Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the University College Lecturers Union (NATFHE)


  NATFHE members work in the new—post-92—universities and colleges of higher education. Whilst science and engineering course and departmental closures in these institutions often don't receive the same high-profile media attention as those in more research-intensive universities, they represent a vital strand in national teaching and research provision. This submission to the Science and Technology Committee focuses on the relationship between teaching and research, the importance of sustaining regional provision, the negative impact of over-selective research funding, and the dangers of over-hasty and short-term decision making based on fluctuations in student choice.


  The Committee has invited evidence on the optimal balance between teaching and research provision in universities—and in particular the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science departments. In NATFHE's view teaching-only departments are in themselves undesirable. NATFHE was pleased to be represented on the Government's Higher Education Research Forum (HERF) last year, under the chairmanship of Sir Graeme Davies. We fully supported the advice produced by the Forum: "The relationship between Research and Teaching in Institutions of Higher Education". This advice clearly states that:

    "This suggests that in each academic department (or within each course team), there needs to be appropriate resources, a reasonable research culture, and sufficient research activity (broadly defined) to enable such programmes of study to be designed, led and taught effectively. It does not imply that every academic member of staff in every department in every institution of higher education will have to be entered for the ARE or should be pursuing Research Council grants."

  The HERF advice recognised that the RAE is currently the only mechanism by which basic funding to support research in departments is delivered and that, given the highly selective allocation of research funding via the RAE, departments in some institutions, (primarily the post-92 institutions), lack the levels of funding needed to sustain a research culture and research activity. The HERF solution was to suggest a new funding model that could support research-informed teaching in institutions with low levels of QR funding—at a funding level of around £25 million. Whilst NATFHE, and others represented on the Forum, would not want to see such a funding model being used to exclude any institution from seeking funding for research per se, nonetheless, given the (excessive) level of funding selectivity currently in operation we saw this proposal as a useful way to help channel some additional funding where it is most needed.

  Ministers accepted the advice but whilst the funding to the sector announced in December 2004 made some provision for this, it fell far short of expectations. The £25 million envisaged as recurrent funding has been delivered as, apparently, a single allocation spread over three years, with a mere £2.5 million being made available in the first year (£7.5 and 15 million in the two following years). If Ministers accept the principal that the funding of research-informed teaching must be addressed then, although any additional money must be welcomed, it is impossible to see how a single and partial funding allocation can address the on-going needs of departments to support both staff and students In engaging with research and research methodologies, as envisaged by the HERF advice.

  Arguably these issues are particularly sharp in the laboratory-based subject areas where the funding demands of research and research-informed teaching are highest. Additionally the fact that opportunities for staff to engage in both teaching and research will further and further reduce in all but a small number of leading research universities will, over time, erode the career motivation of post-graduate and post-doctoral students, and thus the research workforce.


  Although it is the closure of whole departments that hit the headlines, of very significant concern is the reduction in provision through course closures that may then leave patchy provision or provision in currently popular areas. For instance at Anglia Polytechnic University it is now likely that the chemistry department will either be closed or cut back so that the only curriculum on offer will be forensic science. Although it is vital that higher education is responsive to student demand there is a danger that short-term decisions are made—especially where subjects are expensive to provide and sustain. Once courses have been closed and staff have left it is not easy to open up provision again. Smaller-scale provision in the post-92 institutions is also likely to be serving different communities of students, employers and other research-users than the major science research departments—communities that are as entitled to their share of public funding for science and engineering as any other.

  For instance, at Sheffield Hallam University a suite of courses in civil engineering, physics and chemistry was cut in 2002. It was argued that student numbers were insufficient to justify necessary expenditure on laboratory, staff and support facilities, that there would be further reductions in undergraduate applications in the relevant areas and that there was adequate existing alternative provision at other UK universities. In fact the forecast of student numbers was contested by staff in relation to civil engineering—and indeed there has been a significant rise in UCAS applications for civil engineering in the subsequent two years, and part-time applications were rising at the time. And although there was other provision in all three subject areas in the locality it did not provide the same range of courses as those on offer at Sheffield Hallam. Indeed it was argued that the SHU provision could be viewed as complementary to that on offer at the older, more research-intensive universities—being more oriented to local and regional industry and often offered on a part-time and sandwich basis. This not only points up the dangers of short-termism in closing provision in key subject areas, but also suggests that the needs of part-time, work-based students, local employers and the regional economies can all suffer when strategic planning is over-focused on international research competition and the need to fund a small number of highly competitive research departments at the expense of broader and smaller-scale teaching and applied research.

  A similar argument has been made by staff at Coventry University where the chemistry department has been told that their numbers will be reduced by half. As yet the union has not been consulted and the university rationale is unclear. We would argue that although there is neighbouring chemistry provision at the university of Warwick, once again the two departments are working in very different areas, with different students, and the loss of capacity at Coventry will have an impact that will not be compensated for by the Warwick provision.

  It is also the case that whilst the widening participation and access debate tends to focus on sub and first degree level provision, some of those institutions that do most to increase participation from under-represented groups in higher education, have the experience of taking students through access routes and seeing them progress through their first degrees onto PhD programmes. Reducing research opportunities in all but the most elite institutions inevitably means reducing access to higher education at all levels.


  It is also feared that course closures and departmental reductions are but the preliminaries to the closure of whole departments. There is a critical mass of staffing below which RAE aspirations have to be abandoned, and along with them, hopes for research funding and academic career progression. The recent announcement that the Research Councils will fund 80% of research costs in future is very welcome, and arguably will assist departments in gaining research council funding despite lower levels of QR funding. But in practice success in the RAE makes a hugely significant difference to likely success in gaining Research Council funding. Inexorably: "to they that have shall be given". And of course this pattern has now been intensified by the decision only to fund post-graduate research degree programmes in departments that received a rating of at least 4 in the last RAE (or 3 in those units receiving research capability funding). Once a negative trend has been established in terms of the RAE ladder having been pulled up, and staff begin to leave, it becomes harder and harder to attract students. The viability of whole departments is under threat. The same occurs where redundancy and partial closures take effect. At the University of Greenwich the School of Chemical and Life Sciences has lost about half of its lecturers over the last eight years, with a similar pattern in Engineering. Further cuts are now likely and staff take the view that the School is now getting close to the limit at which course provision can be sustained.

  It is also worth noting that the inextricably entwined funding pressures of inadequate research funding and difficulties in student recruitment may have hit the post-92 institutions rather earlier that the better funded pre-92 universities. At Wolverhampton University, for instance, the Physics department was closed 10 years ago, the Chemistry department five years ago, and the School of Engineering has cut manufacturing engineering, materials and quality awards.


  Any enquiry into strategic science provision also needs to look at the health of teacher education in both primary and secondary science—at University College Chichester, for instance, the Primary ITT science course closed three years ago, although there are now attempts to re-start it. Student demand for science and engineering at higher education will not improve unless science teaching and the science curriculum at primary and secondary level is sufficiently exciting and effective. Another critical issue in relation to the arguments for sustaining provision not only on a geographical basis, but in terms of institutional type and range of provision (that is, industry and local economy focused science and engineering) is the need for universities and colleges to work with local schools, colleges and employers to help stimulate interest in the sciences in the school-age students, and those who might come in through work-based and work-related routes.

  Many of the post-92 HE institutions are well-placed in terms of existing partnerships to work to stimulate student demand for new curricula and modes of study in science and engineering—and at the same time to address government targets in terms of widening participation. But they need the funding to deliver it, and that includes research and teaching funding mechanisms that underpin research, and research informed teaching, in all higher education departments.

January 2005

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