Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Michael Bolton, Withington Hospital, Manchester

    —  The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings, on the financial viability of university science departments;

  The present problem resulting from science/engineering department closures is the loss of teaching capability across the university sector. Students will be attracted to departments with a high reputation, which presently means a high research rating. Financial viability depends on both research funding and teaching funding, the latter relating to student numbers. Reduction in research funding will have the "knock on" effect of reducing demand for teaching places. The present RAE and the Roberts proposals do not really address the "critical mass" of combined research and teaching. The whole RAE process and the separation of funding between teaching and research has had a very negative effect on the science/engineering base in the UK particularly in those universities with strength and tradition in engineering. The applied and translational research (useful research) often in collaboration with industry, which is an essential part of engineering, appears to be given less RAE weight than the fundamental sciences.

    —  The desirability of increasing the concentration of research in a small number of university departments, and the consequences of such a trend;

  The establishment or continued support of "centres of research excellence" in specific areas—not necessarily subject based but topic based is to be encouraged. Many research topics, including my own of biomedical engineering are multi-disciplinary. However, if this leads to a concentration of all research in fewer institutions it will be wholly inappropriate. Specialisation by individual universities makes sense and can be based on both traditional strengths and geographic location, eg Marine Science research is appropriate for Plymouth but not for Birmingham. HEFCE should take a strategic view on the location of specialist centres for research to be preferentially funded while ensuring that the host universities have the infrastructure and "science" base to support them.

    —  The implications for university science teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula;

  The upgrading of some science subjects is a step in the right direction. However, I am not convinced that the teaching cost between science subjects (across all universities) is as important as the cost of the same subjects between universities. It is the inter-university difference rather than the inter-subject difference that will lead to closures. Modern universities with a large student number per subject will have a lower cost per student overall irrespective of subject. Funding for teaching should be on a "need" basis rather than a blanket formula. Some universities run more specialised courses within the broad subject headings of the formula including vocational courses. Closure of the main teaching department could lead to loss of specialist courses that cannot be undertaken elsewhere with serious consequences for some professional groups.

    —  The optimal balance between teaching and research provision in universities, giving particular consideration to the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science departments;

  The optimal balance will vary between universities. There is no "one size fits all" answer. Until recently, there were many excellent teaching-only science institutions namely the technical colleges/colleges of technology. These have been rebadged as universities. There is certainly a place for teaching-only departments especially in engineering and similar applied technology areas or for "vocational" degrees. The financial viability of a teaching university will depend entirely on how it is funded. If an institution achieves a good reputation for its teaching excellence it will succeed in attracting students. Good research does not necessarily lead to good teaching and a concentration on achieving a high RAE score may even detract from teaching quality. There should be an equivalent assessment scheme for teaching excellence.

    —  The importance of maintaining a regional capacity in university science teaching and research;

  With the introduction of student fees and loans, it is more important than ever that students have local access to universities. More students are going to their local university and living at home than previously, largely for economic reasons. The large expansion of student numbers, the transfer of colleges to universities and the increasing requirement for vocational and part time degrees will make local access essential, even on a sub-regional basis. Again the actual geography and local travel situation must be considered.

    —  The extent to which the Government should intervene to ensure continuing provision of subjects of strategic national or regional importance; and the mechanisms it should use for this purpose.

  It is essential that a strategic overview be taken. The Government should work with employers, including its own departments to predict future requirements for graduate staff in all subject areas where a shortfall would have serious economic, strategic or health/welfare consequences. Professional bodies can also contribute evidence relating to supply/demand and training needs. Planning must have the appropriate timescale as well. A good example is the shortage of medical and nursing graduates to meet the Government's own expansion of the NHS. Within my own professional area, the DoH Chief Scientific Officer (Dr Sue Hill) is introducing the requirement for honours degrees for "Clinical Technologists" in order that they become "State Registered". This is a new requirement for which there are no courses at present (some in development) and no indication of how these are to be funded. If a Government department introduces graduate requirements as a condition of practice within its own organisations like the NHS, there is an obligation to ensure that universities can establish financially viable courses to meet the need and with a realistic timescale.

January 2005

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