Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Association of University Teachers


  On behalf of over 48,000 academic and related staff, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) welcomes the select committee's inquiry into strategic science provision in English universities.

  A strategic approach to the issues raised in the inquiry is exactly what is needed in higher education at the moment. We are firm advocates of the autonomy of higher education institutions—believing this to be a fundamental bulwark against political interference in what is taught and researched in this country—but we nevertheless believe that it is entirely right and proper for strategic intervention by the funding councils to ensure the health of the HE sector over the medium and long-term. In short, what may be right for individual universities working to short-term funding streams may not be the best approach for the long-term health of the sector and of the country.

  It is clear to us that the nature of this intervention could take two forms:

    (1)  financial support for struggling departments and courses. This could be provided via HEFCE or possible through the RDAs;

    (2)  a fundamental review of the structure and funding of the sector—and in particular the future of research funding—which would address the underlying causes of the current problems, namely, the RAE, the funding attached to RAE ratings and the immediate impact of fluctuations in student demand.

  We look forward to engaging with HEFCE's advice on supporting struggling courses in areas of "national strategic importance" (as outlined in the Secretary of State's letter). However, while providing additional funding for struggling departments may well succeed in the short-term, it will do very little to address the long-term drivers towards closure.

  It is the long-term drivers of the current shift towards greater research concentration, departmental closures and permanent loss of expertise and knowledge that need addressing. The AUT believes these drivers to include:

    —  the centrality of the RAE to university decision-making at the expense of teaching and other activities;

    —  decline in student demand in recent years for certain subjects leading to consequent funding hits;

    —  the ever-greater concentration of research funding in the 5s and 5*s;

    —  the reduction in research funding for the 4s and the removal of any QR funding for the 3as;

    —  short-term funding streams leading to short-term decision-making;

    —  increasing inter-departmental competition leading to a decline in cross-subsidy between departments;

    —  failure to address the impending huge loss of staff to retirement.

  This submission focuses on these factors and especially the effect of the RAE and the current teaching funding formula on university science provision. It also addresses the importance of the relationship between teaching and research and examines the Government's response to the current crisis in university science.

  Throughout this debate, it is important to remember that the problem is not confined simply to science and engineering but affects a range of different subjects including the arts and humanities (especially modern languages).


  Recent closures in science and engineering subjects, particularly chemistry and physics, have been mainly in pre-1992 higher education institutions—Kings College, Queen Mary, Dundee, Swansea, Exeter, Newcastle and Keele (one of the main exceptions is Anglia Polytechnic University). However, these recent closures are part of a longer term problem affecting both pre and post-92 institutions.

  In the last six years 79 science and engineering departments have closed.[61] In physics, 30% of departments have been shut down since 1992. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) reports that 28 institutions have abandoned undergraduate provision in the last nine years.[62] At the moment, there are approximately 35 to 40 chemistry departments. However, the best case scenario put forward by the RSC is that 20 will survive and at worst only six (Durham, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL, Bristol and Oxford) will remain in 2014.


(i)  Fluctuating student demand

  There are a variety of reasons for the growing number of departmental closures. Obviously a major factor is the decline in student demand in core SET subjects such as physics and chemistry. For example, numbers of applications to study chemistry fell from 4,000 in 1997 to 2,700 in 2003 (in physics it fell from 3,526 in 1997 to 3,165 in 2003).[63] The demand problem manifests itself differently in physics and chemistry. For example, in physics, there has been a fall in the number of students studying the subject at A level whereas in chemistry, the numbers at A level have remained steady, but fewer students are going onto study the subject at undergraduate level.

  A long-term education strategy is needed to address the problems of falling student demand—both at A level and undergraduate level. This is clearly an area in which a number of agencies, including the government, are actively trying to improve the attraction of the sciences to young people.

