Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 155)



  140. You said earlier you do not believe undergraduates are affected by the British assessment exercise scores. I am not entirely convinced by that argument when it appears in the prospectus that such and such a department is a 5* department.
  (Professor Floud) You use every piece of ammunition you have. Our own market research suggests a disappointing unawareness of the RAE scores and greater attention to either teaching or newspaper league tables which combine all sorts of things like the amount you spend on libraries and whether the residences cost more. There is a whole ragbag so I think what we are trying to say is we will take it on board certainly in future discussions about RAE but we do not believe there are these major distortions that you are worried about.

  141. If that is the case for undergraduate recruitment, and I accept obviously what you say on that; is that equally true of staff recruitment? Are capable scientists not attracted to departments which have a high reputation for research?
  (Professor Smith) Yes, would be the simple answer.

  142. So there is a divide opening up between those departments which are offering those high assessments in research and those who are not, and there is the risk, is there not, of developing research universities and teaching universities where the teaching universities are not attracting the same calibre of staff?
  (Professor Smith) I think it is more subtle than that because if you take, let's say, the top department in whatever area it is, they can attract and because they are very successful they can probably pay to bring in, people who are already halfway up the ladder with track records and have grants and so on, but to sustain the system there have to be entry points for the young people coming on for PhDs, etc. They do not have the leverage and clout to get positions in that top university, do they, so there is a self-regulating pyramid through the system.
  (Professor Floud) That is why we are so concerned about the decisions of the funding council which will reduce the research funding of the lower-rated departments because those are the seedcorn of the other departments.
  (Professor Smith) Without that support pyramid and the entry points lower down away from the superstar staff you will not have anything to support and sustain the superstar staff.

  143. So you will have colonies of the great and good in the Russell Group universities and new entrants to teaching and to research spread thinly across the rest? Perhaps it was ever thus.
  (Professor Smith) But there are 96 institutions that have something up in the 5s; there are 60 odd that have really substantial numbers. There are not just ten or 15 places which are sustaining the excellence of UK academic life.

  144. There are 25 universities, are there not, attracting the bulk of the funding?
  (Professor Smith) You have to be careful with that calculation. If you take any particular research council they will have a graph that says 90 per cent goes to the 25 but then you take another research council and another one and there are different 25s. When you add them up, you have 60 or 70. It is not this nonsense that you can somehow concentrate everything in 20 universities. It is totally absurd.


  145. In my experience research is done by the young graduate students anyway, doing the PhDs and so on. If you do not have a good graduate school—which is extremely expensive to run, to attract people in—then you do not have good research, but academics are too busy filling in forms and doing all the other things and whingeing continuously?
  (Professor Smith) Whatever the wrinkles around the edges, for sure we will not be attracting them if the funding base is going to crumble. If we have not the money to sustain expensive science by 5* departments—these things do not come cheap—you ain't going to have it.

  146. Yet we had two Nobel prizes this year and the highest citation of best in the world in science still in this country—a tremendous record. Maybe not having money is feeding us, like getting out of the ghetto. What do you think of that?
  (Professor Floud) As an economic historian I think it is deeply flawed!
  (Professor Smith) There has been a recognised price to pay for sustaining, let's say, a 5 department in a certain area of science at the moment. The current HEFCE proposal says you are going to sustain it at the future on 85 per cent of that funding.

  Dr Murrison: Can I just observe that Ernest Rutherford said, "Now we have run out of money, we are just going to have to sit down and think"


  147. Just quickly, what do you think about universities and the spend and infrastructure and has that been relegated? JIF and SRIF came along to help restore that in universities but have people just worked in garrets because they have to get the RAE out and get their four brilliant research papers out in five years?
  (Professor Smith) The infrastructure support has been very helpful. Of course, it did have this requirement of institutions finding 25 per cent matching funding. It would be very interesting—another round of that just at the moment might cripple the system. 50 per cent of institutions are projecting recurrent deficits this year so the infrastructure has been terrific, but now we need the recurrent funding to make use of the infrastructure.
  (Professor Floud) And we need similar investment in the teaching infrastructure to ensure we can actually teach these young people in appropriate facilities.

