Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Association of University Research and Industrial Links (AURIL)


  AURIL is the UK's national Association for Knowledge Transfer professionals and others who work in or with Higher Education concerned with the generation, development, dissemination, application, commercialisation and transfer of knowledge for both UK well being and economic competitiveness.

  At present, individual membership stands at a total of 1,600 and all UK Universities are represented. Most recently, steps have been taken to form the Institute of Knowledge Transfer (IKT) as the UK national overarching body for professional standards in the field and which will embrace all UK organisations concerned with knowledge transfer within and beyond the Higher Education sector.

  AURIL welcomes the opportunity to present evidence to the Science and Technology Committee and has prepared its submission in accordance with the points contained in its announcement of the inquiry into Strategic Science provision in English Universities (Tuesday 21 December 2004).


The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings, on the financial viability of university science departments.

  HEFCE has developed its research funding formulae over several separate Research Assessment Exercises since their inception in 1989 and have remained consistent to the principles of recognising and resourcing Research excellence in UK universities, whatever it is identified by the peer review process utilised to provide the national ratings which arose for each exercise, and on an increasingly more selective basis.

  The precise nature of the Research funding formulae is not know at the time of each RAE although the principles to be used in delivering research excellence are known in advance of each exercise and have been derived from comprehensive consultation with and beyond the sector.

  Given finite resources for research, the funding formulae have reflected genuine excellence as measured on an intentional scale and in accordance with the principle of selectivity. There has been a good correlation between the allocation of resources for research through RAE and those won by open competition in the form of research grants and contracts from all other research funders including the UK Research Councils.

  At the same time, the Treasury's Transparency exercise has demonstrated that Research in all UK universities has not been run at a surplus over many years. Resources have simply not been adequate to cover the full costs of all research being carried out. New resources for research are being used, together, with new methodologies to ensure full economic costing, such that universities can retrieve this situation.

  There is no evidence, in AURIL's view, to show that the particular operation of the research funding formulae has disadvantaged University science departments per se.

  The financial viability of all science departments results from the trading performance of those departments from all activities and all income streams—teaching and learning, research and other trading services (eg commercialisation etc). Whilst it is true that universities allocate resources internally in a variety of different ways, many simply reflect the ways that those resources flow into the University.

  Some universities would argue that the sharpness of the funding divide between those rated 4 and those rated 5 as reflected in the funding formulae, has been a particular challenge. No funding is allocated via QR for departments rated below 4. In particular, the problem of "islands of excellence" within larger, less well-rated departments, presents a difficulty of sustainability but, as long as both the funding formulae for research and the RAE itself are based upon subject groupings, pockets of excellence must be a matter for individual universities to address.

The desirability of increasing the concentration of research in a small number of university departments and the consequences of such a trend.

  The increasing use of the principle of selectivity in the allocation of resources for research together with that of separating and accounting separately for funds allocated for teaching and learning and for research will inevitably concentrate sustainable research in fewer and fewer departments. Principles of the full economic costing will also continue to bear down on research which is not sustainable in the longer term. Assuming that it remains desirable only to fund research of the highest quality as measured by national and international excellence, this trend will continue. It should be remembered that there is no place for funding second rate research nor should there be as earlier command economy experiences demonstrate.

The implications for University science teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funds formula

  Presumably, unless additional resources were involved, any such changes would be to the detriment of other non-science based subjects. Any movement towards privileging science subjects in the teaching formulae should be carefully considered beforehand.

  Student numbers are clearly an issue in this discussion. Fewer science students with appropriate qualifications means less resources, a diminution of quality and a steady decline. Taken together with falling research funding the continuing financial viability of a given department comes into question. Some science subjects might simply become uneconomic to teach for some universities who cannot afford to continue with the high level of investment necessary to sustain them.

The optimal balance between teaching and research provision in universities, giving particular consideration to the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science departments.

  As autonomous institutions regarded as being businesses in the private sector, this must really be a matter for individual universities to decide on the basis of their individual missions, academic strategies and business projections. It cannot be a case of single solution applicable to all universities. As far as knowledge transfer is concerned commercialisation can occur from knowledge used in teaching and learning research or from both. The entrepreneurial culture can pervade both. A teacher or a researcher is regarded more widely as a core academic value. The adoption of full economic costing approaches will mean that financial viability must be considered for all activities, dependant or independent teaching and learning and research whatever the pedagogic relationship espoused by some for a link between the two. It is strongly argued by some that as science is based upon experimentation and observation there is a firm benefit where science teaching takes place in a research environment and students gain experience of research culture alongside their syllabus. It is further suggested that, rightly or wrongly, student choice of course and University is based, in part, on an understanding of research reputation.

  It should be remembered that science discipline teaching can take place across the University irrespective of its configuration into faculties, schools or departments at any given time.

  Thus, even where closure takes place, this does not necessarily imply loss of capacity because on-going research can be embedded in other departments and courses can continue to be taught across other remaining departments.

The importance of maintaining a regional capacity in University science teaching and research.

  It is not clear that regional economic strategic need can only be addressed, as far as access to science is concerned, if capacity exists in local universities. The relationship between university research and regional economic activity has long been synenogous in England at least, but, over time, it has been a dynamic relationship with economic activities and needs changing as some areas decline and others rise. It is important that regions retain science skills in the workforce and foster technology-based economic development but this can be done by accessing the relevant University wherever it exists in the UK or Europe. This has long been the case.

  Any attempt to maintain artificial regional science capacity could lead to a loss of excellence. If regional development agencies seek to underpin regional science capacity resources that should only be allocated on the basis of perceived excellence in research and teaching as measured by national parameters and performance metrics.

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.

  Government should intervene only by:

    —  continuing to enhance the amount of resources available overall for allocation for research and teaching through HEFCE

    —  continuing to stimulate market demand among businesses and employers in the UK to acquire science-based research and science graduates as the route to their own global competitiveness.

    —  Continuing to stimulate at primary and secondary levels to take up science-based subjects in order to maintain a flow of able and excellent students and researchers for the next and subsequent generations.

    —  Continuing to stimulate the science base to transfer knowledge as effectively as possible in the post-Lambert environment.

February 2005

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