Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 60-79)

22 MARCH 2004


  Q60 Mr Key: Sir Alan, could I turn to the question of the development of a European higher education area, the so-called Bologna Process. What are the implications of that for United Kingdom universities?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I have to say I am not an expert on the Bologna Process so I should start with that disclaimer. My understanding of it is that it seeks to standardise the nature and qualifications for different kinds of degrees across Europe. Again I would say that my understanding of the United Kingdom side of that is that while there may be issues with certain kinds of prograduate degrees in general this country is probably nearer to setting the standard, in other words there are other countries that would like to have good three year honours degrees where students are currently taking very much longer to achieve that.

  Q61 Mr Key: Is it not the four year integrated bachelor/masters degrees that are a threat in British universities?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Which are a threat?

  Q62 Mr Key: Yes.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am not aware of that, you may well be right. I would have to say I hope not.

  Q63 Mr Key: It terms of funding it was suggested one answer to the funding problem is simply to have lots more foreign students paying full fees, would that be a good thing?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think it is a good thing for this country that we have lots of international students paying full fees. I personally do not see it as a substitute for providing places for home and EU students. I think it is healthy as an export industry for the United Kingdom and it is healthy for university campuses to be international but I do not see the two things as being contradictory. I know I am contradicting some of my vice-chancellor colleagues.

  Q64 Mr Key: They see it as an international market in higher education, mostly in the English language, often in science and technology. I was in Amsterdam last summer and I was very interested in the approach of those universities where they offer parallel English language courses with a specific science bent in order to attract students from all over the world, we simply do not seem to bother.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: We are attracting students in large numbers, Chairman, so I would argue that we are bothering.

  Q65 Mr Key: Are you familiar with the impact of the Export Control Act on science education in this country?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am sorry, that is not an area where I would claim any expertise.

  Q66 Mr Key: It is actually very significant, as we have discovered, and many vice-chancellors do not realise that for some technical functions they require an export licence.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am happy to take that away and look at it.

  Mr Key: Perhaps you would be kind enough to.

  Chairman: It is UK on en bloc!

  Q67 Mr Key: You may have seen there has been some concern expressed about the implications for particular science students in this country of tapping their phones and reading e-mails by security services which the university authorities are complicit in, do you have any comment on this?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: All I can say is that I have no experience of that and this is not something that I—

  Chairman: You never tapped a phone in your life. Would you know how to?

  Q68 Mr Key: It is a serious issue.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I understand that and I am not intending to be flippant. I have no experience of it.

  Mr Key: I just hope you will look at this because it could be very serious for some universities if they are not giving sufficient attention to it. Indeed our Chairman has trenchant views on this as being diametrically opposed to the tradition of academic freedom in this country, I take a more pragmatic approach.

  Chairman: From one phone tapper to a non-phone tapper.

  Q69 Dr Iddon: Can I go back to the Bologna Process, the Bologna participants are arguing for a (3 (bachelor) + 2 (masters) +3 (PhD)), so there is a pull to extend our three year degrees to longer, whether it is an integrated masters or a euro bachelor plus two years to allow our graduates to practice whatever they have practising across Europe, harmonised higher education. On the other end there is a push from the Tomlinson Committee who have just reported that students should go into universities with a much broader range of subjects. We have talked for a long time of three to five A-levels. With the push at one end and the pull at the other to extend the three year bachelor degrees are you concerned about that? Will you be expressing your concerns to the Government if that is the case?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am not an expert on Bologna so I will have to explore that. Three plus one plus three seems to me to have worked or even three plus three seems to work very well for many people in this country. To seek to extend the range for core qualifications through to doctorates I would not instinctively feel comfortable with. I appreciate what Tomlinson is arguing and I feel, and I can only offer a personal view of this, that the question to be addressed is something which is very fundamental to teaching and learning, which is the balance between breadth and depth. One of the things I have always been interested in as a teacher is the extent to which you can have it both ways, you can introduce your students to a wide range of topics but to ensure that for at least some of them great depth is achieved, which means battling through difficulty, which is not always a fashionable thing to say, but learning difficult things is an achievement to be applauded for many of our students who are engaging with maths and science at the highest level. I do not think you necessarily solve the depth problem by very early specialisation. I think these things can be squared. Again, my instinct is that you can legitimately take some topics out of the curriculum in order to keep lengths down to something sensible. I think we have argued for a number of years now that one of the consequences of the knowledge explosion, which we all perceive, particularly from the perspective of a Committee like yours in science and technology, is to produce pressures for all courses to be lengthened so that students can be taught everything about physics or whatever it is. I think in the end we will have to learn to teach and learn differently.

  Dr Iddon: Thank you.

  Q70 Mr McWalter: We have the Higher Education Funding Council and we have the Department for Education and Skills, how does your job change the relationship between those, if at all? Where do you sit in that? Do you order them about? Do you listen attentively to their instructions? What happens?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think, Chairman, the best thing to say is that we listen carefully to each other and we work together. I think the formal position is that the Secretary of State is clearly responsible for higher education policy and in the broadest sense for the implementation of that policy. The Funding Council is responsible for the implementation end of that. You actually have a highly skilled body with some very talented people and if there was a flow of ideas back in the other direction that would be welcomed by me, as I am sure it would be welcomed by the Secretary of State. I think we have a good working relationship but essentially that is it, policy is at the Department end and implementation is at the Funding Council end. There is a good working relationship between us.

