Memorandum from the UK Deans of Science
The UK Deans of Science has members in over
70 Higher Education Institutes across the full range of old and
new universities and other higher education institutes. Whilst
its core focus is on higher education it has a deep interest in
all aspects of science and science education. We therefore welcome
the opportunity to respond to the Science and Technology Committee
Inquiry into Strategic Science Provision in English Universities.
It is recognised that the issue of the viability
of university science provision is highly complex. Quite apart
from the volatility of the undergraduate student demand for subjects
there is an interwoven web of issues relating to the overall financial
position of the individual university, the various overheads charged
by universities for space and other supporting resources, external
funding for research and other income outside the RAE allocation,
etc It would be inappropriate to argue that any single factor
has alone had the effect of closing down so many science courses.
However, it needs to be recognised that departments or courses
which were already "under notice" from university senior
management have been readily put beyond financial viability by
a single downward fluctuation in any one of the following factorsstudent
recruitment, RAE funding, the HEFCE weighting for teaching given
to the subject or even the move to another institution of a single
lead researcher with very large research grants and large research
group, equipment support, etc When a department is subject to
more than one of these factors there are very few ambitious senior
managers who will not decide to close it in favour of areas which
may look more promising.
2. THE IMPACT
It is hoped that the Committee will be able
to summon witnesses who can speak with authority on the precise
reasons for some of the recent, high profile closures of departments,
ie members of the universities concerned. However, the figures
speak for themselves at a macro level. Since the 1996 RAE there
have been at least 80 cases of closure of single subject science
degrees in lower (RAE) graded departments. At the micro level
the effect of the RAE can be very clearly seen: for example, the
change between 2001-02 and 2003-04 for each Quality Research Unit
for Biological Sciences was:
for 3b from £8,735 to zero
for 3a from £13,155 to zero
for 4 from £19,869 to £10,018 (ie 50%
The effect of this on the budget of a department
will be evident to members of the Science and Technology Select
Committee and the consequences must have been very obvious to
those who made the decisions on the 2001 RAE funding allocations.
Note also that these changes even mean that a department with
the same number of QR units in 1996 and 2001that increased its
rating from 3a to 4 would have seen its income per unit drop by
almost 24% and the new settlement means that a department with
research quality at "attainable levels of excellence in over
two-thirds of the research activity submitted, possible showing
evidence of international excellence" (the definition of
a 3a grade) will receive no funding at all!
There are other potential knock-on effects of
the receipt of a grade less than 5/5* in the RAE. Many would argue
that Research Councils and other research funders are less likely
to fund grant applications from research groups with lower grades
regardless of the merit of the proposed work
3. THE DESIRABILITY
Good science can be carried out in small pieces.
In many areas of science research is increasingly carried out
using computers. In these, and other areas not requiring large-scale
experimental facilities, physical proximity of researchers is
much less important, especially with modern communications.
Science in the UK needs a lively and broad community.
Individual subjects need people in a range and significant number
of universities to attend conferences, train students and postdocs,
to referee grant proposals and research publications, etc Increasing
the concentration in a few universities loses this broad community
and subjects will lose their national identity and, eventually,
their wider international visibility.
It is self evident that where a local university
does not offer a subject at undergraduate level a student who
wishes to study it and who cannot (or will not) travel further
afield will simply study something else (or not attend university
at all). If the local university does not offer a particular science
then even those potential students who are willing to leave home
to study may also feel that science is not important. (This is
not an argument for every university to offer every subject).
The consequences of the increased concentration
of research in a small number of universities may well satisfy
a cost accountant working for "efficiency savings".
It may also make it easier to fund some big science projects though
these have been managed in the past when there was much less concentration
of research funding than now. It will, however, reduce the opportunities
for students (undergraduate or postgraduate) to have an experience
of research and will reduce the number and range of opportunities
for potential high quality researchers to emerge. As one example,
the last three professorial appointments in research-led universities
in biomaterials science have been of individuals who obtained
PhDs from post-1992 universities.
An obvious drawback to unplanned concentration
is the loss in some universities of the core sciences such as
Physics, Chemistry or Biology. Without a balanced portfolio of
physical and biological sciences, growth in new interdisciplinary
areas is likely to be inhibited.
4. THE IMPLICATIONS
While universities are entitled to apportion
their HEFCE funding as they wish there is a general trend, after
the removal of overheads including funding for special projects,
for resource allocation methods to pass funding to the area that
has earned it. Also, universities are knowledge based businesses,
and are well aware of the income associated with different subjects'
activities, and of the margins in each area. Even though they
are free to vire between areas, this cannot long be sustained
against differential external funding constraints. This means
that recent (and longer term) teaching funding methods impact
directly, immediately and very negatively on nearly all science
Until the recent changes in funding most academic
scientists had argued that the unit of resource for teaching science
was unsustainably low. 5* departments usually subsidise their
teaching directly or indirectly from research funding, particularly
by being able to make expensive equipment available to their undergraduates.
