Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Kevin Solman

  I wish to make the following points as regard the strategic science provision in English universities:

  HEFCE's current research funding formulae as applied to RAE ratings, severely penalises those departments graded as 4 or below. From my own experiences, many departments working at grade 4 undertake excellent teaching and research. With the emphasis on research funding, and the huge financial incentives of achieving a grade 5 or 5*, teaching is often seen as being of less importance and as such the commitment to undergraduate students is reduced. Staff are encouraged to work increasingly on research and spend less time (and effort) on teaching.

    —  If the decision is taken to designate a small number of universities as research institutions, and ensure they are given most of the research funding, this would, by implication, leave the remaining universities to be perceived as second-class teaching establishments. This is reminiscent of the old system of universities and polytechnics.

    —  Proper funding needs to be implemented for both teaching and research to be undertaken at all universities. From my own experience, these two approaches compliment each other. The research outcomes should be directly fed into teaching in order that our universities can continue to provide the highest levels of education using the latest technology and ideas. By separating research and teaching we are in danger of presenting second-rate teaching using outdated and cheaper technology and ideas. Obviously some universities will have a greater emphasis and higher profile in research, but this should not be to the detriment of teaching.

    —  There should be a serious attempt to provide high quality science teaching and research at a regional level. My son is currently at Exeter University studying Chemistry, but seven weeks into his first year the vice-chancellor decided to axe the department. The manner of his decision illustrates a complete disregard for the subject and all the staff and students. There is now no university in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset or Dorset which teaches BSc Chemistry. Our nearest university is Bristol—an excellent institution, and I hope my son is successful in transferring there to complete his studies.

    —  The closure of many key science subjects in universities across the country sends a detrimental message to today's youngsters. With less students studying subjects such as chemistry and physics, there are fewer qualified school teachers in these areas, which leads to poorer science teaching of 11-18 year olds, resulting in lower numbers studying A-level chemistry and physics, and reduced university applications in these subjects. A vicious spiral. I am aware of cases where schools have been unable to appoint qualified physics teachers and have had to recruit teachers from other disciplines to fill the vacancy. Such teachers cannot be expected to project enthusiasm for a subject they have not studied.

    —  University teaching and research should be multi-disciplinary. I teach hydrology and environmental chemistry in a university geography department, and enjoy working closely with colleagues and students in many other disciplines (eg chemistry, biology, geology, engineering). Co-operation between subjects is important to all areas of science and where universities have withdrawn key disciplines I believe the ramifications will be felt in many areas of both teaching and research across the university. My students benefit from being able to use the facilities of other departments within the university and similarly I teach students from other disciplines. The loss of pure sciences such as chemistry and physics will have knock-on effects on other departments and the quality of their teaching and research.

  Thank you for reading these comments and I hope the future of education in this country can be improved.

February 2005

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