Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 200 - 204)



  200. Are we seeing a reduction in the selectivity by virtue of the bunching of 4s, 5s and 5*s?
  (Margaret Hodge) Yes, so that is one of the issues we need to address in the review of the RAE as a way of determining quality.

Mr McWalter

  201. I am concerned because there are several aspects to what you said in response to David's question. We seem to have a picture in which you would be perfectly happy to have a university where there are not enough people who want to do chemistry and physics and electronic engineering and so on—they are not there any more—and where you have a great big faculty of business studies and call that diverse university provision. I worry about that, not least because so many of the things we need to do as a society require people to have a degree of scientific literacy which currently people are often quite desperate to avoid, and I think it is one of the reasons why we have problems getting nurses and so on. You need to know what chemistry is to have some idea what you are doing when you are giving drugs and so on. To say, "Oh, well, it is a regional involvement but there is no national strategy"—I think we need a national strategy for science and we need to promote it. I am also worried when you started saying that you can teach without doing research. I think all the best teachers give decent lectures or classes or whatever because they are at the forefront of their subject and thinking about their subject and are passionately involved with it, and communicate that passion and involvement with a sense of excitement and breaking new frontiers to their students, so I am very worried about that teaching and research divide. I hope you think differently about research when you reflect on some of those things, I will simply ask you to do that. You have also identified wider participation, teaching and knowledge transfers as your other priorities, can you think of a way in which, first of all, you can devise a system of funding which actually registers the fact that those are things you really ought to see developed while, at the same time, giving the proper financial reward for research? In particular, will you also accept that if we go down the line of saying 3a departments, which might have struggled over research exercise, a new university which starts at one, gets a two and it now has a 3a, they are really beginning to get nationally recognised levels of research and the teaching quality is advancing in line with that and now we tell them they are going to get nothing for all of their investment, energy and effort in the difficult circumstances in which they are all trying to do it. Can you find a way of giving us a sense that that fourfold strategy will apply in all universities and that the four elements really will be funded in a way which means that all universities are real universities as opposed to some universities being, kind of, second rate universities in which they are funded on a shoestring?
  (Margaret Hodge) I have to say I think I start from a completely different perspective on this, in that I think we have been kidding ourselves that all universities are the same anyway. A little bit of honesty about universities doing different things now might be a healthy way of learning about the future and a sensible way of how you can appropriately and properly fund the things that universities do. I do not want all universities to be the same, I do not think they have ever been the same. I do not think any of you round the table really do think they are the same. What we want to do is value and reward those things that we think are important.

  202. We always thought that a first in history from Oxford was the same as a first in history from Oxford Brookes in terms of quality.
  (Margaret Hodge) Did you? Did you honestly think that?

  203. I did. If it is not we should be honest about that and tell people. I am an adviser at Oxford University, as it happens, and they get their external examiners from Oxford and they give them a brief to apply the same standards at Oxford Brookes as they apply at Oxford University. That is not just an item of theory, it is a practical way of demonstrating that commitment to the highest quality at every university.
  (Margaret Hodge) We do not have a system of national standards and national examinations. I heard the Universities UK representative saying to you there are something like 50,000 courses, and I thought, poor old students having to wade through that lot to make a choice. Courses are independently set and although they are externally monitored I think we are kidding ourselves if we really do think or we have thought that every university is the same, it does not mean they do not all do great and important and good things and we should nurture and grow them. I really do not think anybody really believes they are all the same. Therefore, maybe we start from a different basis, from my basis what I want to do is ensure that we provide all of those things that we talked about; that we have a good research capacity throughout the United Kingdom; that we promote the excellent research that we need to compete internationally; that we grow a knowledge of transfer role; that we start to foster this through the various funding streams; that we widen participation; that we value teaching and that we reward excellent teaching. Those are probably the key things; some universities will do them all, some will do some better than others and some will focus on some and do them extremely well. I think I start from that perspective. What I am anxious to do is to look at a funding mechanism which does reward all of those functions but does not force universities to try and be the same, which I think our funding mechanism has done to date. That is the first thing. The second thing is, I do not want to go back, I do not want to go to centrally planned places. There is a real, real problem about engineering in particular. I do not think the solution lies in growing or in maintaining the supply of engineering places in universities, the solution lies in what my colleagues in the DfES are doing through the school stage and preschool stage in encouraging more young people to go into engineering and other related subjects . Do not let us be too dismal, we are doing jolly well internationally on it, hence citations. But I do not want to go back to that. The HE sector is an odd place because these are fiercely independent institutions who run their own affairs, yet we have never let the market flow between the institutions because we have had that control over places. HEFCE advised us last week on something that we have been thinking about as well—coterminous views—that they are thinking of lifting the control of student numbers as of 2002/2003. It will be interesting. We will have to watch it and see what happens, but I think it is quite a healthy way to foster student choice actually, which is very important, and we have not talked about that much this afternoon. I am not very attracted to the idea of centrally planning places or to deal with deficits in engineering or modern languages, let me take another area where there are lots of departments closing just at a time when we want more British people to learn European and other foreign languages. I do not think you can plan the university sector from the centre, you have to deal with it in other ways. Teaching and research are interconnected, yes, traditionally so, but that is because we have never valued and rewarded excellent teaching. Think, who has been promoted in the universities that you have been associated with simply on the grounds of their excellence in teaching? They are few and far between. We just need to think again about whether or not we cannot create different career structures, different incentives which will start rewarding teaching and that might change people's attitude. It does not mean they do not do some research as well, it just might change that. That is to the benefit of the customer in the system, which is the student, and, if we are going get to the 50 per cent target, that is a huge growth, it will be a change in the cohort and they will require much more focussed teaching and supported teaching than we did probably when we went to university. Can you devise a funding system which meets all of our objectives? It is back to the question of we have a number of priorities, I resisted prioritising them at this stage. I still think that however much money we manage to achieve out of the CSR we are going to have to do some of everything and we will just have to see. The quantum will determine a lot, as, indeed, it would in research, because all those decisions about selectivity and relative strengths all become much easier if you have a bit more money floating round the system. Again, those sort of decisions will have to be taken when we actually have the final determination on the next Spending Review. What we attempted to do, and what I think, if I can say this at the end, is that universities need a pat on their back for doing jolly well on the RAE. I do not think it has been a reflection of a grade inflation exercise, I think it has been a real improvement in the quality of research. What we have attempted to do with the interim money we put in is just keep the show on the road until we get the outcome of the Spending Review. Then we will have to take tough decisions, and we will take them.


  204. Thank you ever so much, Minister, for sharing almost an hour with us, it has been really good and very helpful to our inquiry. No doubt we will probably see you in the chamber when we debate the issue again.
  (Margaret Hodge) Thank you very much indeed.

  Chairman: Thank you.

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