  However, it is also important to consider that when viewed over the long-term there are often short-term increases or declines in demand for subjects. For example, for many years computer science was hugely popular with students leading to a rapid expansion of provision in an area which looked like it would remain popular for evermore. The latest UCAS figures show a continuing decline in demand for that subject. Indeed, both maths and chemistry have shown increases in student take-up this year of 9.4% and 1.2% respectively.

  The crucial issue about this is the difficulty in closing and possible future re-opening entire departments over the course of a few years. It is hard enough to do this in a humanities subject but in the sciences, where expensive laboratories and equipment are needed, it becomes almost impossible. Once a department is closed it is likely never to be revived.

  The permanent loss of such equipment, expertise and knowledge is a shockingly wasteful approach to the long-term health of the research and teaching base in this country.

(ii)  Impact of the Research Assessment Exercise

  At the same time, many of the recent closures are not the result of low student numbers. For example, applications to study chemistry at Exeter University reportedly rose by 21% last year with five students applying for each place.[64] There are clearly other factors at work. One of the most important is the impact of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) on the financial viability of a large number of university science departments.

  The Committee's first report into the RAE suggested that the exercise is "a contributory factor" in departmental closures.[65] In fact, AUT believes that the RAE is fundamental to the current crisis.

  In our examination of job cuts in higher education (appendix 1), we found that the large number of redundancies in 2002 followed the results of the 2001 RAE. While cuts in 2003 were relatively low, the number of cuts in 2004 has risen, as institutions position themselves for the next exercise. Our evidence suggests that "a large proportion of the academic job cuts are related to the RAE, given that 50% of the cuts have been in the 94 Group and the `non-aligned' pre-92 sector."[66]

  As predicted by the committee, the revised mechanisms for the 2008 exercise have not prevented "the RAE from continuing to compromise the provision of science and engineering in the UK."[67] During the last year there has been an increase in the number of chemistry departments that have closed; a trend that has been recognised by the Government ("I think this particular problem arises because of the pressures which are coming from RAE, essentially") but also appears to have taken them by surprise.[68] Increased selectivity in the allocation of research funding, through the RAE, is forcing institutions to cut staff and departments, even though they may well be judged as doing research of national—and even international—excellence.

  Not only is this a cause for concern over the loss of our research capability, it has a significant impact on the provision of science teaching in our universities. The job cuts we have seen recently have indeed often been offset by the recruitment of new staff. As such, on a national or indeed regional level, there may not appear to be a huge problem. However what this does mean is an ever-increasing move away from staff who may focus on teaching and towards those for whom research is their strength. Once again this underlines the shift in emphasis towards research, often at the expense of the student experience.

(iii)  Concentration of research

  The Government's decision to cut funding from departments rated 4 and below is a key factor in recent departmental closures. We have long argued that the current policy of concentrating research funding on 5 and 5* rated departments will fail to sustain "world-class research" because it risks killing off the sources of academic creativity in departments rated 4 and below. This view has been backed up by research from Evidence UK:

    "Although grade 4 research is less excellent than the peak, it has significantly more impact than research at UK and world average level. Grade 4 units are a `platform' level of quality research that can develop into world class 5 and 5* research. Attrition of this lower platform through lower core funding and flexibility would have significant medium term effects".[69]

  Increased selectivity is putting much valuable research at risk, and undermining the government's policies of enhancing regional research collaboration between universities, and of developing links between universities and the businesses in their regions.

  While the recent announcement by HEFCE to maintain funding in real terms for departments rated 4 in 2005-06 is to be partially welcomed, we fear that this will do little to alleviate the problem. Indeed, the upcoming funding allocations from HEFCE to institutions for 2005-06 sees a 4% increase in funding for the 5s and 5*s—the funding gap between them and the 4s is growing ever-wider reducing the long-term viability and attraction of 4-rated departments.

  The earlier cutbacks in research funding, problems with student demand and the difficult settlement for teaching in higher education will continue to cause financial problems for university science departments.

