Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 160 - 179)



Mr Heath

  160. Of course I understand that you can only distribute the money that you have available but you said you were content with the distribution this year. Surely it cannot be right that a department which has already established its excellence and maintains that excellence is rewarded with a cut in funding, as a simple proposition?
  (Margaret Hodge) What do you mean?

  161. Because the money is distributed to more departments, the amount of money they have available is less despite the fact they have maintained a research institute of excellence?
  (Margaret Hodge) The options open to HEFCE were to ignore the results of the 2001 RAE exercise because they have to live within the quantum that was given them. They are of course given a three-year settlement not a one-year settlement so they know the amount of money that is in the pot until the end of this spending review period, 03/04. You cannot suddenly magic more—it is not a demand-led budget.

  162. I understand. So you are content with it. I am not, and I would suspect you should not be either.
  (Margaret Hodge) I think they used the additional resources that we were able to find mid-spending review period for them sensibly. Do I think that we ought to try and get more money for research overall? Yes. How should it be distributed? Well, I think that is for the RAE review and I still need to think about whether, over the longer-term, we ought in that mechanism to be funding as wide a distribution of quality as we have in the past, and I think that is one of the issues up for debate in the review.

Dr Murrison

  163. On 5 and 5* grades, 23 per cent to 55 per cent in nine years is going the same way as A level results, is it not?
  (Margaret Hodge) What are you suggesting?

  164. I am suggesting that one interpretation that could be put on this is it is departments working the system rather than a reflection of excellence?
  (Margaret Hodge) We have thought about, and no doubt you will reflect on that too. I think what the RAE has successfully done is focused universities on improving the quality of their research and I think, if you look at the benchmarking and you see what has happened to the management of research and what has happened to the composition of staff working on research, there has been an improvement in that management of research. Secondly, if you look at the citations, for instance, which is one of the measures we have to look for our relative success in research, we have gone up to 18 per cent[2] in the last four or five years, which reflects quite a considerable improvement, so if you look at quality as measured by that, the RAE reflected the improvement in quality and so did that. Is there an element of the clever old researchers in the HE sector learning how to manage the system that they themselves have put in place? There is probably a slight element but I do not want to overplay that. I think it is difficult to pull out and say, you know, that created a percentage improvement in people's RAE ratings. I think the prime reason that more departments did better is that they have got better.

  165. Humanities get seven years in this exercise: science and technology gets five years in order to produce material. Can you justify that?
  (Margaret Hodge) That is again a matter for HEFCE to determine and I think they have been persuaded by the humanities academics that it takes them that long to find the fruits of their research. Interestingly enough, one of the things I hope that the review will do is look at that timeframe in which we undertake the reassessment of quality. There are various options: is it right? How can it possibly fit in better with government budget review timetables? Also, you might argue whether 5 stars need to be reviewed that often. These are all questions I think up for the HEFCE review and they will be looking at that and we will be talking to them about it, but I do not think there is a sort of, "If everybody accepted that in the world, why should we question it?"

  166. Strengthening research excellence is one of your department's four priorities along with increased participation, teaching and technology transfer. Can you rank those in order of importance?
  (Margaret Hodge) No, I think they are all important. We have strong ambitions for the higher education sector. You have probably heard me say before that I think it is a sector that has suffered from massive under-investment for a generation: if you look at the cuts in unit funding in universities 36 per cent over the last decade is massive, and what is so pleasing really is that they have managed, despite that cut in funding, to sustain quality and expand numbers—quality both in teaching and quality in research—so I think interestingly enough for me, with all my experience of various bits of the public sector, this has been one of the more successful parts of the public sector in maintaining itself despite expenditure cuts.

  167. I have to press you because we hear lot about priorities and difficult decisions and I am asking you to prioritise those four things that your department has suggested. I must press you and try to establish a rank order?
  (Margaret Hodge) Why? All I can say to you in response is our priorities are to expand wider participation and to have fairer access to universities, so there are two elements to that, so it is not just more numbers but from a much wider socio-economic profile of people, so that is one aspect. Improving teaching excellence is another: maintaining our position for UK plc in terms of research pre-eminence internationally is another: and strengthening the links between the HE sector and their regional and local economies in the business sector is a fourth, so they are all our priorities. There is nothing wrong in such a broad sector spending quite a lot of money in response to a lot of priorities.

Mr Hoban

  168. But how can you allocate money if you cannot rank your priorities?
  (Margaret Hodge) First of all, at this point we are in discussions across government as to how much money each of those priorities will require, and I cannot see us going for one and not another. We want to achieve progress in all four. I am surprised at your question—I am surprised that you see that one has to prioritise between them. I do not see that. I am trying to think of another analogy across another service, but if you were asked which is more important, your constituency role or your Parliamentary role, you would say you wanted to do both jobs properly.

  169. But if I have a million pounds to spend I will decide how best to spend that money in accordance with my priorities.
  (Margaret Hodge) So will I when it comes to it, and what we will want to do is to have sufficient resources to support those four very clear objectives we have set ourselves. I do not think that is a problem. You have several objectives in your job: you try to achieve more than one.

