Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 40-59)

22 MARCH 2004


  Q40 Chairman: We will come back to that. This question is coming up later, I know.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Let me respond in these terms: my job is to advise ministers on all the policy questions that affect higher education and the one you have just articulated is one such important question. Yes, I would see it as part of my job to advise ministers on that. The implementation of higher education policy is in many ways through the Funding Council and you might return later to the relationship between my job and my colleagues in the Department and the Funding Council. I am not saying that to avoid the question.

  Q41 Chairman: We will come back to that.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Ministers will be responsible for these kinds of policies. The short answer to your question is yes. The longer answer in relation to what should we be doing about is something that has yet to be addressed. What has happened is there has been a decline, for example, in the number of chemistry departments from 80-odd to 70-odd, or something of that sort, and you may or may not say that represents crisis level. My guess is it is a long way from crisis level, as it were. One of the things that will have to be continually monitored is the adequacy of provision. Again, as in many of these things, there is a regional dimension. Would we want to take one of the UK regions that we have just been talking about and find that there is no chemistry department? I think that is an important question for the Department and for the Funding Council. Whether it is a matter of funding for those departments is then a different question again. If there were to be an argument that in effect students would be funded at a much higher rate in, let us say, physics and chemistry, for the sake of argument, in order to make departments financially viable in certain universities then it means that you are taking the funding away from somebody else. What the Funding Council is doing at the moment is actually making judgments about costs and how to distribute funds across subjects. What universities have to do within the system with demand for different subjects is to manage that and what we are all facing, as I know you have explored, is a decline in the number of students taking A levels in subjects of this kind. I think that is still the root of the problem. What I would argue is that it is not a rate of funding question, it is actually a demand question.

  Q42 Chairman: Just to finish off on the Higher Education Bill. Your old colleague, Sir Richard Sykes, who is well-known for his work in the pharmaceutical industry, who I see today is making quite a tidy sum from his share options, and he might help the university out of these problems at the rate he is getting it, said that the money would be better going to certain universities than, indeed, lower mortal universities like Luton. Do you agree with that?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: No.

  Q43 Chairman: He is just off the wall, is he?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: It is not for me to say whether Richard Sykes is off the wall.

  Q44 Chairman: He has got more money than sense, as my mother would say.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: What I would say is that higher education in this country is represented by a very diverse set of universities that actually do different things in different parts of the system and I very happily support that. I come from a research university background myself and I support the sector. My record in Universities UK has always been to support the whole sector.

  Q45 Mr Key: Just on that point, is there a gender imbalance problem here? Would there be less of a problem if there were a higher proportion of half the population, namely the female half, pursuing science courses?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: That is an interesting question and I am afraid I cannot give you chapter and verse because I do not know the statistics on that. Certainly there is a gender imbalance in science. In my experience, in many departments it is changing but slowly. What is changing very rapidly is the gender balance in universities. In my own university, statistics that I happened to see the other day showed that it reversed from 45% female/55% male in a 10 year period, so it is now 55% female. If you look at subjects like medicine, I think 60% of our intake is now female. It is changing but it is part of the solution.

  Q46 Dr Iddon: As you have probably gathered, Sir Alan, this Committee is rather worried about the closure of engineering and physical science departments. I think the figure for chemistry that you gave of 75 is out of date because since that figure was put into the literature, King's Queen Mary College in London has gone, as good as, and a department at Swansea has announced potential closure despite the fact that it is a centre of excellence in two subjects, green chemistry and mass spectrometry, and despite the fact that it is not having any trouble recruiting numbers. Why do you think a vice chancellor would want to close a department that is viable? Is he or she looking at the cost of running the university and science is seen to be too expensive and not funded adequately by the Government?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: It is not for me to comment on particular cases, so I would rather not seek to do that. What I can say in general is what vice chancellors and my colleagues have to do is to balance costs and demand for courses and you can have departments that are very successful in research terms but if they are not attracting enough students to the cost base which is there they will find that they may be running very large deficits and you then get within a university a version of the issue we were talking about earlier of subsidising one set of subjects relative to another and I think most universities would seek not to do that. The best way forward, as is the case nationally, is obviously to seek to increase demand. I have faced this kind of situation in my own university and we have always managed to do well enough, often by putting an enormously extra effort into the process of student recruitment to avoid the problem that has obviously occurred in some of the universities. I am not trying to say that effort everywhere will solve the problem because it actually goes back to the problem of falling A level enrolment in subjects like chemistry and the only long-term solution is to turn that back up again.

