Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. On the back of the fact that there are far fewer science departments entering the Research Assessment Exercise today than when we started all those years ago, you would say that is the main reason for it?
  (Professor Smith) That is the reason. There is a qualifying aspect, however. You must not take it straight that the straight closure of departments leads to total contraction. For example, the closure of chemistry at Essex some years ago. At least two thirds of that department there were redeployed in other universities. You have certainly had a contraction of the number of departments. You have not had a proportional contraction in the number of academic staff.

  121. Can I put to you another distortion which I am unhappy about, looking at the humanities on the one hand and scientists on the other? Scientists have to produce for the Research Assessment Exercise within this five-year time slot. Yet, the humanities have successfully argued that they should be given seven years because their research is over a longer period of time. I put it to you that some researchers who would have been dismissed by all the Research Assessment Exercise scientists because their research is long-term are very disadvantaged by this system. We could put up an equal argument that some of the long-term research in science and engineering would warrant that seven-year time slot just as the humanities would warrant a time slot. What we have actually done is distorted science and engineering research programmes to gear them to the Research Assessment Exercise rather than allowing them to go into the areas of innovation that might take longer to explore.
  (Professor Smith) I think we said earlier that we need to relook at the RAE and there are a number of issues that we would be happy and willing to join in putting on the table. That could well merit looking at. I mentioned earlier interdisciplinary areas, where there may be a much larger lead time in getting research off the ground because you are breaking into new areas and you are getting new groups of people who have not worked together hitherto to work together. All that should be on the table. I do not think it is a major distortion in what you are seeing at the moment. It is a danger present at the edges and in a small number of cases but it is not a dominant danger at the moment.

  122. When I entered university life in the sixties as an academic, university staff were expected and encouraged to get involved in a lot of activities. They were school governors. They were JPs in the magistrates' courts. They went out and gave public lectures, like I did for 29 years. They wrote books. They engaged themselves in a whole wide remit of activities. The allegation has been made in the evidence we have had that all that is going or in some universities, especially the Russell Group universities, has gone because the sole thing that you have to do now to stay at 5*, 5, 4 is to do research and nothing else. Even the teaching seems to be suffering.
  (Professor Floud) I think that is an exaggeration. If I look at my own university—I certainly cannot claim to be a Russell Group university; perhaps that is different—we would continue to encourage our staff to engage in the whole range of what is becoming known as the third leg activities. I was at a seminar this morning of staff at the University of North London with which we are merging to discuss our contribution to the London regional economy. One of the ways in which that operates is through the voluntary work of university staff. I can assure you that there is still a great deal of that going on. Clearly, one of the effects of the efficiency gains, the cuts in university funding over the past 20 years and the Research Assessment Exercise is a much greater concentration on management of the job. In some cases that is going to mean that people are encouraged to produce quickly. They are encouraged to produce and publish in particular journals etc. There has been that kind of pressure but I am not sure that I think it has greatly inhibited the ability of university staff to contribute to the community.
  (Professor Smith) It is a tribute to staff. There is absolutely no doubt that pressures have increased dramatically over the last 10 or 15 years. In my situation in the east end of London, we are heavy hitters on the research front but we are extraordinarily networked in the school system and community issues and health related issues through our medical school in the east end. An extraordinary proportion of staff participate and perform at the research end.


  123. What do you think attracts young people to science at any particular university? You made allusions to teaching. Do you not think the RAE scores count at all?
  (Professor Smith) I do not think there is much evidence of that. There is an attrition in areas of science and engineering because of diminishing numbers so there is a concentration of where students are going but I do not think from our market research that students pay much attention to that.

Dr Murrison

  124. Can I press you a little on the scores on the doors because a cynical man would say that to go from 23 per cent 5 and 5*s in 1992 to 55 per cent nine years later takes some explaining and would want to be convinced that that huge leap was not largely accounted for by departments playing the system. Can you give me any reassurance to stop me being so cynical?
  (Professor Smith) One of the issues we have already dealt with which is playing the system in terms of only putting in very small numbers of staff—if you look at the global numbers that have gone in and you look at the percentage movements upwards in grades, you can see objectively that that is not the case. The other thing then you might worry about is are these bunches of cronies all giving each other 5s and 5*s arbitrarily to buck the system. We would like to put to you very strongly that if you look closely at what has happened, the way it has been managed, that is not the case. This is a credible instrument. There is external evidence that you can look at, rather than just looking at the RAE and being suspicious. What are the kinds of external things you might look at to see whether there has been a strengthening of the research base. There are citations done on the basis of international comparisons. There is external research funding that is bid for on a competitive basis. You take that whole batch of indicators and they mirror exactly the same story of a strengthening in the research base. It is not manipulation of numbers. You can look at them and see that does not work because the volume numbers are there. It is not just a percentage gain. You can look at those external indicators, plus the fact that this time we are relevant. There are industrial members of the assessment boards. All those that were claimed this time to be international quality were sent to international assessors, outside the cronyism, if that is what was suspected in the United Kingdom. I think that is an incredibly robust system and we want to say, on behalf of the academics in the United Kingdom, there is a hell of a problem with morale when you are behaviourally induced to change the culture to perform better. You do it and then the United Kingdom national culture is to say somehow you have cheated; it was smoke and mirrors; it is not real. This is real.

