Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Stuart Palmer, University of Warwick

  The University of Warwick is concerned about the potential effect of closures of science departments in other universities across England upon the vitality of the science community, research and opportunities for students, should this be a continuing trend.

  Warwick believes that the closure of departments has arisen from a combination of factors including changes in the research and teaching formula, the deadline in popularity of science subjects reflected in falling university applications and A level study and the increasingly difficult financial position of many universities as a result of an overall decline in the unit of resource. Universities are inevitably focusing upon deficit activities to produce savings in a management environment which encourages transparency, accountability and value for money.

  The University recognises the need for increasing selectivity of research funding formulae as applied to Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) weightings, noting the significant cost of infrastructure required to conduct world leading and internationally significant research in science. It may be inevitable therefore that some universities may disengage from research and focus upon scholarship or other applied activities. However, the interaction between research and teaching is fundamental to inform the currency and progress of the subject, and to the continuing supply of scientists to underpin the research base (as identified in the Roberts Review of Science in 2002). The University believes that whilst there may be a place for teaching only provision at eg Foundation degree level, there is an optimal number of research intensive departments to ensure adequate supply of high quality scientists and teachers and to foster a vibrant national research community which will attract and retain the best scientists within this country.

  However, the impact of increasing selectivity has been to significantly reduce income to institutions from HEFCE where RAE grade positions have fallen. The recurrent investment required in infrastructure, equipment and staffing cannot be quickly responsive to changes in the funding formula. The change in the teaching funding methodology for 2004-05 has reduced the relative resource for the science subjects covered by the Inquiry (by -3.4%). This has exacerbated the financial income position of departments which may also be experiencing difficulties in recruitment due to national decline in applications in some subjects.

  The Committee should note that the HEFCE formula is a block grant and therefore institutions can and do determine where funding flows to individual departments, and subsidise activity which is key to the University's mission and strategy. Warwick has sustained key strategic areas of activity, and has been able to do this through strategic investment of surpluses derived from other sources of private income. However it is inevitable that universities facing financial difficulties will focus upon activities requiring substantial subsidy and apply the HEFCE funding model to identify these areas.

  Warwick does not believe that the Government or HEFCE should actively intervene to prevent closure of departments or dictate supply of subjects provided by individual Universities. Improvements to the overall unit of resource will facilitate the ability of institutions to subsidise activity which is key to the strategic aims of the institution and the country. The Government should ensure that the HEFCE funding methodology does not erode the unit of resource for science teaching and research further. Where institutions decide upon closure of activity in light of strategic interest, the Government may wish to consider ways of facilitating transfers of research expertise (eg through transitional funding) and the redistribution of national and regional impact of supply of student places to mitigate the effect.

January 2005

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