  Q47 Dr Iddon: Some departments are doing quite well, archaeology and astronomy are growing significantly, whilst others which we have just mentioned are depressed significantly. Do you think it is right that students should be allowed to choose whatever subject they want to read in the sciences or engineering subjects at university or should we have some kind of differential to attract them to the subjects which lead to national wealth?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I can only give a personal opinion on that. It would be difficult, and not something that I would like to think of, to actually manage student choice in any directed way, so I think the short answer to the question is students should choose to do what they want to do. If from the point of view of Government policy that is not providing the person power necessary to support the chemical industry or whatever it would be then obviously some other kind of action is needed and one falls back again to saying it is how to encourage demand. In the areas where demand is not good, and between us we understand some of the reasons—lack of teachers with the appropriate qualifications or whatever it is—we have to put a policy package together in that case at the schools level that actually turns it around.

  Q48 Dr Iddon: Until that demand is recreated, which I believe and you believe it should be recreated, can we let departments like the University of Salford disappear which, when I went there, earlier, had one of the best chemistry department libraries in this country, and I have worked in places like Durham and Hull as well. What happens to the huge amount of investment in the university library in such situations or indeed the heavy machinery, like nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. As a nation can we afford to let all that crumble only to have to pick it up again later when all of those resources have disappeared?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I take the point of your question. In some cases there are short run solutions. In general it would be the university, very occasionally it would be a funding Council, who would support that kind of situation. It would have to be for a short period otherwise you are diverting funds on a continuing basis from other subjects. I think the other possibility is to explore whether the collaborative research networks that are now being explored and were supported and recommended in the White Paper would actually begin to solve some of these problems.

  Q49 Dr Iddon: The question I am really asking is, do we let the market take its full effect? Does it really matter how many science and engineering departments we have?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am sure it matters. I am sure all of these situations have to be monitored very carefully. I do not think what anyone would like to support is some kind of pure market system that would then allow key facilities to disappear. Whilst the Department's responsibility is to monitor I am sure the Funding Council does this anyway on a continuing basis.

  Q50 Dr Iddon: With increasing fees and maintenance of students at universities will you be recommending that because more students are having to live at home, not wanting to live at home, in the light of an earlier question that you answered that there should be a subject within travel distance of everybody's home in the country they that could reach conveniently?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Chairman, I am certain that cannot be done. Forgive me for putting it in the extreme case, there is a reductio ad absurdum argument there because if you take the real minority subjects which are supported by the Funding Council you are going to have one in the country. If I use my own university as an example, we teach Mongolian so if you want to read Mongolian you have to go to Leeds because there is nowhere else to go. I am not being facetious, there is a spectrum from universal provision. I would want to argue as somebody who was brought up with mathematics there should be universal provision of mathematics. You are certainly not going to have a chemistry department everywhere. That is why earlier I was trying to put it differently and say you might explore the policy question as to whether you should have at least one chemistry department in every region, that does not necessarily put it in commuting distance.

  Q51 Dr Turner: Sir Alan, can we turn to Lambert's critical review on the relationships between business, industry and universities. Were you surprised by any of his conclusions? Do you think it is an accurate portrayal of the relationship between universities and business?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think it was broadly accurate. I think he did an excellent job in tackling a problem which is genuinely a very, very complicated one. Industry is complicated, the university system is complicated and we are talking about how to join up the two most effectively.