(iv)  Subject weightings

  One of the reasons for this relates to the funding for teaching in higher education. There is strong evidence to suggest that existing subject weightings are insufficient to meet costs of science subjects such as chemistry and physics. It is clear that the current formula used by HEFCE to calculate funding for teaching does not adequately take into account the actual cost of teaching SET subjects, leaving departments subsidising their teaching from research funds. As a result a large number of science and engineering departments are in deficit. For example, Oxford University's chemistry department—one of the most prestigious in the OECD—is dipping into its reserves to cover a £1 million annual deficit.[70]

  Last year, HEFCE to some extent acknowledged the problems faced by physics and chemistry departments by proposing to split laboratory subjects into two price bands, with chemistry and physics assigned to a higher one.[71] However, the proposals would have cut funding from other laboratory subjects such as the biological sciences and amounted to a redistribution of funding within the science budget. Save British Science, for example, calculated that the core sciences and engineering would have lost £22 million from the HEFCE proposals.[72] As a result, the proposals were abandoned by the funding council. In future reviews, the AUT believes that the additional costs of teaching all laboratory sciences should be reflected in a revised funding formula developed by HEFCE.


  The AUT's view is that research and teaching are closely interlinked and that teaching-only science departments are undesirable. The research-teaching link may be particularly important in science and engineering. Research shows that the direct relationship between teaching and research is "generally much closer in the science-based subjects" and "it is probably necessary for this relationship to work in order for students to have a sufficiently developed interest and ability to be able to benefit".[73]

  The importance of the research-teaching link was recently reaffirmed by the Higher Education Research Forum (HERF). Chaired by Sir Graeme Davies, the forum was asked by ministers to develop advice on the relationship between research and teaching in higher education institutions. In their view, the evidence:

    "[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 RAE or should be pursuing Research Council grants.[74]

  The advice to ministers proposed a new funding model that could provide funds to support `research-informed teaching' in institutions with low levels of RAE funding. The proposed funding was for approximately £25 million. The DfES accepted the HERF advice but the department appears to have adopted a minimalist agenda. Rather than recurrent funding, the £25 million will be a single allocation spread over three years (with only £2.5 million allocated in the first year).[75] It is difficult to see how a single, temporary allocation will enable staff and students the opportunities to benefit from `research-informed teaching'".

(i)  viability of teaching-only science departments

  Aside from the ongoing debate about the link between teaching and research there is another key issue here. If it is proving financially unviable to maintain a science department when it has received only a 4 in the RAE, what chance is there when it receives no research income? In the current financial regime it would appear to be absurd to even contemplate opening a fully-equipped, up-to-date modern science department without any research income stream.


  The AUT believes it is vitally important to maintain genuine regional capacity in university science teaching and research. In a detailed report published in the summer of 2003, we identified the risk to research in higher education as a result of an increasing concentration of funding.

  The report found that in some English regions, less than half the assessed research has secure future funding. For example, more than half of the assessed research in the East Midlands is under threat because of 2001 RAE assessments, even though only one-quarter of departments were rated 1-3a.[76] At the moment, the market approach is failing to deliver adequate regional provision, for example, there are no 5 or 5* chemistry departments in Wales and in the eastern region of England, Cambridge is the only institution to provide physics. With an increasing number of students attending local institutions, this development has negative implications for the government's widening participation agenda.

  One of the potential ways forward is the development of research collaboration. In Scotland, we have recently seen the announcement of two research pooling initiatives.

  In physics, the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA) involves six universities—Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot Watt, Paisley, St Andrews and Strathclyde. These departments will be expected to collaborate to ensure coherent research programmes in astronomy and space physics, condensed matter and materials physics, nuclear and plasma physics, particle physics and photonics.