  170. But I suspect the Chancellor will not allow you to achieve all your objectives equally and, therefore, there must be a ranking used to determine how you best spend the money the Chancellor will give you.
  (Margaret Hodge) You are putting some presumptions behind that. I think across government there is a desire both for the purpose of inclusion in society to widen and broaden participation, and there is a desire to strengthen the research-base within universities. Both are necessary elements in achieving our overall economic objectives and our overall social inclusion objectives. It is not an either/or: we need them both. Whether we get enough money at the end of the day to meet, entirely, programmes that we might be able to pull out of a bottomless pit is another issue, but if you are asking me whether I will do one rather than the other, the answer is no.

Dr Murrison

  171. Following on from that, what interest does the Treasury take and how is the education budget allocated?
  (Margaret Hodge) We work very closely, in a very joined-up way, with the Treasury and with the DTI on many of these issues and with No 10, so I am in very close discussions with my colleagues in DTI, Treasury and No 10 discussing what sort of programme we wish to put together for the next spending review period and how the money should be allocated. A lot of research money this time, for example, the infrastructure money, JIF/SRIF money came through DTI, the research council's money goes through OST—there is a huge importance in getting proper joined-up government and I have frequent conversations and meetings and everything you can imagine with colleagues in DTI, OST and the Treasury and No 10.

  172. Changing the subject slightly, Universities UK has said that higher education needs an extra 10 billion over the next spending review period. Do you feel that accurately reflects the funding for higher education?
  (Margaret Hodge) I have said to Universities UK they are a very good trade union. If you are at a starting point as a trade union, you put in a big bid. I think it is slightly over-ambitious as to where we will end up but I do come from the perspective that I do think universities have been seriously under-funded over the last generation. I also think quite properly, in the first term of the Labour Government, we focused our investment in education in the nursery and primary sector, and we recognise this time as a team that we have got to strengthen our investment and focus more to the secondary, post-16 and HE sector, and I think that will be reflected in our discussions—

  173. So you prioritised the nursery sector?
  (Margaret Hodge) Yes, we certainly did.

  174. In that case, can I draw you back to my first question which was about ranking those priorities that you quite rightly put before us?
  (Margaret Hodge) Let me put it to you this way: we prioritised nursery education and did brilliantly on it. We are finally going to be the Government, as somebody who has campaigned for it since my son was born some 30 years ago, that has free nursery education for all 3 and 4 year-olds and I am incredibly proud of that—as indeed, I hope, are a number of my colleagues round the table. Equally, we put an 18 per cent increase into the HE sector—we did not ignore it. Over the spending review period they have 1.7 billion which is an 18 per cent growth[3], so we did not completely put all our eggs in the nursery basket: we spread it across. Having said that, however, I think the focus in this spending review period has to be on addressing some of the serious under-investment in FE, HE and secondary schools, and that is where we are putting a lot of our energy. That does not mean we are going to stop implementing our policy on nursery education which will require additional resources for us to get free nursery places for all by September 2004.


  175. Let us turn to joined-up government again. You mentioned lots of departments there—they were flooding out at one point. In your submission, it says you work closely with OST to ensure a co-ordinated government approach to the funding of research. On the other hand HEFCE says that the dual support system has become unbalanced and research infrastructure has not been maintained at a pace commensurate with the increase in project funding. Is it unco-ordinated, in your opinion?
  (Margaret Hodge) It is not unco-ordinated but I think that the JIF and SRIF investments in particular that came through the DTI were not matched by equal increases in the QR funding and, therefore, the ratio of QR to other investment has altered and that is one of the things we need to address. So it is not that its unco-ordinated but in a sense it is very difficult to say what we should have done first, and I think that capital investment, although it required the institutions, as Universities UK said to you, to find 25 per cent of the money and that caused some distortion in some budgets of some higher education institutions, nevertheless that was warmly welcomed and has been a good step forward. We now have to build on that and consolidate, and make sure we have the proper revenue funding and that is why there is a cross-cutting review on these issues and why there is also the transparency review, to look at the real costs of research.

  176. I am sure the Committee welcomes that that is going to be addressed. We have a memorandum which I am told is fairly unique from the OST on this very issue of your co-ordinated approach and so on, and it is very heavily Civil Service speak—
  (Margaret Hodge) I have not seen it.

  177. It is never critical as you read between the lines but it has said that the recognition of cross-disciplinary research, the weight accorded industry-funded research and the ability of universities to exclude active researchers from the assessment are all problems they would like to see addressed. Would the OST get involved in HEFCE's review of the RAE process?
  (Margaret Hodge) Yes, because they are represented on HEFCE. John Taylor sits on the HEFCE board.

  178. So he speaks for the OST, you are saying, on that board?
  (Margaret Hodge) On that board, yes. He is a member of the board and HEFCE is very consultative. There really is good collaboration on trying to get these things better and right.

  179. So John Taylor will have a very important role in communicating the OST view, so it may be that we ought to ask him what his role will be in that process, and you are confident the views of OST will be expressed?
  (Margaret Hodge) Yes.

2   Note by witness: 18 per cent is the UK share of the most cited 1 per cent of research papers, up from 11 per cent around the time of the last RAE. Back

3   Note by witness: A £1.7 billion, 18 per cent in real terms, in publicly-planned funding of higher education institutions in England over the six years to 2003-04. Back

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