Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Higher Education Policy Institute

  1.  The Secretary of State has asked HEFCE to investigate what should be done about subjects which are important to the nation but which are under threat because of the closure of university departments, and the Select Committee is now investigating the same issue. Are these just knee-jerk reactions to something which is no more than the normal ebb and flow of university activity? Or is there a real problem, and if so what is its nature? The closure of a number of university departments recently has certainly been high-profile, and has attracted extensive media coverage. The departments concerned have covered a range of subjects—chemistry, Middle Eastern studies and architecture, for example. Why should these be of concern suddenly whereas universities have been opening and closing departments for many years? And why should it matter anyway if a university decides to close a department?

  2.  The reason why there may be good grounds for concern is that universities make decisions about such matters in light of their perceptions of their own interests; and it is therefore a legitimate question to ask whether the sum of the interests of individual universities necessarily equates to the national interest. On the other hand, even if it does not, it is equally legitimate to ask whether bureaucratic or political intervention is likely to lead to better results than universities acting in their own self-interest, even if those results are sub-optimal. Finally, by way of introduction, it is worth bearing in mind that after the 1989 Research Assessment Exercise there was not a single chemistry department that received lower than a 2 grade that was left intact. The closures and mergers that followed 1989 were generally applauded as an example of strong and decisive management.

  3.  In asking HEFCE for advice about this question, the Government is essentially considering supply-side interventions, and this seems to be the focus of the Select Committee's review as well. One cannot be unduly critical about this, since by and large, supply-side actions are the most tractable, and they are what Governments can most easily undertake. However, there is no reason to think that the fundamental problems being faced by the subjects in question are ones of supply, and there are some spectacular examples of supply-side action in the past which have failed to have any effect whatsoever. A good example of this was the Government's engineering and technology initiative in the early 1980s, where a great deal of additional money was provided for science and technology places in universities which subsequently stood empty, with gleaming equipment and vacant laboratory benches. The supply was increased, but there was no corresponding demand. On the other hand, teacher education is an area where it is well-known that the supply-side is not the problem, and the Government has responded by providing strong incentives aimed at increasing student demand, and with some success.

  4.  There has, of course, until now been one well established entirely supply-side programme. However, although the HEFCE minority subjects programme is one that is aimed solely at supply, this is very small scale, and almost by its nature is not scalable. On the other hand, it explicitly recognises that that there are some subjects that are important (the criterion for importance is academic diversity) which need explicit funding if the UK is to maintain a presence in that subject. In terms of rationale, that is relevant as we look more widely at subjects where provision is in decline, and it would be legitimate to extend the criteria to subjects where the nation needs to have a source of expertise for diplomatic or other reasons. It should be noted that in the interests of reducing the number of special funding initiatives HEFCE has decided to stop the specific funding of minority subjects after this year, and to provide the additional money to the universities concerned in their block grants.

  5.  More generally, to the extent that supply may be a problem, what are the drivers that may lead universities to decide to reduce the supply of places in particular subjects? The first that has been suggested is cash. The HEFCE method of funding teaching is very blunt and does not differentiate greatly between subjects in the funding that it provides. HEFCE's method—with only [four] funding bands to differentiate subjects—is only sustainable because of the fact that money goes from HEFCE to institutions as a block grant. On this view, it does not matter very much how universities receive their money because it is a zero sum game that is being played—if they received more for some subjects, they would receive less for others—and universities are free to allocate the money internally as they see fit. The problem with this, entirely rational, view is that it ignores the fact that, to some extent anyway, universities—particularly when funding is tight—feel obliged to minimise their expenditure relative to their income. Therefore, the present funding method, taken together with the autonomy that they have, may induce them to cut back on subjects that are expensive to provide and to focus more on subjects that are cheaper to provide and that bring in similar income. Universities need to be careful. The alternative is a more directive funding approach by HEFCE, which is what would be implied by a larger number of funding groups.

  6.  The second driver that is sometimes mentioned is selective research funding. In itself, that is unlikely to be the cause of the closure of departments—there are a large number of departments of chemistry, for example, which receive little if any research funds, yet others which do are closing. However selective funding may play a part: it means that some universities that generally aspire to be leading research players may feel that the level of research funding from HEFCE that they would command in subjects with the lowest RAE scores would be insufficient to keep those departments in the state to which they have become accustomed. In this case, closures are driven by institutional strategies to concentrate on their strengths and not to be active in areas where they are not strong.

  7.  So although there are supply-side drivers that may play a part, they are not dominant, and supply-side action is unlikely to be effective in resolving the issues that have led to the decline of the subjects in question. Nevertheless, even if the fundamental problem, and the answer to the problem, is not one of supply, that is not to say that there is no supply-side role for the Government. It is essential that if demand were to pick up, the infrastructure for meeting the demand should not have withered away, and should be available to meet that demand.

