Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 156 - 159)




  156. Thank you for taking the time to come and visit us today. I do not think you have been in front of this Committee before. You know that we are doing the Research Assessment Exercise and you have heard how important that is in determining allocations of funds and so on—never 100 per cent popular but we are looking into the whole process. The previous witnesses described parts of this as a slap in the face to the academics—I think it was the grade 3s and so on—so there is a little disquiet out there and yet you have announced 30 million extra to fund it next year which is about 3.5 per cent or so. How did you get to 30 million? How hard did you fight for that? Should it have been 60? How did you get to that figure?
  (Margaret Hodge) First of all, let me say that there is a misunderstanding about the purpose of the RAE. The RAE is not there to determine the quantum of money that the Government invests in the research infrastructure; it is there to assess the quality—the relative quality—to give a mechanism for then distributing the quantum decided by the Government. I do not get the vibes you do, Chairman, about it being a hated exercise by academics—maybe we talk to different academics. I think it is a peer review exercise which has a lot of credibility in the HE sector, and I also think the vibes I got after the results were announced this time were that a lot of people were chuffed with themselves. If I can give you a few statistics, the number of staff who are now in 5/5* departments has risen to 55 per cent of those who were entered compared to 31 per cent in the 1996 exercise, so that is something of which the research community should be proud and which UK plc should be proud. Clearly, within the quantum, it became impossible to maintain the formula that had been used for the 1996 distribution. We are anxious to sustain a good research capacity in the UK. I heard when I came in how well we are doing in terms of citations worldwide and so on, and we want to sustain and maintain that, so we found 30 million from an underspend—which was the maximum we could find—which will hold the fort. It is a one-off but it will hold the fort between now and the comprehensive spending review settlement when it may not surprise you to learn we are going to be seeking additional resources for research and other things in universities.

  157. The Welsh Assembly went up to 11.5 per cent. How do you feel about that? Have they allocated more money to their research? That is lucky guess, is it?
  (Margaret Hodge) Devolution!

  158. Well, I think there is the answer for London and East Anglian universities. Was it your decision or HEFCE's to fund the 5 rated universities?
  (Margaret Hodge) The decision is one for HEFCE. Of course there are discussions with us but it is one made by HEFCE. It is one I feel perfectly comfortable with because it is vital that we do sustain those research departments that excel internationally and the 5/5* ones have an international position so, in terms of priorities for funding, the sustaining of that international position must be our first priority.

  159. I have two problems and I wonder if you have a position on them at all. Some of the new universities have development funding next year. How are they going to prioritise their problem in relation to the 5 and 5* funding? The other issue is new medical schools which are highlighted in government activity to get new doctors and so on into the NHS, and some of them have not got an RAE rating yet so they start from a very low base. Do you not think they might have an injection of funds to help them kickstart their research, or are we not going to have medics who have any research orientation whatsoever, because it is generally agreed you need to have that in good medical schools?
  (Margaret Hodge) Let me step back a bit from your first question. Having now had the portfolio for six months or so and thinking about how we fund research in the UK, we are trying to do a lot of things out of probably one pot of money which does not quite work. We are trying to fund basic research capacity where we can: we are trying to fund and promote and foster international excellence, which we must do: and we are trying increasingly to fund a knowledge-transfer capacity in regional economies. At the moment we probably try to do too much out of the one stream of money and too much out of that one assessment. One of the reasons I welcome the review that HEFCE is now undertaking is that it will give them an opportunity to step back and think a little bit about the sensitivity of the current regime to funding those three purposes, and whether it is fit for purpose. One of the things we are reflecting on as we prepare our CSR bid is again, if we are going to concentrate resources on the internationally excellent research departments, how we then keep a flow of growing departments and have most universities in all regions making a contribution to their regional economy. It may be that we need to look at a new settlement, a new way of funding, building perhaps on HEROBC/HEIF[1] funding for some of the new universities, for example, who may not have done so well out of the RAE exercise. And we need to look at whether or not, given the bunching up at the 5/5*, the RAE is sensitive enough to those that we want to promote internationally. Also, of course, it all depends on the total quantum; the more money you have, the more generous you can be across the board. On your second question about new universities emerging, one of the interesting things and one of the successes of the RAE and all the research funding mechanism is that there has been quite a lot of fluidity in the system and Oxford Brookes, as an example of a new university, has done pretty well out of the RAE exercise this year and does very well out of the HEIF funding as well, so there is some fluidity in there. We have to keep maintaining that but remember that the purpose of the RAE is to measure relative excellence and distribute according to that.

1   Note by witness: Higher Education Reach-Out to Business and the Community Fund / Higher Education Innovation Fund. Back

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