  ScotCHEM—the chemistry pooling plan—brings together under one umbrella two new groupings. WestCHEM comprises Glasgow and Strathclyde universities and EastCHEM brings together Edinburgh and St Andrews. Both schemes have been supported by funding from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and the Office for Science and Technology.[77]

  A version of the collaboration model may provide a way forward for English institutions within each region. However what is clear is that there is very little sign of any strategic thinking around regional provision. Where there is, it tends to be related to research activity as described above. Knowledge transfer, business links and, crucially, teaching do not feature in this regard.

  If the sector and government is truly committed to widening participation and ensuring all have access to higher education then it has to provide a solution to the following problem: as students increasingly study from home—a trend which will inevitably increase once top-up fees are being paid—how are we to ensure all students have access to all subject areas? Mature students, those from low-income backgrounds and students with families are all less likely to study away from home. They are the very ones that we are all committed to encouraging into HE and yet they will increasingly be disenfranchised from HE through a lack of choice.


  Another key issue that affects the strategic provision of science is how the higher education sector will recruit the next generation of academic and academic related staff. In particular, we would like to flag up the issue of the "demographic time bomb" in university science departments.

  The UK academic profession is generally getting older, with 23% aged 50-plus in 1995-06, rising to 28%in 2002-03. The ageing trend is seen particularly in the largest group of academics, who are engaged in both teaching and research. More than one-third of them are aged 50 and over.[78] At the other end of the age spectrum, the proportion of younger teaching-and-research academics is falling. In 1995-96, 19% of teaching-and-research academics were aged to 34. By 2002-03, the proportion of teaching-and-research academics aged to 34 had fallen to 14%.[79]

  The changing age profile affects some subject areas more than others—and what is clear is that the "retirement bulge" is a key problem in science and engineering. For example, 46.1% of academic staff in civil engineering and 45.6% of academic staff in mathematics are aged 50 or over.[80]

  A range of reports in recent years have pointed to recruitment and retention problems in UK higher education among academic, academic related and other university staff. For example, the Roberts review into science careers identified "a shortage of quality applicants for many academic jobs; an ageing demographic profile of academic staff in SET—with many older staff in physical sciences and mathematics in particular; and low academic salary levels, operating to inhibit the recruitment and retention of scientists and engineers, particularly in areas with high housing and living costs" (5.32). Another major deterrent is, of course, the high level of casualisation in higher education research and teaching posts.

  As part of the Roberts review, the report modelled the demand for academic staff in SET to maintain staff in 2010 at 1998 levels. It found that 13% more physics staff, 22% more engineering staff, and 33% more mathematical staff would be needed by 2010 to maintain staff numbers at 1998 levels (5.41-42). The report continued: "If student demand in these areas increases as a result of the actions recommended in this report, and the Government's work on achieving its 50% target for participation in higher education, this need will be greater still" (5.43).[81]

  Without new recruits into the profession, it will not be possible for universities to deliver the kind of student increases envisaged by the government's 50% participation target. It should be borne in mind that for the kind of students the government would like to attract into higher education—ie those who come from lower socio-economic groups and without a family background of proceeding to higher education—proportionately more teaching staff will be required because such students will need greater support from academic and academic related staff if they are to succeed in their courses. As a result, new ways of attracting staff into academic careers, particularly in science and engineering should form part of any strategic review of subject provision in English higher education.


  We see there being two possible routes that the Government and the funding council could take: direct intervention to tackle the symptoms or a root and branch review of the underlying causes of the current crisis in science.

  The Government's recent announcement to seek advice from HEFCE on how to protect university courses of "national strategic importance", including "science, technology, engineering and mathematics", is a welcome change of policy and a recognition of what AUT and others have been saying for a long time. It is important that HEFCE are being asked to examine a range of different subject areas (although we believe that it should be widened to include other subjects such as modern languages).

  However, the AUT believes that the proposal doesn't go far enough. The review will not be tackling the root causes of most of the problems we are facing now, including the impact of the RAE and the funding mechanisms. We are also concerned that there will be no extra funding for any recommendations.