  8.  If the primary driver of the difficulties that in some cases have led to closure are not of supply, but of student demand, then that leads to rather different approaches than if the problem was one of supply. Certainly, there have been shifts in student demand recently, both as far as A-level uptake is concerned and undergraduate study. Table 1 shows that the number of A-level students in physics, chemistry and mathematics have fallen steadily since the mid-1990s (although in Chemistry and Mathematics numbers may have stabilized in the past year or two). This decline needs to be seen in the context of an overall 9% increase in A level entrants in the same period.

  9.  Because of changes in nomenclature and definition, it is more difficult to be confident about changes in the uptake of university places, and the HESA data are not shown here because they are almost certainly misleading. One would assume that A level entries will in due course be reflected in HE enrolment, but a careful study will be needed of the HESA data to establish if this has been so.

  10.  It is clear that student demand is dynamic, and rightly so. Students respond to market signals, and if there were evidence that employers were crying out for more students with these qualifications, they would take them at university—unless, that is, they did not have the prior requirements or intellectual ability to study them. The subjects that are mentioned as being under threat are notoriously more "difficult" than many others. Good evidence about the drivers of student choice is essential if solutions are to be prescribed. Otherwise we will find we are prescribing the wrong solutions to misdiagnosed problems.

  11.  One further fact that needs to be taken into account in considering the relationship between demand and supply in the subjects is the extent to which supply has been maintained through the period of student downturn. It will be seen from Table 2 below that staff numbers in chemistry, physics and modern languages have held up remarkably during a time when student numbers have almost certainly declined sharply. This suggests that universities have not simply reduced their provision in line with changes in student demand, but have held on for a while to satisfy themselves that the changes were not going to be reversed. And the fact that the age profile of staff in Chemistry and Physics appears to have been maintained, as is apparent from Table 3, seems to indicate that staff are still being recruited to these departments, despite declining student numbers. Moreover, there is an opportunity cost associated with maintaining provision at this level in the face of declining demand: other subjects have less favorable staff:student ratios than they would otherwise have in order to maintain staffing in the subjects concerned.

  12.  Whatever the cause of the problems, there may be a case for taking supply-side action to address the closure of departments. But if so, the purpose of such action cannot be simply in order to ensure that the status quo is maintained in all subjects. The policy aim has to be clear, and it could be, for example:

    (i)  That all universities should do all subjects.

    (ii)  That across the country as a whole there should be a sufficiency of provision in all subjects (but the notion of "sufficiency" would need to be defined).

    (iii)  That a level of expertise should be available to meet the nation's needs for specialist information and advice.

    (iv)  That all regions should have a minimum level of capability in all subjects.

    (v)  That the subjects on which the academic health of a university more generally depends should be maintained (though such a rationale, if it exists, is unlikely to be more felt more acutely outside than inside the university).

  13.  These are just examples of the sort of policy aims that might underpin action. But as the actions may be very different in response to different policy aims it is essential to be clear about what it is intended to achieve.

  14.  If it is decided that something should be done about the supply of places in these and other subjects, a number of issues arise that need to be addressed.

    (i)  Who can decide which subjects are the ones that need attention, and the extent of the attention that they require?

    (ii)  Who is to say where they should be studied?

    (iii)  How can such decisions be taken? What are the criteria that can be brought to bear in deciding the subjects and the extent of attention that they need.

    (iv)  Who is to say what is the right number of places is that is required? It could be argued, for example, that previously too many chemists or modern linguists were produced—who can say that that is not the case? Is there evidence that industry is crying out for more? If so, why is the market not working? Perhaps the answer is to ensure that better market information is provided. More likely, market dynamics may be working in one way for some subjects and in a different way for others.

  15.  In terms of what to do next, if action is to be taken, then on the supply side any action will need to have an eye to the drivers that are possibly at work—including the funding methods and research selectivity, but also institutional autonomy. It may be that a degree of institutional autonomy will need to be sacrificed in order to ensure the national interest. And until supply increases, it needs to be understood that there is an opportunity cost to be paid in maintaining supply in the face of falling demand. On the demand side, the obvious answer might be to identify measures to stimulate demand. However, there is recent evidence that demand may not be particularly price sensitive, and if that is so, then any measures to increase demand are unlikely to be successful unless they take a long-term view. Action is probably required at school level to stimulate greater demand, and successful short-term interventions may not be available.

Table 1

% change


Table 2


% change

French, Spanish & German
modern languages

Table 3


% under 35
% over 54
% under 35
% over 54

All subjects

February 2005

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 11 April 2005