Memorandum from the Association of University
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
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
institutionsbelieving this to be a fundamental bulwark
against political interference in what is taught and researched
in this countrybut 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 sectorand in particular the future of
research fundingwhich 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
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
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 institutionsKings 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.
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.
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).
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 demandboth 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
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.
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
In fact, AUT believes that the RAE is fundamental to the current
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."
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
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.
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 nationaland
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
"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
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*sthe 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 departmentone of the most
prestigious in the OECDis dipping into its reserves to
cover a £1 million annual deficit.
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.
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.
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.
4. THE LINK
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".
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.
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).
It is difficult to see how a single, temporary allocation will
enable staff and students the opportunities to benefit from `research-informed
(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.
5. REGIONAL CAPACITY
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.
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
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 universitiesEdinburgh, 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.
ScotCHEMthe chemistry pooling planbrings
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.
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 homea trend which will
inevitably increase once top-up fees are being paidhow
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.
6. THE NEXT
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.
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
The changing age profile affects some subject
areas more than othersand 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.
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 SETwith 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).
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 educationie those who
come from lower socio-economic groups and without a family background
of proceeding to higher educationproportionately 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.
61 MacLeod, D (2004),"This could be the last
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These are the comments of Lord Sainsbury of Turville in his response
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are taking quite such a tough view about which departments they
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chemistry departments." Minutes of evidence taken before
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