Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 104)



  100. I wonder if you could comment on the fact that the four publications for sciences have to be found within the preceding five years, but for humanities it is seven years?
  (Professor Bowman) I am quite happy to comment on that, as a scientist. Science journals tend to be faster turning round submissions, partly because it is more definitive. If you are arguing a long, say, historical treatise, it has to be read much more carefully, and there is also less money in the system. My own, chemistry, is tied to a huge multi-billion-pound industry, and many of the people in industry help out with the peer review of publications, and it is of direct interest to them for those publications to come through quickly; many are published on the Internet now, before they actually appear in the journal, because of the importance of those big companies. Unfortunately, ICI is not too interested in, say, history publications; it may be of interest, but it is not dependent to their actual profitability and income. So it is almost to be expected that science and engineering journals will be much faster, because it is tied to big amounts of money and productivity and the economy more widely.

  101. So you are comfortable with that?
  (Professor Bowman) Yes; completely.

  102. I wonder if you could tell us what your model for public funding of higher education in the future might be; you have mentioned a few thoughts on the RAE, but would you tell us whether you would like to see the RAE ended, and, if so, what would you replace it with?
  (Professor Bowman) That is a leading question, and it has been discussed thousands of times amongst colleagues, at every academic get-together that is what people discuss. Everyone dislikes the RAE. What would be better? The first thing I would say is, it would have to be less common, to allow people to get on with the work, by doing the things that we are good at doing, which is research and teaching, rather than producing endless bureaucracy, and each time you do it there is a loss of productivity; so a much longer period. Peer review is important, because there has to be some trust that the people doing the reviewing understand and appreciate the system. So it is a difficult one. There has to be some justification to the public, the public spending has to be justified. And, I think, while most of us believe the RAE has been very beneficial to change the culture in universities, the question is how long it remains beneficial. So longer-term RAE, and perhaps using other factors in the assessment, and some way of trying to make it less time-consuming, and less driving of the whole system.

  103. Would you like to see quality-based criteria introduced into other areas of university activity; I am thinking particularly of teaching; and, if so, do you think the RAE might in any way form a model for that?
  (Professor Bowman) Of course, you may realise, we have had a teaching assessment process, which I think people are vehemently against, because if there is time-wasting that really is it. One of my chemical engineering colleagues says he never had a job for his empty duvet boxes before, but that is the amount of paperwork that he had to produce. So that is really something that has been very unproductive. I must comment on some of them. Often, in these peer reviews, it is a paper-chase, is all the paperwork exactly as it claims to be, is student X actually receiving the lectures that are on the paper; not much of it is actually assessment of lecturing. And it is very difficult. I can give a star lecture one day, and another day, when the students are playing up a bit, or you are a bit tired, you do not give such a good lecture. So it is quite a difficult thing, to assess teaching, and I think that is why we are almost completely opposed to the teaching assessment. That is part of our profession; we would not be there unless we wanted to teach, and to teach well.
  (Mr Cottrell) Can I add just briefly, there, Chairman. As a trade union, one of the things we would like to see is the promotion system changed, so that teaching performance is fully taken into account and has parity of esteem with research performance. That, in itself, would help tremendously to change the culture in a very productive and progressive way.

  104. Thank you. Looking, let us say, ten years hence, do you see higher education in this country being polarised, and, again, it does not look as genuinely a leading question, so that we might have research universities and teaching universities? And, if you do, would you welcome that, or not?
  (Mr Cottrell) It is happening, obviously, and it may be a trend that has already gone so far that it will be impossible to reverse it. Whether you think it is a good thing or a bad thing really depends on whether you agree with the points that have been made earlier, about there being a productive relationship between teaching and research, a qualitative interdependent relationship. We would not argue that a good researcher was always a good teacher, but we do believe very strongly that there is a relationship between the two, and that if we divide one from the other the overall effect will be very damaging for the quality of what our universities provide to students and to the outside world. So we would see that as a very bad development. I would take issue with what was said earlier by the HEFCE witnesses about the difference between scholarship and research; there is really no substitute for doing the research. Reading the journals is important, I agree that it is an actual duty for academics to keep up with their subject, but it is not the same as doing the research, and there is a real qualitative gain for that for students, we profoundly believe that to be the case.
  (Professor Bowman) If I may add one comment. The one time that most undergraduates really get to grips with their subject is in their final year when they do a research project, whether it be in science or engineering or the arts; that is the time they are then becoming practitioners, and that is when the real enthusiasm comes. You can see the change in the students, dramatically, in that period of time, but if you are not able actually to do the research, and the department is not set up for it, that enthusiasm is going to go. I think this is why, particularly in science and engineering, it has been more and more concentrated in the richer universities, and I think that is a very serious problem, and, I want to add just one thing, particularly for working-class students. I myself come from that background. I came in at a much more generous time, and people, by pressure of economics, need to go to their local university; if that local university is not a research university, why bring that number of students, we agree it is going to be 50 per cent, that is just not going to work. And if there is not a university to go to where they can be enthused to that research, and practitioners in it, you are not going to widen that 50 per cent.
  (Ms Fenton) I want to add just one other point to the concentration of universities to research and teaching. That will have the effect of concentrating the post-graduate research communities in those institutions as well, which will discourage up and coming, possibly brilliant, scientists from other institutions from actually carrying on in the academy. One of the real problems we have now is recruiting people onto PhDs, because they are leaving university with huge debt, they stand to accrue much more debt over the next three or four years, and they start, at an average age of 30, on a salary of £19,000; it just does not make sense any more. If we add further disincentives, so there are no role models in certain institutions, we stand to lose out on the scientists of the future.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. I think we have ground the issue, for today anyway, into a situation where we can move ahead in our inquiry. You are among our first witnesses; we have other witnesses next week; the Minister, Margaret Hodge, is coming along, and, of course, Universities UK will be coming. We hope to get a report out, and I am sure everybody would welcome a sort of neutral assessment of the whole situation. And we thank you very much for your contribution today. I think the two sets of witnesses have really set us off on a good track here, on good issues, with lots of important information to impart to Government. I am quite sure we will have the chance, presumably, too, not only to publish the report and talk about it there, but, also, perhaps, have a debate on it in the Chamber. So we will keep it alive and make sure that we do provide the best education for our young people. And, in joining with you today, the political process and the academic process, I think has been very important. Thank you very much for your time.

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