched on that viewpoint. Perhaps we have the right balance between QR and the research councils. Even blue-skies research requires assessment. There will always be a finite quantum and we will always have to choose where to invest the money.
Several hon. Members spoke about the regional nature of research. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) made a powerful case, which my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry are considering. The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) made a similar point. We have made a start with HEROBIC and HEIF funding and we anticipate progress in future.
Several hon. Membersincluding my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), for Blackpool, South, for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) and for Hemel Hempstead, and the hon. Members for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), for Cheadle and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)spoke about the balance between teaching and research. It is an important issue, on which I want to encourage debate. Under the current system of funding, everyone goes after RAE or research money and numbers. We should be seeking new ways of encouraging universities to focus on what they do best, whether that is knowledge transfer, teaching, research or widening participation.
The system requires incentives to encourage those aims, but that does not mean a black and white solution of one or another. This afternoon's debate was, to be honest, muddled. Not all researchers are good teachers and teaching needs to be valued in itself, and properly funded. Priorities will always exist. RAE was never a mechanism to determine the quantum of funding. That is done through the spending reviews with which we are now engaged. RAE is a mechanism to determine quality.
Finally, we should all congratulate the higher education sector this afternoon. RAE has been a success; despite some suspicion at the margin, it has brought about a massive improvement in research, which is splendid. It puts UK higher education at the top of the league internationally, however one measures it.
RAE is a good thing. It may need review and reform, but it provides flexibility and plurality and allows us to fund the unfashionable and the unconventional. We should build on that. The issues raised this afternoonabout frequency, bunching at the top, measuring research output, interdisciplinary research, bureaucracy, costs, research for external clients and so forthare all legitimate matters for further consideration.