Memorandum from Dr Michael Bolton, Withington
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 areasnot 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
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