Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2002
20. Have you got any feel for what percentage
of the panel that you select are going to be counted into a research
exercise in their academic institutes, where the academics are
concerned? That is the first question.
(Mr Bekhradnia) You mean the percentage that are likely
to find themselves being assessed by the panel that is carrying
out this Exercise?
21. What I am really getting at is, if they
are very research-active, I do not know how they can find the
time to go and assess another department, and surely that is a
deterrent. If you have got a good researcher, he wants to stay
doing his research and count for the department, and the head
of department surely wants that person to count for the department
as well. So what is the incentive for people to join the panel?
(Mr Bekhradnia) I think there is a degree of esteem
attached to being selected to serve on a Research Assessment panel.
John, perhaps you can tell us what proportion of invitations to
serve are rejected?
(Mr Rogers) Very few. I can certainly give you an
exact figure. I can check that and pass on the information.
22. That would be useful, yes, if you could
let us have it subsequently, please?
(Mr Rogers) Yes.
(Mr Bekhradnia) But, by and large, our experience
is that, if people have been nominated by the learned societies,
by the industrial groups, whatever it is, whoever it is that makes
23. That is what I mean by being clubby', it
is within the `club', you are asking other professional groupings,
the Royal Societies of this and that or the other?
(Mr Bekhradnia) Most academics and most people engaged
in research are, one way or another, members of these groupings,
Chairman; there are 1,300 of these groupings, it is wide-ranging.
It is necessary that they should be engaged one way or another,
and be able credibly to make an assessment of research quality;
that is the only qualification.
24. What proportion of the panel is actually
from outside academia, and, of those, how many are industrialists?
(Mr Bekhradnia) We made a particular effort, in this
respect, in 2001, and it varied quite considerably between panels.
In philosophy, for example, I suspect there were very few; in
some of the engineering subjects, they were well represented.
I think, overall, it was about ...
(Mr Rogers) Thirteen per cent of all panel members
were not current serving academics, but the proportions vary greatly
by subject area. A typical percentage in the sciences is 20 per
cent, clinical medicine 25 per cent, engineering 26 per cent,
education and some of the other social sciences getting on for
a quarter, as well. The non-academic members were drawn from a
variety of backgrounds, as appropriate to the subject; again,
I cannot tell you exactly, off the top of my head, how many were
from industry, but, again, we can supply that information. In
the engineering area, it would be typical for all of the non-academic
members to be industrial engineers; in the clinical panels, it
was common for there to be people there from NHS research and
development, officers from the medical charities, and others,
on the panels. So you have got a range of health and social care
professionals in panels, where that is appropriate, alongside
industrialists; the 13 per cent overall.
(Mr Bekhradnia) One of the things, Chairman, if I
may add, that we have been particularly keen on, that we found
particularly difficult, and those of you familiar with industry
will understand this, is persuading people from industry to take
the time that is necessary to serve on a Research Assessment panel.
Dr Iddon alluded, I think, or was it you, sorry, Chairman, to
the burden that is placed on academics; academics will do it partly
out of a feeling of service to their own community, partly because
it might be seen to further their careers. I think, for people
from industry, there is a real issue, and we were gratified that
as many as did participated in the Exercise. But I think it is
fair to say that probably we had a higher proportion of refusals
from people who were invited from industry than we did from outside.
25. I want to ask a few questions about the
funding arrangements, some general funding questions later on,
but, first of all, specifically: I understand that, as a result
of the RAE allocation, there are some departments which will receive
lower funding, even those which have maintained, or even improved,
their grade; you could maybe correct me, if I am wrong on that.
If it is the case then do you not think this will have a detrimental
effect on academics' morale and their confidence in the actual
(Mr Bekhradnia) If I can take those two points separately.
I do not see why it should affect their confidence in the process,
no; but I do worry that it may have an effect on their morale,
yes. I think that we will be in a position where, because there
has been a significant improvement in research performance and
not yet a commensurate increase in the funding that is available;
there will be academics in departments, certainly those that have
not improved, but even those departments where they have improved,
who will find that their funding has stood still, or gone down.
And, yes, I think we must be concerned that that will have an
impact on morale.