  Q52 Dr Turner: We now look with varying degrees of success to the RDAs to stimulate innovation relationships, how do you see the relationship between universities and the RDAs developing?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think that is going to be a very important dimension of regional policy. Different kinds of universities have different roles in regions. Some of the newer universities have very well defined roles for students within the region. If you look at research universities they can offer something else, as well as teaching some of the students in the region they can offer two things, they bring students into the region from a wider area and a good proportion tend to stay in the region, more than you would expect on average. In some cases we can supply the research base to support the region's economic strategy, which are usually presented these days as cluster strategies. These are the main roles I would see for business relationships within the region, which the RDAs can then mediate.

  Q53 Dr Turner: Lambert made various recommendations as to how universities could play their role in encouraging businesses to make more use of the knowledge and research resources of universities, will you be playing a part in modelling the Government's response to those recommendations?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Yes, certainly. It is the subject of joint work between the Department for Education and Skills and the DTI at the present time.

  Q54 Dr Turner: Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share with us as to how you would like to improve your business university links?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think it is extremely important that the Higher Education Investment Funding stream is continued. In fact that was one of Richard Lambert's recommendations, that that should be increased. A second recommendation is that there should be a separate business research funding stream, the implementation of these and how they would work are yet to be explored. If I had a personal comment on this, Chairman, it would be to be supportive, indeed very supportive of these links and enterprises but to say for the universities to fully achieve their potential in what is often called the third arm, teaching research and a bundle the third arm activities, we still need to achieve a critical mass, which we have not properly achieved yet. It is the scale of activity and in some senses the quality of it.

  Q55 Dr Turner: There are two ways of exploiting the commercial potential of research findings either by patents and licensing the patents or by developing spin-off companies. In recent years there has been a lot of attention focused on spin-off company development, do you think we are over-emphasising the role of spin-out companies and do you think there is more than that we can do using the licensing route?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: That was one of Richard Lambert's recommendations, that we might give more attention to the licensing route than we have. Again I think I would just be very happy to say at this stage that that is clearly something which should be seriously explored. It is like a number of the other questions we have been talking about today, one would like lots of evidence so that we can say that evidence-based policy suggests that 80% of what we do should be in licensing and 20% should be in spin-outs. I think between us we have relatively little experience, I think the evidence base has to grow. Certainly in the case of my own university we lean towards spin-out companies rather than licensing. I would probably say now I would be happy to see the balance move in the other direction or at least extend the kind of activity we are undertaking in licensing.

  Q56 Chairman: These two routes have been round for a long time, a life-time, why has it not happened?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I partially said it, I said it was the scale of activity, probably the scale of activity in licensing. Again, Chairman, at this stage I can only offer a personal comment, I think what is needed to be successful from the university perspective in either of these areas is a person with very special skills, and the person I am thinking of is often characterised as an academic entrepreneur. You need somebody who understands the academic research side of the business and its potential but who is also entrepreneurial enough and business like enough to find a way of taking it forward at least in its early stages, and there are relatively few such people about. The challenge is to grow more academic entrepreneurs.

  Q57 Chairman: You mean grow a clone?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I mean grow, Chairman. It is difficult. I think this is one of the challenges of HEIF funding that we all have to engage with, typically what universities can offer with HEIF funding are fixed term appointments at academic salaries. The entrepreneur end of the academic entrepreneurs I am talking about are probably working in successful industries on career paths where it is difficult for universities to attract them out.

  Q58 Chairman: We are coming back to that.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: You will have to think about secondment or something of that kind.

  Q59 Dr Turner: Going back to the vexed question of the university funding gap, trying to compare British universities, even our most successful, with international comparators like Harvard, Yale and MIT it is very difficult because you are not comparing like with like. The major American universities are getting a lot more financial benefit from their links with industry and through the much larger scale of innovation work that is going on, do you see this as a potential route for fulfilling some of the funding gap in British universities if it is fully exploited?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: The short answer has to be yes. It was not so much a Lambert recommendation but a Lambert observation, he thought that demand for university research in the broadest sense from industry was lower than it ought to be, in other words there were two sides to this question it was not simply universities not engaging with industry effectively enough it was also the other way round. I am sure that the situation could be developed and improved, and that is something which we would need to support.

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 21 June 2004