Mr McWalter

  148. In keeping with some of the other questions I asked you earlier about how the RAE operates; do you think sufficient weight has been given to collaboration with industry or to the development of patents in science research?
  (Professor Smith) In general funding, of course, there have been special initiatives like University Challenge bringing forward IPR nearer to market. There was the HEROBC scheme and now son and daughter of HEROBC. There has been quite a bit of injection in funding to help us set up the infrastructures to get those communication channels going and I think that has been not too bad, to be honest, but we need from the point of view of this Committee the scientists and technologists there doing the research that can be exploited through those mechanisms.

  149. And the panels will give weight to that, will they, as opposed to publication in peer review journals? I do not think so, in my experience, to answer my own question. I think there is a huge emphasis upon the peer review journal.
  (Professor Smith) I think you are confusing two things. The Research Assessment Exercise is there to assess research as conventionally understood. An awful lot of what the HEROBC and the University Challenge stuff has brought out which is also vital is knowledge transfer—it is not necessarily new knowledge created through research: it is the knowledge transfer—and you may well have an issue that you want to take up elsewhere of the amount of funding that goes into knowledge transfer, but I do not think it is right to attack the RAE exercise in those terms because that is not what it was set up for and not what it was charged with doing.

  150. So you do not think there is any danger that universities might close the department which does this sort of excellent work but which does not really make it on the RAE grading system? You do not think any university is going to do that?
  (Professor Smith) If it is doing excellent work with industry it will probably be in financially better shape than relying on the RAE income.

  151. But it will not get the students?
  (Professor Smith) That is not true.
  (Professor Floud) That is not necessarily true at all. Many of the universities that are most connected to local industries, most engaged in knowledge transfer, are the post-92 universities which have not had the volume of research funding but nevertheless they have managed to make a substantial contribution to their locality and to devise courses which do attract students. Going back to the point about what attracts students to a university, it is I believe a very good thing that students look at the nature of the courses and there are now, I think, 50,000 undergraduate courses in the UCAS handbook and students choose the one that they think will most suit them and will hopefully lead on to a career.

  152. There has been a large-scale attrition of science departments in those 1992 universities, and I think you need to give that very serious weight.
  (Professor Smith) Somebody does but we take you back to the earlier point: it is the incredible and very dangerous decline in student interests and applications for those subjects.
  (Professor Floud) There is certainly no shortage of supply by universities of courses in science and engineering. The difficulty arises from the lack of students demanding them.
  (Professor Smith) They are closing because there is over-supply.


  153. Just to return to a theme, why do you think academics despise the RAE so much? Is it because it disturbs, as so many people think, the quiet little number they have?
  (Professor Smith) The 97 per cent of my staff who were entered and did wonderful things were holding parties; they do not despise it at all.
  (Professor Floud) HEFCE conducted when it did its review of research last year extensive consultation with staff, including focus groups with old and young and all kinds of different staff, and for whatever reason those kinds of criticisms did not surface.

  154. Moving to the future, you have indicated your thinking about the HEFCE review that is going on. Just quickly, you do not have specifics I guess but in general, for the record, what would you individually like to see inculcated into the review of the RAE? You mentioned it might have to be scrapped if the money did not come through; that is an extreme position but how would you change it to make it fairer, perhaps?
  (Professor Floud) One of the issues that does need to be discussed in the next review of the RAE is the question of the amount of money, the quantum, the unit funding for research in a particular discipline, and the overall distribution of research funding between disciplines. Neither of those subjects and any possible national priorities for research have been incorporated into past reviews of the RAE, and I think that is the area that we would wish to see considered.
  (Professor Smith) I think it is the same point: that the funding council hitherto has firmly set its face against having a policy dimension to its manipulation of those numbers. I cannot say that we can necessarily speak on behalf of Universities UK as an agreed policy but perhaps that is a position that cannot be sustained—the concerns that you have been expressing throughout. Are there some national priorities you want to push, or not?

  155. Can I thank you both very much indeed for taking the time and giving us your thoughts and ideas and rebuttals. If you have thoughts when you go back which mean you would like to resubmit something, please do.
  (Professor Smith) I think this Committee should have in front of it for deliberation at some time the figures on trends and applications that are subject to UK infrastructure.

  Chairman: Thank you.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 24 April 2002