  125. Professor Floud, would you agree with that, because you did mention management in your opening speech?
  (Professor Floud) Management is concentrating on improving research quality, which is what I mean by management. It is a good thing in itself, but I think what Adrian has said is true across the whole range. My university, without a research tradition, has achieved in the last Research Assessment Exercise very substantial improvements from 2s to 3bs to 3as and so on. That is the result of a great deal of hard work by a lot of staff. They are not at the 5* level. They have not perhaps had the opportunities to do that but they are still working extremely hard to raise their game. It is very disappointing and a slap in the face to those people to be told that in future there will be no investment in their research, even though it is of higher quality and they have been judged to have improved their quality. That is not a good way of running science policy in this country.

  126. We have mentioned already that the humanities get a seven-year window and science and technology get five. Do you think that is reasonable or not?
  (Professor Floud) I really do not think it is a significant difference between the two. One could easily change that particular parameter of the exercise and give everybody seven years and see what happens.


  127. You could repeat your experiments if you had a little longer sometimes and not go for the quick publication.
  (Professor Floud) Possibly, yes, but there are other pressures in many of the science areas towards rapid publication, as we know, probably far greater in those areas than in the arts and the humanities.

Dr Murrison

  128. You would support the status quo in that respect?
  (Professor Floud) No, I do not think I would say I support the status quo.

  129. How would you change it?
  (Professor Smith) Universities UK collectively do not have a set of prescriptions for what one should do next time round in the RAE. We are still in this awful position where the very significant successes and improvements this time are threatened with not being funded. If that is going to get set in stone, you are into altogether different territory. Is it worth doing it at all? The questions will depend I think on how the finances roll out but I personally, not speaking collectively for Universities UK, think there are a whole host of things that we would be interested to see opened up for discussion and put on the table in any revision of the system. The kinds of things you are mentioning are issues that we should think about.

  130. I am asking you, as individuals, whether you think that having the same windows for the humanities, science and technology would be reasonable or whether you think there are good reasons for making them different?
  (Professor Smith) I would be very happy to look at it in a more focused unit of assessment basis and feed into that whether at the moment we may be handicapping the interdisciplinary emerging areas.

  131. Can I turn to funding? On 21 January, the department announced additional, one-off funding of 30 million for 2002/3 and on 23 January HEFCE announced that 3b departments would receive nothing while 3a departments will share 20 million between them for that period of time. Would you like to have seen more money for 3bs?
  (Professor Floud) Yes. Our view was and remains that the degree of selectivity in the research funding system in this country was already sufficient to support the research effort of this country. We wished and continue to wish that 3bs and 3as should be funded and obviously that the unit of funding for those areas and for 4s and 5s should be at least as good as it was before. I would stress that I do not see this in any sense as a reward. I think it is an investment of this country in future research. What has gone has gone. What we are talking about is what we need to do in the next few years. What we have essentially done is to diminish the possibility of investment in a whole range of research activities which have been shown to be of high quality and in many cases have been shown to be of rapidly improving quality, which will no longer be funded. I think that is a great pity.

  132. What do you think will be the effect of morale on academics who face funding drops or funding standing still?
  (Professor Floud) Very bad indeed.

  133. Would you like to see some more support for low-rated departments? We have heard the AUT empirically suggesting that £100 million should be provided as seed corn for lower rated departments. Is that something you would support?
  (Professor Smith) I do not know at what point in the recent development of information from HEFCE that went through. At the current time where in addition to investment for the future we are even faced with the problems of sustaining and nurturing what is on the ground at the moment. A department which was a 5 last time and a 5 this time is looking at a 15 per cent cut in its funding from the RAE. There has to be a prioritisation. The first priority must be to restore the funding which would have been anticipated even under the old regime and then perhaps we can talk about that. That cannot possibly be the highest priority at the moment, can it?

  134. Is the answer to the question no?
  (Professor Smith) From me. We are talking in a context where we are very disappointed—indeed dismayed—by what is on the table at the moment as the proposed funding. We are hoping that your good selves and others will bring some influence to bear to change this situation. We are going to have to regroup on all sorts of thoughts about the future if this is not put right. I would not like to be drawn into specific what ifs because we are facing a rather dismaying current situation here.
  (Professor Floud) I am sure I do not need to remind you that in preparation for the SR2002 we made estimates of the additional need for both recurrent and capital funding for research in this country. Those are very large sums of money. We face at the moment a considerable shortfall which has been exacerbated by the decisions of the Funding Council.