If the teaching unit of resource is genuinely "for teaching"
then it should be sufficient to purchase modern, sophisticated
equipment, expensive books and periodicals and support laboratories
The recent decision to reduce the relative unit
of teaching resource for laboratory-based subjects is incomprehensible
and extraordinarily damaging to science. Firstly it shows the
lack of connection between the strategies of the DfES with those
in the Treasury and DTI who are committed to a future in which
science-based innovation drives economic growth. Secondly it does
not take account of the long term under funding and the increasing
cost of science caused by higher than average inflationary costs,
increasing health and safety requirements, more expensive, "cleaner"
laboratory facilities for nanotechnology, biotechnology, etc The
arguments that the relative weightings reflect the amounts spent
by universities is one of the great self-fulfilling statements
of recent times and does not take account of the historical under
funding of science in universities.
Three universities have supplied estimates of
the effect of the recent re-banding and re-weighting of courses.
These led to the removal for the 2004-05 session of approximately
£750,000 for one Science Faculty and around £1,000,000
each from two others, despite their increasing costs. Where a
Faculty includes computing the reduction to Band C is likely to
have very extreme consequences on this subject.
5. THE OPTIMAL
As far as science is concerned UKDS simply disagrees
with the decision by the Government that universities can exist
and offer taught degrees without being active in research. Science
is about finding out and applying high level knowledge. It is
inconceivable that good science teaching at degree level can be
undertaken by those who are not practising researchers (this may
be blue skies or more applied, "third stream" work).
The increasing numbers of international students, which has helped
the financial stability of numerous science departments is at
risk if this fact is not grasped by Government.
Teaching only departments will make science
provision two tier. In teaching-only departments, scientific understanding
will be restricted, with more handed down truths, and such departments
will produce students with less understanding of how scientific
knowledge is generated. This is self-evidently undesirable.
As scientists, we accept that it would be helpful
to be able to put a quantitative figure on the question of the
optimal balance between teaching and research provision. We have
stated above that there is insufficient money in total for teaching
and it is clear that the RAE allocations were affected by a failure
adequately to fund increased quality. Subject to a significant
increase in the overall budget, across the whole of science the
balance of funding between research and teaching could be, in
percentage terms, what it is now had it been disbursed differently.
However, we would not argue for a further perturbation which now
takes money from 5/5* departments but a proper funding of other
national and international quality research including much larger
third stream funds and an acceptance that some resources must
be allocated to ensure that there is research activity in universities
offering undergraduate science courses.
6. THE IMPORTANCE
A diverse regional capacity in university science
teaching and research is important, inter alia, for the
for the regional economic and cultural
agendas and the increasingly regional aspects of our democracy;
to support the widening participation
agenda, particularly for those students who cannot or will not
to encourage the study and dissemination
of science in all regions;
to support the supply and the staff
development of school science teachers across all regions;
top rated science departments do
not depend (or need to depend) on local recruitment;
there is a potential for top up fees
to increase the numbers of students who wish or need to study
at their local university;
to provide a local technology transfer
some important industries may move
or close if there is insufficient relevant higher education support
in their locality.
7. THE EXTENT
If proper thought had been put into funding
of teaching and RAE allocations over the past decade it is very
unlikely that this question would have arisen. It is very unfortunate
that Professional Bodies have only recently taken a serious interest
in what has been happening to science provision in UK universitiesas
members of these bodies we have been warning them of the consequences
for many ears. We are clear that some action may need to be taken
to ensure that regional provision is maintained but we are very
sceptical, based on previous history, some of which is described
above, that any intervention could be relied upon. Indeed, if
it were yet another case of change with no additional money it
could prove to be counterproductive and is most unlikely to be
sustained. Intervention would have to be delivered, following
a clear strategy of defining regions considered science deficient,
by clearly articulated, sustained, ring-fenced Central Government
funds possibly augmented by equivalently sustainable support from
Regional Development Agencies.
Science is vital to government policy in every
sphere. The UK science base is currently under a real threat,
which arises from a mismatch between government policy in general
terms, and its expression in real terms in university funding.
The mediums of expression of government policy in science are
the OST and the research councils, and the DfES and the funding
councils. The central problems arise in the UK's university science
base arise from RAE-related funding, and from the unit of resource
for teaching science. Both of these major factors are controlled
by the funding councils. Government should act swiftly to ensure
that the dislocation in policy is rapidly corrected, by enforcing
changes in both these funding areas, so that UK science can be
returned to a sustainable position.
Given the obvious and significant effects negative
effects caused by successive decisions impacting on universities,
which we believe we have clearly demonstrated above (to which
could be added the unpredictable effect of top up fees) a thoughtful
observer might wonder whether HEFCE and the Government are carrying
out one of the ultimate experiments in Higher Education, that
of testing science provision to the point of final destruction.