  We believe a fundamental review is needed. It could start from the premise of why it is that a leading university such as Exeter feels it necessary to close a successful research department in a subject area considered strategically important and which consistently attracts a high number of undergraduate students? The AUT is not arguing for direct government intervention in the affairs of autonomous universities. Instead, we are saying that it is entirely right and proper for government to ensure that the funding and regulatory regime within which universities operate is fit for purpose. On recent evidence, this would appear not to be the case.

  At the same time many of us within the sector have argued for the last few years that the decision to cut research funding to 4 rated departments was seriously flawed. The AUT has not heard a convincing argument as to why England is not prepared to adequately fund research of national excellence. Likewise, when the government is quite rightly focussing on the value of science and research to the future of this country, it is strange that the funding cannot be found to ensure 4 rated departments are economically viable. We are hardly talking vast amounts of money here, especially when compared to the overall funding available.

  As such, a fundamental review could examine all these issues and ensure that the funding and strategic planning that does exist in HE is actually alleviating and not contributing to the current decline.

  Without such a review, the English higher education sector and hence the future provision of science research, teaching and knowledge transfer faces an uncertain future in which market-led student demand and RAE-driven funding pressures are the major factors behind every strategic decision.

February 2005

61   MacLeod, D (2004),"This could be the last time", Guardian online, 9 November 2004,,5500,1346153,00.html Back

62   Fazackerly, A (2004) Times Higher Education Supplement, "Desperate for a spark to ignite student interest", December 2004, pp 6-7. Back

63   Fazackerly, "Desperate for a spark to ignite student interest".  Back

64   Halpin, T (2004), "Chemistry suffers new setback", Times online, 23 November 2004,,,3561-1371312,00.html Back

65   House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2002), The Research Assessment Exercise, Second Report of Session 2001-02, p 21. Back

66   Association of University Teachers, (2004) Job cuts summary 2002-2004, December 2004. Back

67   Science and Technology Committee Second Report (2005), Annual report 2004, p 16. Back

68   These are the comments of Lord Sainsbury of Turville in his response to this committee "I think it is true that, up till the last year or so, we have not seen this position where vice chancellors are taking quite such a tough view about which departments they focus on, with the impact that we have seen on the closure of chemistry departments." Minutes of evidence taken before the Science and Technology Committee, 1 December 2004,  Back

69   Evidence UK (2002), Maintaining research excellence and volume, A report by Evidence UK to the Higher Education Funding Councils for England, Scotland and Wales and to Universities UK, July 2002.  Back

70   MacLeod, D (2004), "Cash crisis at Oxford's chemistry department", Guardian online, 29 November,,12028,1362061,00.html Back

71   Higher Education Funding Council for England (2004), Funding method from teaching 2004-05: Outcomes of consultation  Back

72   Save British Science (2003) Paying the proper price for the job-SBS response to the consultation on developing the funding method for teaching from 2004-05, SBS 03/20.  Back

73   JM Consulting and associates (2000) Interactions between research, teaching, and other academic activities. Final report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England as part of the Fundamental Review of Research Policy and Funding, July 2000, p 23. Back

74   Higher Education Research Forum (2004) The relationship between Research and Teaching in institutions of Higher Education.  Back

75   Department for Education and Skills (2004) Higher education funding 2005-06 to 2007-08, Grant letter to HEFCE, 13 December 2004.  Back

76   Association of University Teachers (2003) The risk to research in higher education in England,  Back

77   Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (2004), "Green light for research pooling", Media release 29 November 2004.  Back

78   Members of the Universities' Superannuation Scheme and the Teachers' Pension Scheme, which are the main pension schemes for UK academic staff, may retire from the age of 50.  Back

79   For further information see the AUT report, The Unequal Academy, at  Back

80   For the full breakdown of different "cost centres", see Unequal Academy, p 24.  Back

81   HM Treasury (2002) SET for Success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and, mathematical skills. The report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review, April 2002. Back

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