26. You say you do not think it will have an
impact on confidence in the process; surely, as a result of this
process, they are providing the results but the process means
they are not going to be funded as well in the future?
(Mr Bekhradnia) I am sorry, I thought you meant in
the integrity of the process, or in the validity of the results
of the process. Yes, it may well; it is not a process probably
that is loved by all academics, at the best of times, but I think
it may make them love it even less.
27. More generally, how did you decide the allocation
of funds for 2002, as a result of that RAE 2001?
(Mr Bekhradnia) The allocation of the funds; well,
I hope you received a notification of what we
28. The £30 million extra that has gone
to certain groupings, the funding; we will ask about that, yes.
(Mr Bekhradnia) Yes; and we were glad to have that
money, of course. That is, in part, I hope, a reflection of the
confidence the Government has that this improvement has been substantial
and real. What we have decided is this. You know that we allocate
research money formulaically, that is actually how we do it, and
the Research Assessment Exercise provides us with part of the
formula. We have decided that the average rate of funding of the
5* grade will be maintained, in real terms, so it will be increased
in cash. We have decided that 3a-rated departments will have £20
million distributed between them, overall, over the sector as
a whole, and that the remainder of the money will be distributed
between 4s and 5s. And the £30 million that we received this
week would be specifically injected into, would be an addition
to the 5s. Now the consequence of all that, despite the additional
£30 million, is that the rate of funding, the funding per
unit, per academic, will reduce on average quite substantially,
by about 15 per cent, for 5s, and, John, I do not know if you
recall the others.
(Mr Rushforth) And by about 30 per cent for 4s.
(Mr Bekhradnia) It is a formulaic basis for allocation,
it depends on the money we have. And you can imagine that we have
argued vigorously with the Government that funds for research
should be increased, in part to reflect the improvement in the
research assessed, but also, as I think we referred to in our
submission to you, there is evidence, and it is not published
yet but we will publish it, of a quite significant funding gap,
in terms of the amount of money that universities receive compared
with the costs of the research that they carry out, and I think
that we have argued that that gap needs to be bridged; and I think
that this is all part of the evidence for that.
29. I want to come on to this £30 million
slightly later, but staying with the allocation for 2002, before
you made those decisions, did you consult with other funding councils?
(Mr Bekhradnia) We sit on each other's boards, so
we are aware of what each other is thinking, and, yes, we do talk
to each other.
30. So they were consulted on it?
(Mr Bekhradnia) Consulted is not the right termwe
spoke to each other and we were aware of what each other was doing.
31. Since the Chair mentioned the £30 million
from the DfES, is it enough? That is probably the wrong question
to ask. How did you allocate it; do you think it should have been
more, and how can it be used to protect the departments?
(Mr Bekhradnia) We would need a lot more than £30
million, as we have said, and as you will see, to maintain levels
of funding for the different points in a grade; but, I have to
say, that is not itself a funding gap. There is no magic about
the rates at which we were funding 5s, 4s or 3s previously, so
I would not say that that was evidence of a funding gap, or that
£30 million was inadequate for that. But, as is apparent
from the research that I referred to, that we call the transparency
review, there is a very substantial gap, and that £30 million
will not do anything very much to bridge that gap. It is very
welcome and it does help us to reduce the cut that we have to
make to the 5-rated departments; but, no, of course, it is far
from being sufficient to bridge what we have identified as being
the gap between the cost of the research that is carried out and
the money received.
32. Come on then, what are you doing about it?
With the Comprehensive Spending Review coming up, your timing
is immaculate. I am sure you planned it, you must have; you would
do it in future and relate to the Comprehensive Spending Review.
But what are you doing to influence the Comprehensive Spending
Review, what arguments have you got that might induce the Iron
Chancellor to relax the grip on higher education research?
(Mr Bekhradnia) Many of the arguments, Chairman, speak
for themselves, and they have been set out in what we have said
33. We know all that, but are they listening
to you, do you think?
(Mr Bekhradnia) We hope they are, Chairman. I hope
you will call for evidence from the Treasury. I am in slight difficulty
here, because, as you probably know, there is a convention that
the advice that we give to the Government is required to be in
confidence; but I think some of the evidence for the improvement
and the gap that we have spoken of is pretty eloquent.
