Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Russell Group

  1.  I write on behalf of the English members of the Russell Group of Universities in response to your Committee's invitation for the submission of evidence to its Inquiry into Strategic Science Provision in English Universities. This is an important subject, which is indeed of relevance across the UK, and the Russell Group welcomes this opportunity to contribute. Throughout this response we have used the phrase "science" to refer to the specific subjects referred to by the Committee.

  2.  At the outset, we feel that the Inquiry should recognise that the matters it is seeking to review are being shaped by four primary considerations operating at the national or international level and as set out below, which have come together to create an environment where some further concentration of provision in science is both inevitable and indeed desirable.

2.1  Dynamic Changes to the Scale of Research Capability

  In its Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14, Government itself has recognised that research has become intensely competitive at the global level. To be competitive, research needs to be of the highest quality and at the cutting-edge. This in turn requires increasingly sophisticated and diverse staff expertise and facilities, and often also the constructive interaction of cognate disciplines, each capable of performing at the highest level. Success in the face of such international competition requires therefore a proper depth of research expertise and capability, particularly in science subjects. For the UK, these considerations are resulting in processes of greater research concentration.

2.2  The Relationship between Research and Teaching

  Research concentration also has relevance for teaching provision and for higher-level training in science. Postgraduate research students have always been a very important component of a dynamic research environment in science and it has long been recognised that their successful training can only be assured where vibrant communities of such students can be supported and sustained in sufficient numbers. At the undergraduate level, high quality and up to date teaching also requires access to a range of staff expertise and of facilities which can only be sustained by a successful research community. There is therefore an essential and close link between the sustainability of high quality teaching and the successful prosecution of research activity.

2.3  Student Demand

  In this symbiotic relationship between teaching and research, there is of course an equivalent reliance upon an adequate supply of students. It is almost impossible to sustain a successful research department that does not also include a healthy range and scale of teaching. However, the demand for teaching in science has shown considerable adverse change over a number of years, with a marked reduction in the proportion of students wishing to pursue undergraduate courses in science. This is particularly so for the State sector, which in recent years has seen a substantial decline in the number of students leaving secondary education with what might be regarded as the minimum of qualification of two science A levels. To counter this trend, universities and the professional bodies have been working very hard to generate interest and aspiration. But the dynamics are such that student demand in these areas is ultimately an issue of national significance which will have to be addressed at the Secondary Education level, and any significant improvements will necessarily have long lead times. In this regard, we look forward to the Government's response to the Tomlinson Report as an opportunity to begin to address these matters substantively.

2.4  Strategic Planning and Competition

  It is now clear that universities in the United Kingdom are working in competition at both home and abroad. As autonomous bodies, this has required them to think carefully about their strategies, about their priorities and about their strengths and weaknesses. The need to maximise performance and to sustain provision in areas of strength or strategic priority necessarily involves also a careful assessment of the resources that can be directed elsewhere, and in particular the extent to which chronically under-performing or lower-priority activities can or should be sustained.

  3.  Having set out what we consider to be the primary drivers in the matters under review, we should like to make the following comments about the policy implications for science provision:

3.1  Rationalisation and Collaboration

  The fall in student demand and the requirements of research competitiveness and concentration together require a policy environment which manages rather than obstructs necessary change. In circumstances where a university considers that its provision in a science subject is weak and no longer properly sustainable or part of its strategic priorities, it should be able to work with HEFCE and with other universities to transfer that funded provision more appropriately elsewhere, while being enabled to retain equivalent resources to reapply to its strategic strengths and priorities. Through such an arrangement, the consequences of large-scale processes can be properly mediated and directed to the benefit of the HE system and to the country as a whole. Only in a very limited number of highly specialised and small-scale subject areas might any greater intervention be required to protect the national interest.

3.2  National Levels of Provision

  Although of course there are wider societal benefits from ensuring that a good proportion of our HE students graduating from our Universities are educated in scientific subjects, there can be no absolute or "right" figure for the number of students in science subjects that the country needs to meet its skilled manpower requirements. This is in part because some of those manpower requirements will continue to be met by the import of skilled staff from abroad. Although some evidence may be beginning to emerge about skill shortages in some particular subject areas, this of course may be as much the product of the number of graduating students choosing to enter postgraduate or postdoctoral training than a reflection of the absolute members in science education and training. For it will of course be recognised that many graduates in science, and not least in Chemistry, presently choose to go straight into well-remunerated careers outwith science, and career salaries within science show little sign of the upward movement that would reflect any general skill shortage. Furthermore, as set out in paragraph 2.3 above, the right way to address concerns about the number of students coming into science is not by encouraging the provision of unfilled university places but to encourage more students to take relevant subjects at A level or equivalent, by improving the quality of mathematics teaching in schools and by making experimental science in schools more exciting.

3.3  Patterns of Access

  The factors influencing science provision are national or international in scale. Nevertheless, it does need to be recognised that the overall pattern nationally of that provision will need to be monitored and kept under review. We believe that these considerations can be properly met within the policy processes identified in paragraph 3.1 above and indeed would not envisage that the outcome of such processes would denude any one region of access to one or more sources of high quality expertise and training in the relevant sciences. However, equally we see no merit whatsoever in seeking to preserve uncompetitive and lower quality provision merely to enable its continued availability at the sub-regional or indeed regional level.

3.4  Resource Allocation

  The Committee has raised in its call for evidence questions concerning the possible impact of various aspects of resource allocation. It is our view that the issues being addressed by the Committee go far beyond the product of any particular aspects of HEFCE's funding arrangements and are therefore generally unsusceptible to tactical readjustment of those arrangements. Nevertheless, some adjustments to resource allocation might help to smooth and mediate the outcomes of the processes we have described. For example, we feel there would be value in reviewing the resources associated with the award of a grade 4 in the last RAE. Following that RAE, the first priority was to provide resources to departments rated 5* and 5 to enable them to continue to compete internationally.

  However, the overall level of resources available was such that it proved necessary consequently to reduce the resources attributable to grade 4, and that has led to a very steep funding gradient indeed between grades 4 and 5. Yet grade 4 is intended to represent research work of national importance. The new RAE grading system which will apply in RAE 2008 may come to address this issue if it is properly resourced, but in the meantime a review of the resourcing of grade 4, without detriment to grade 5 and 5* through the allocation of additional resources as necessary, would be of value.

  4.  In summary, we would contend that the principal issues raised by this Inquiry reflect much wider and longer-term considerations of research competitiveness and student demand. These are primarily matters of national relevance and significance, in some cases mainly requiring attention outwith Higher Education. In response to these changes, processes and policies need to be reinforced in order to permit universities working together and in collaboration with HEFCE to shape science provision constructively and efficiently. The pattern of provision nationally might need to be kept under review, but this cannot justify or sustain the preservation of uncompetitive and lower quality provision at the sub-regional or indeed regional level.

  We would of course be delighted to provide further information and clarification as your Committee might require. I should of course remind you that the Russell Group comprises the Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial College London, King's College London, Leeds, Liverpool, London School of Economics and Political Science, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton, University College London and Warwick.

January 2005

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