Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)

22 MARCH 2004

PROFESSOR SIR ALAN WILSON

  Q20 Chairman: Not from Leeds' point of view, you have left Leeds behind now?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Yes.

  Q21 Dr Harris: Before I ask you the meat of my question, I want to ask you whether you are interested in evidence-based policy advice.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Yes, absolutely.

  Q22 Dr Harris: By which I mean looking at what the research says about a certain thing and applying scientific method. The Secretary of State said this morning that he was a fan of this. How important do you see that as a factor in the advice you give and, indeed, the policy in higher education generated by the Department?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am a great believer in evidence-based policy, it happens to be my academic background before I was Vice-Chancellor in Leeds. Academically I am a geographer and have an interest in the planning of cities and such things. That is very much an area where evidence-based policy is extremely important. The fact that the Government has taken that up, I think through the Cabinet Office, as Government policy, as it were, is very helpful. I think within the Department for Education or, indeed, any Government department, the more you can assemble the relevant evidence to support policy the better.

  Q23 Dr Harris: Let us look at the Higher Education Bill. There is a proposal there to get more people from poorer backgrounds into higher education by making them poorer, giving them more debt. Are you aware of the research background that suggests that that counterintuitive suggestion is backed by the evidence?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am aware of Clare Callendar's research on the fear of debt.

  Q24 Dr Harris: That showed that debt aversion was a bigger problem for poorer students and would be a big factor in deterring them from going to university.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: That showed that debt aversion could be a substantial problem. In fact, what I would say on that is that the evidence in other countries, and Australia in particular, is that kind of debt aversion has not deterred poorer students from going to university.

  Q25 Dr Harris: What you are saying is that you are happy to see evidence cited—I have not seen the worldwide review to which you are referring—from abroad trumping the evidence that is funded and organised and commissioned by the Government itself on this particularly thorny issue.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think, Chairman, in this kind of territory I go back to say that I am in favour of evidence-based policy. By academic profession I am a social scientist and I am well aware that social science is a highly imperfect science and you often find evidence that points in different directions and what is necessary at the end of the day is to make a judgment about effective ways forward. I do not think one piece of research necessarily says that the policy contradicts evidence.

  Q26 Dr Harris: The alternative is that the evidence points one way but, nevertheless, a harsh, political, economic decision has to be made and that is just what politics is like. Would you say that is a better description, or a possible description of what is happening here? Are you going to stick to the view that despite the evidence of the Government's own work, there may be some evidence out there that suggests this is a good thing to do in respect of access?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: There is some such evidence but in terms of the Department's policy on this, I would say that the Department, as you implied initially, does its best to support evidence-based policy. In terms of the politics of this, Chairman, that is probably a question for the Secretary of State rather than for me.

  Q27 Dr Harris: We are a science committee obviously and we are interested in science careers and we will come on to that later, but one of the questions around this particular issue is whether you think there is something that has to be handled, given that it looks like we are going to have this policy of top-up fees and, therefore, greater indebtedness, about whether that is going to be a problem in promoting people to go into science research, public sector jobs versus, in the alternative, better paid jobs and the higher the debt is at the end. Is that something that you think the Government is dealing with, or going to deal with?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: It is a policy question to be dealt with. I think in terms of attracting people into different professions there will come a time when these questions have to be addressed and different bodies will address them. In part, of course, this is why the Department invited Alan Langlands to do a Gateway Review in terms of entry into the professions and you could actually take science as being a part of that.

  Q28 Dr Harris: Given what we have been discussing, do you think there is an argument for the DfES to commission research now to bolster the evidence-base to give more information, or at least to monitor how this is introduced in terms of impact on career choices and impact on access compared to better controlled groups than Australia, such as the Scottish system? Do you think that is a good idea and are you doing it?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I would be surprised if the Department and, indeed, many others did not do that over a period in future. I think this is a long-term issue. It is a potential longitudinal study.

  Q29 Dr Harris: I am asking you will you be recommending that or is it not your responsibility to recommend research projects around this area?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: It is not directly my responsibility at the present time but I will happily say that it is important to monitor these kinds of changes.

  Q30 Bob Spink: I want to question you on the dual support system for research and the RAE. Do you think the RAE has been successful as a measure of quantity of research?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am sure the RAE has been successful in improving the quality of research. It is very difficult in this kind of territory to produce absolute measures of value. What is clear is that no-one in the scientific community has been able to suggest a better method than peer review. I think the outputs of Research Assessment Exercises over the years, and the exercise, as you know, has been continually refined, have been broadly accepted by the community and that is one kind of test as to whether it works or not. Nothing in that kind of territory can be absolutely objective but, broadly speaking, I think everybody accepts that the outputs are consistent.

  Q31 Chairman: Do you think it skews the whole activity within the university complex that everything is geared to that RAE and to hell with teaching, to hell with good administration and so on? What is your experience at that level because promotions and so on depend so much on research and not on your teaching function?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Because of the Research Assessment Exercise, research has certainly been given a very high priority, there is no question about that, it has had that kind of impact on promotion. It has been part of the policy in the White Paper to recognise that and to seek to enhance the standard of teaching, for example. I think we are in very difficult territory here because the Research Assessment Exercise in many ways has been amazingly successful in actually driving up the quality of scientific research and the quality of scientific research, so it has had that effect on both dimensions. If I can refer to my experience in Leeds, my own experience is that it has not had an adverse effect on teaching quality. Insofar as Teaching Quality Assessments, there is the same question, do they work, actually effectively measuring teaching quality, and the broad consensus is that research universities like Leeds have actually done very well. If you would like my own opinion on this, I share it with no less than the President of the Royal Society, Lord May. He gave a talk in Leeds in the summer, which I happened to be chairing, and if you will allow an anecdote, Chairman, he said he liked to come to research conferences and talk to people about what they were not doing or was not on the agenda, and he produced three or four research topics that were not on the agenda, but then said "and you never have teaching on the agenda". I think coming from the President of the Royal Society that was very important. I have cited that in several speeches.

