Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Richard Sear, Lecturer, Department of Physics, University of Surrey

  The committee has asked for comments on a number of different points. I reproduce these points below, together with my comments.

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

  It is obvious that under the current formula three and four rated departments are not even close to being financially viable. This is resulting in a number of them being closed.

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

  I am not aware of any hard evidence that concentrating research is having a positive or negative effect on research. However, it is clear that the trend is pulling money away from departments that between them teach a significant fraction of UK physics (and chemistry) undergraduates. It is therefore having rather unfortunate consequences for physics teaching.

  The implications for university science teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula;

  The current fees are inadequate to pay for teaching physics degrees in the way they have been traditionally taught in the UK, ie, with substantial time in experimental and computing labs, and a relatively high staff to student ratio.

  The optimal balance between teaching and research provision in universities, giving particular consideration to the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science departments; Teaching-only physics and chemistry departments are nowhere near financially viable within the current model for the funding of UK universities. I do not know enough about the situation in biology to comment. Also, the strong connection between research and teaching has been a strength of UK universities.

  The importance of maintaining a regional capacity in university science teaching and research; and

  As I understand it, the government wishes to support/regenerate regions such as the north east. University science departments, amongst others, can play a role here, but to do so they need to be funded adequately. Putting large sums of government money into trying to boost high tech manufacturing in a region while allowing science and engineering departments in that region to close is sheer stupidity.

  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.

  I do not think direct intervention in individual departments is appropriate. The closure of physics and chemistry departments is simply universities responding to government policy. All the government needs to do is to change the funding model to one where grade 4 departments are not too far away from being financially viable. Incidentally, merely redistributing the money from 5 and 5* departments to 3 and 4 departments will cause severe problems for the 5 and 5* departments. For example, I believe the 5* rated Oxford chemistry department is already heavily loss making. The combined total of the HEFCE money distributed according to RAE ratings and the fee income is simply inadequate to maintain the current university physics and chemistry infrastructure. Therefore, either more money will be found or this infrastructure will continue to contract.

January 2005

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