Mr McWalter

  135. You are talking as if the total amount of money is going down but it is actually going up. The total quantum is going up but a department that was a 5 stays as a 5 because more people have 5s will lose out but the department that went up to a 5 would obviously gain. The total amount of money available is rather larger than it was before. There is an issue about how you use the word "cuts" which I have been rather confused by.
  (Professor Floud) It shows itself as a cut in relation to the past performance and the potential of a particular department.

Mr Hoban

  136. You have called recently for a £10 billion increase in higher education spending. It may come as no surprise to you that I do not get any letters in my post bag asking for such increases in higher education spending but I do get letters asking for increases in health and transport. How can you justify such a large increase potentially at the expense of other areas of government?
  (Professor Floud) It is for government to make decisions about priorities and we accept that those decisions have to be made. What we have done in our submission to SR2002 is to identify what we think are the costs of doing what the Government has asked us to do. Those costs fall into a number of different categories. They are to increase the participation rate to 50 per cent of 18-30 year-olds by 2010. Possibly, if and when that happens, your post bag will have more in it about higher education funding because there will be more higher education students, parents and grandparents concerned about these matters. Secondly, we have been asked to provide for world class research and, thirdly, to improve the relationship and the knowledge transfer between British universities and the rest of the economy and the community. All those things cost money. They are what we have been asked to do and increasingly universities are being challenged and given targets to do these things. We have made a sober assessment supported by evidence, supported by studies done by independent experts, often not even commissioned by us, of what the costs of that activity will be. I do not believe that we have asked for too much. We have asked for what we believe is needed to do the job.
  (Professor Smith) We do not have any difficulty understanding why that does not dominate the post bag but you and we are charged with seeing a little deeper and longer-term, are we not? The quality of the universities not just in the science and technology areas underpins the successful economy. Without the successful economy, you are not going to have the money for health either. It is a fundamental contributor to the success of the United Kingdom. Of course, it is hidden. It is long-term and subtle. It will hit the agenda of more and more people if we move to the social aspiration of 50 per cent participation rates. The generation like myself—I do not know if we dominate the post bag brigade, but we went to university at a time when six per cent of the age cohort went. It was a minority. As we move now into generations, 50 per cent of whom will have been to university, the perception may get more acute. Do we not know that the United Kingdom university sector underpins a successful economy?

  137. You talk about the three priorities that have been set in terms of government policy improving access to research and knowledge transfer to industry. Of your £10 billion, how does that break down between the three categories?
  (Professor Floud) Rather than reading out a table with large numbers of figures on it, perhaps we can submit it to you in evidence.

  138. Can you give the broad proportions?
  (Professor Floud) It is quite difficult to do that. I suppose the greatest amount within the ten billion is approximately six billion for infrastructure of which 3.9 billion is for teaching infrastructure and 2.6 billion for research infrastructure. We greatly welcome the improvements which have come in research infrastructure funding over the past five years but independent studies suggest that there is still a huge gap there and that, partly as a result of the expenditure on research infrastructure and of the efficiency gains which have been imposed on us, there really is a serious problem about the teaching infrastructure in both quantity and quality. We believe that there is absolutely no point in improving research facilities in universities if the students who will be the future researchers are being taught in inadequately equipped and, in some cases, potentially dangerous laboratories, for example. Teaching infrastructure is a very major priority for us.

Mr Heath

  139. I am interested if there are distortions imposed by the Research Assessment Exercise on the relationship between research and teaching and whether departments are putting a priority inevitably on research in order to attract funding and, as a result, teaching has become a lesser priority. I think your answer suggests that that is not the case but perhaps you would like to enlarge?
  (Professor Floud) I do not think that is the case. Universities have been shown over the past five years of the teaching quality assessment, which has been a very rigorous assessment by external experts, to provide a very satisfactory teaching experience. That is also demonstrated by surveys of satisfaction of past graduates and so on and what they have experienced. The evidence is that the British universities are still continuing to provide an attractive student experience, to provide good teaching and employability skills for their graduates. You may be sceptical but I think it is true that we have experienced a very considerable increase in productivity generally in universities. We are doing an effective job. What we are saying—the ten billion is part of it—is that to continue that job and to do it better as the nation expects of us we need this additional resource.
  (Professor Smith) I think there is a bit of a danger that of course we talk about the RAE and we just focus and stop seeing the bigger picture. It is not as if there is a stick there to beat us on the research front and so we put all our energy into doing that. We also have the teaching quality assessment. We have a quality agency which has sat on us for the last decade. You go back to the point of attractiveness in teaching. It may be that that is a bigger determinant. Students look possibly more at the teaching quality assessment scores than the research assessment so it does turn into money eventually.

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