34. I just want to turn to how I feel the RAE
perhaps has damaged or distorted the infrastructure in higher
education; and we started this debate at the beginning, but I
want to pursue it in just a bit more detail now, and I did mention,
for example, the impact on materials science, which is in the
evidence here. But perhaps, Chairman, at this stage, I ought to
declare my two interests, for the record. I was a member of the
Association of University Teachers, and I guess I am still an
honorary member; so that is one interest declared. I am also a
Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and I am their Parliamentary
Adviser, at the moment; so that is two further interests declared.
Having said that, let me just concentrate on chemistry, because
obviously that is the subject I know best. In the Royal Society
of Chemistry submission, which I have read in detail, they make
the allegation that the Research Assessment Exercise has forced
the closure of science departments, and in particular chemistry
departments; let me back that up with some figures. They say that,
since 1992, 18 cost centres in chemistry have actually been forced
to close, but they do make the point that, in terms of staff,
it has only gone down from 1,388 to 1,300 in the same time; but
they give the warning also that the 2001 Research Exercise and
its impact particularly on 3a and 3b grades, because you have
made the announcement that you are going to maintain the funding
for 5*, so somebody has got to suffer, and the Royal Society of
Chemistry believe that 11 more departments are highly at risk
now. Now this is just chemistry. I could cite physics, I could
cite mathematics, I could go right across the science and engineering
board. And what I have to submit to you is that I think the Research
Assessment Exercise has driven universities over to the arts side,
because it is cheaper to do the research there; in my opinion
it is easier to get 5 and 5* determinations in arts than it is
in science. Now I know that is a serious allegation, but it is
one widely felt through the science and engineering community,
and I ask you to defend the position?
(Mr Bekhradnia) There are a number of distinctions
we need to draw, but the one that I was thinking of was between
the Research Assessment Exercise, as a process that identifies
quality of research, and then the process for allocating funds
for research, and the amount of money that there is available
for it. The amount of money that goes to chemistry, and therefore
the ability to sustain chemistry departments, is not influenced
by the Research Assessment Exercise. The amount of money that
goes to a subject is a function of only two things; one is the
relative cost of that subjectso chemistry will be funded
very much more generously than history, sayand the volume
of research that is conducted in that subject, so if there are
more chemists doing research then more money will be provided
for chemistry. The Research Assessment Exercise is used then to
allocate money within chemistry. Once the total amount of money
available for chemistry has been established, without reference
to the Research Assessment Exercise, the RAE is used then as a
way of deciding which departments should receive how much money.
Now if there are chemistry departments closing, and I think you
have shown that there are, then I suggest that there are other
things at work here; and one of the things that is at work could
well be the demand for chemistry from students. I do not have
the data here, but I suspect that chemistry may be one of those
subjects where demand from students is in decline and so universities
are responding by rationalising, and, from the figures you have
given, it is more rationalisation than simple closure, because
the number of staff has not been declining commensurately. So
I think there are several things that we have to distinguish going
on, but I certainly refute the suggestion it is the RAE itself,
as you have suggested, that is damaging chemistry.
35. I am making the allegation that the RAE
has distorted priorities across the board in universities, and
particularly in the non-Russell group of universities, and especially
in the modern universities, the former polytechnics. I have demonstrated
that some departments have closed, and you are suggesting there
may be other reasons for that, which I accept; if that is the
case, why have we needed in recent years special funds when HEFCE
fund universities; why have we needed special funds, like the
JIF, and more recently the SRIF, schemes, to replace the infrastructure
(Mr Bekhradnia) I think that is entirely different.
I think that the reason why we have needed those is the reason
that I alluded to earlier, which is, the gap between the total
amount of money. I think there is a serious issue, and just about
funding, the total amount of money that is available and provided
for research and the cost of that research. And the way that gap
has been bridged by universities in the past has been by running
down their infrastructure, sadly; and they ran it down to the
point where we had a survey carried out, three or four years ago,
which showed that the state of the science infrastructure in universities
was parlous and put at risk our ability to compete on the world
stage. That is the reason for the need for these massive and very
welcome and very necessary injections of funds, like the JIF and
the SRIF, which have put hundreds of millions, now billions, into
the research infrastructure; they were necessary, but they were
necessary not as a result of the RAE but as a result of the run-down
in the research infrastructure, which came about from this funding
gap that I have referred to.