  Q71 Mr McWalter: When the Funding Council have taken some decisions which we believe have been rather prejudicial to science and technology and we raised that issue with the Secretary of State he said, "It is very much an arm's length thing, they make up their own mind", should that be the case? Should they go their own sweet way? Have you some sharp teeth to occasionally sink into them to stop them doing things that will upset us?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think the Secretary of State can have sharp teeth if he needs them. When the Department's funding for higher education is distributed to and through the Funding Councils it is accompanied by a letter from the Secretary of State which says, "These are the policies I would like you to be responsible for implementing". Guidance or indeed instruction could be given at that level. On the other hand I think one has to acknowledge that it is the Funding Council from the way they work that actually has in-depth knowledge of what is happening in particular universities. From time to time it is appropriate they take their own actions.

  Q72 Mr McWalter: HEFCE does have a tradition or history of being very even-handed between subjects, if there happens to be huge numbers of people wanting to do business studies (without maths) and very few people want to do foreign languages or physics, they just say, "That is the way the Department goes there is nothing we can do". Is your view that you possibly get a sort of Gresham's law in this case, as with currency the bad drives out the good, so with education as well, easy courses drive out the harder ones? Should HEFCE, yourself or the Secretary of State, whoever, not be more proactive about this?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: It is an important policy issue like the subjects we were tackling earlier on distribution of subjects and the number of students in each subject. It is certainly something there should be a policy view about or can be a policy view about.

  Q73 Mr McWalter: Do you get in with other people and discuss it with them and you then form a joint view? What happens?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Typically that is what would happen and indeed the issue of subject provision by region is something that HEFCE and ourselves are exploring together at the present time. In very many cases where we have these explorations we will agree with the output and I may make some recommendations on policy to the Secretary of State and he may or may not agree. I think the ultimate responsibility rests with the Secretary of State and he will be interested in this kind of question.

  Q74 Mr McWalter: If you want to do business studies (as little maths as possible) you can do that pretty much anywhere but if you want to do chemistry there is a real problem about whether it is going to be available to people in large areas of the country. I cannot believe that you have this laid lack approach of saying, all subjects are equal, all activities are equally valuable we are not going to worry about whether we have over-provision in area X and under-provision in area Y (where Y is crucial to the wealth of the country, its future and its gross national product). If HEFCE has never been proactive and we see you coming along, are you on a white charger, going to pull your sword out and start chopping the heads off the people who have not been doing any thinking?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I understand the questions which are being put. I would prefer to say in this case "watch this space" and perhaps invite me back in six months' time.

  Mr McWalter: Your white charger is currently being shoe-ed at the farrier, is it?

  Chairman: We will see you in six months' time and ask that question.

  Q75 Mr McWalter: In the meantime we have the Chief Executive of HEFCE and there is you, is there a danger of overlap between those two jobs? Is there any tension between those two jobs?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: They are different jobs. My job is to advise the Secretary of State and ministers on policy and to advise them on how to instruct, if you like, the Funding Council on the Department's policy. I think there are, as it were, reasonable ways of conducting that business and we can do that without our roles becoming muddled. I am confident that can be done.

  Q76 Mr McWalter: You will promote the cause of science, will you?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I was brought up as a scientist so I have biases in that direction.

  Q77 Dr Turner: To take the specific policy area where HEFCE proposals are potentially dereterious towards science facilities, the changes in the funding formula, downgrading the cost weighting given to bio-sciences, and so on, do you have a view on these proposals from HEFCE? Is this an area where you are in a position to intervene or advise the minister to intervene if you think that these proposals are wrong?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: The short answer, Chairman, is yes I am sure I could advise the minister to intervene. We are back again into the territory of evidence-based policy. What HEFCE are trying to do as part of their job in determining rates of funding by subject is actually to base that on evidence of costs. I would not actually expect them to be getting that very wrong. I think we are back to the question, which is a very serious one, which underpins much of what we have been talking about, it may well be which HEFCE are right on costs but many universities do not have the student to support the cost base that they have.

  Q78 Dr Iddon: We have some figures here which show that in the consultation that HEFCE underwent on the teaching funding formula they laid a formula down which would have removed some money away from life sciences to the benefit of the physical sciences which we have all been concerned about this afternoon and they seem to have lost that argument and seem to have gone back to one for humanities and arts, 1.7 for most science and engineering subjects and four for medicine. It seems as if the engineering sciences have lost out again in that argument quite frankly. I was due to go and see Charles Clark about this tomorrow with the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society for Chemistry but unfortunately the meeting has been postponed.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am sure the meeting will take place in due course. I cannot comment on those figures in detail, there are obviously important. These kind of figures always face at least two rounds. The Funding Council makes these decisions in terms of its grants, letters and awards to universities because the money then arrives in the university's grants. If I can wear my vice-chancellor's hat for a minute, universities face a greater or exactly the same problem, we have to consider whether to vary those rates either in relation to local costs or to sustain departments in the way we were talking about earlier. I know exactly how difficult it is to do this, it is not easy.

  Q79 Dr Iddon: A couple of quick questions on teaching in higher education, my brief says the number of firsts awarded by universities has risen dramatically.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Yes.

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