  Q32 Bob Spink: Lord May called for a fundamental review of the dual funding, but we will come to that in a moment. On the RAE, this Committee agrees with you that it actually helped to drive up the quality standards but also there were some question marks as to whether it had run its full course of usefulness and whether 2008 might be the final exercise. What is your view on that?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think there are going to be some interesting experiments in train between now and 2008. Probably what everybody will be aware of is there has been an increasing interest over the last two or three years in developing metrics for measuring research quality with things like the Citation Indices, with measures of Research Council grant attracted, that kind of thing. There are people who argue—Lord May is one and Professor Roger Williams is another one—that you could actually use these metrics and allocate the funds and produce an outcome that was not very different from the Research Assessment Exercise. I think between now and 2008 there will be more research on these metrics and that will be examined, I am sure, for the RAE after 2008.

  Q33 Bob Spink: On the dual funding, do you think that has had its day or do you think that will continue?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: The position at the moment is that both sides of the dual funding structure, the Research Councils and OST and DTI, and DfES and HEFCE on the other side, support the continuation of the dual support system. I happen to be in the position of coming from two sides.

  Q34 Bob Spink: They would.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Not necessarily because there have been rumours in the past about people wanting to support different positions. I think the position is actually very solid at the present time. It is widely recognised that the QR, the quality research funding coming from the Funding Council, supports activity in universities that it would otherwise be extremely difficult to support. Then there is another part of the argument and discussions that I have been involved with recently that you will all be fully aware of, which is the introduction by 2005 of the full economic cost regime in research. Research in universities does have costs that have to be funded from different sources because if the research group is actually trying to attract research funding from a Research Council but has to say that it has certain infrastructure or the well-founded lab in place before it can do that then somebody has to fund the well-founded lab in the first place. That is what the HEFCE side of the dual support would deliver and, indeed, the permanent staff who could apply for the grants. I would actually argue that it is a system that has worked well and I would see that it still has a long life.

  Q35 Chairman: I wanted to clear up something about tuition fees. Variable fees exercised some of us quite a lot and I wonder what effect you think that might have on science and technology and engineering courses if it goes through next Wednesday? They have been singled out, of course, as perhaps to get people into them we should charge nothing for them.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: That argument has been put. I have also heard another argument from vice chancellor colleagues of what might become quite an interesting market in bursaries, that the rate at which bursaries might be offered might vary by course. It is obviously very important. It would be extremely important to me in Leeds to maintain departments like physics and chemistry and I am sure that vice chancellors around the country in universities with these departments will seek to attract people in. I am not sure that it has a lot to do with variable fees. Some universities may charge less or introduce bursaries to encourage people in but I still think it remains more of a low demand issue that between us, whether it is universities working in schools or universities seeking to produce more science teachers, which is now beginning to happen, or whether it is in the schools itself and the colleges, we can increase the demand for science. I think if that happens, whatever the fee in a typical university is for physics or for history, I do not see that someone is going to choose to read history because of it having the same fee as physics.

  Q36 Chairman: So it is irrelevant to the real issue of getting people to do things at university that are relevant?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Yes.

  Q37 Chairman: Do you think the DfES will ever offer bursaries, or should offer bursaries, like the Institute of Physics is doing for example?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: The Institute of Physics has chosen to offer £1,000 bursaries. There are no plans to my knowledge, in the Department, for subject specific support. Obviously it is an issue that we should all monitor because we need to support science in schools, colleges and universities. What the Department does have is a whole range of policies to support that.

  Q38 Chairman: Do you think the concentration of research funding is skewed to Russell Group universities, the South of England and so on?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: It is skewed to Russell Group universities because that is where there is more research capacity and to an extent that is reinforced by the RAE. I think that leads to interesting questions. The Department's policy, and I think OST's policy, is to fund good research wherever it is, so there is nothing in the funding mechanism as such. There might be something in the evaluation mechanism, which takes us back to the RAE, which skews things in Russell Group terms. The evidence is beginning to be that it is much less skewed in regional terms. There is often a lot of talk about the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge but, again, if I can call on my own experience, as you will know, the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York collaborate through the White Rose Consortium and my vice-chancellor colleagues there are very fond of producing the arithmetic which shows that the research income of those three universities actually exceeds either Oxford or Cambridge. In terms of research capacity in that research triangle in Yorkshire, it is as big as either Oxford or Cambridge. I think that is part of what could be the solution if we were worried about what might be an increase in regional concentration, although I do not think we have got to that point yet. That is more collaboration in research networks in the regions to actually deliver the capacity that you can see in White Rose, you can see in the North West, you can see in the North East.

  Q39 Mr McWalter: I am still very confused about what your job is. I might be being a bit thick. It seems to me that this is the sort of conversation we could be having about education with pretty much anyone with a vice chancellor background and so on. We have lost 22 physics and chemistry departments in six years, 1994-2000. Is it not the case that if you are Director General of Higher Education and you are concerned about that, you should be making recommendations for changes in funding if those subjects are really important to ensure that those subjects no longer suffer that degree of atrophy and that degree of neglect or whatever? Is that your job or is it not?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am very happy to return to discussing the job.


 
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