36. Can I make the allegation also that the
RAE seems to have forced the best research staff into what we
might describe as the better universities, or they would describe
themselves as the better universities; I cite again the Russell
group, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, and so on. Are you favouring
research universities and teaching universities, because that
is the way it is going?
(Mr Bekhradnia) No; but I do agree with your first
proposition, I think there is an increasing concentration of staff,
but it is department by department. As I said, it is a feature
of selective funding that we provide more money to those departments
which show themselves to be performing best, and the consequence
that you have described follows. But we do that department by
department, we provide funds selectively wherever the excellence
arises, not looking at the university and deciding that this is
a university that we should fund, fund disproportionately well,
37. I have always believed that teaching is
important in every university, because a teacher who has knowledge
of the front-line research in his, or her, subject, in my opinion,
is a better teacher, and I think you might agree with me. So,
if you have also agreed with the previous question, that they
are forcing research into a select number of universities, are
we therefore not in danger of damaging the teaching in the rest?
(Mr Bekhradnia) I do not think there is any evidence
for that, no, and I would agree with you only up to a point. I
think it maybe a question of definition. I would suggest that
scholarship, in the sense of, as you have said, keeping up with
your subject, knowing where the frontiers of your subject are,
is an essential part of being a professional in higher education,
I agree with that. In the same way as applies to other professions,
whether it is architecture, engineering, or whatever; but in teaching
that is what you need to know, it is to know where the frontiers
of your subject are, to keep up with that. But I think that is
different from yourself pushing back the frontiers of the subject,
which is what I would roughly describe as being research. I think
there is a distinction between the two. I would agree with you
that that is essential. I would say that that is part of the duty,
almost, of a university academic, and that is provided for in
our teaching funding.
38. The Government are very keen on widening
participation across the university sector, increasing the number
of young people going into universities by up to 50 per cent,
a very difficult target to achieve. How are we going to manage
to widen participation in universities that appear to be concentrating
heavily on research because of the Research Assessment Exercise,
winning the five stars; are those universities, like Oxford and
Cambridge, going to be able to concentrate on widening participation,
like Bolton Institute does, in my constituency, or the University
of Brighton does, perhaps?
(Mr Bekhradnia) The aim of widening participation
is one, I have to say, that we stand absolutely shoulder to shoulder
with the Government on, we share fully. I would say, yes, widening
participation, in the sense of opening their doors to all students,
whatever their backgrounds, that are able to benefit from an education
at the universities concerned, is the absolute duty of every university,
and I think that they cannot back away from that. That is not
to say that they are not entitled to set their standards, and
there will be differences between different institutions; but,
given that, then I think that there should be no question that
absolutely they have to participate in the widening access activity
and open their doors, regardless of the backgrounds of the students
and where they come from, yes.
Dr Iddon: Thank you. My final suggestion is
that the Research Assessment Exercise has caused the emphasis
of research to shift to projects that deliver short-term results
and lots of publications, and my fear is that, lots of other projects,
which require a lot of investment, in terms of time, and not a
lot of output in publications, they are going by the wall in this
country. And the case I always cite is the case of Professor Harry
Kroto, the Nobel Prize winner, who researched a very difficult
area for many years, but would not have been credited under the
RAE, I am sure.
Chairman: Neither would Watson and Crick, as
a matter of fact.
39. That is right; several people of that ilk.
And how can people like that make their mark in modern universities?
(Mr Bekhradnia) I think that is an important and serious
point. First of all, can I just make it abundantly clear that
producing loads of publications is not something that will win
credit in the Research Assessment Exercise; the panels do not
even know how many publications have been produced, they are not
told. Institutions are asked to submit up to four, maximum four,
pieces of work produced over the previous five years, seven years
in the humanities; that is not a `publish or perish' requirement,
nor ought it to lead to a view that they have just got to produce
publications by the yard. Yes, we have to ensure that long-term
work is not jeopardised. I do not believe, and I am at a disadvantage
here because I am not a scientist, that to produce four publications
in five years, in anything other than the most exceptional cases,