Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Scientists for Labour


  Scientists for Labour (SfL) is an organisation open to members or supporters of the Labour Party who are interested or involved in UK science and technology. Since its establishment in 1994, it has become a strong political voice for science. In July 2002 the Labour Party admitted SfL as an Affiliated Socialist Society.

  Many members of SfL are university academics and researchers, key stakeholders in higher education. Our submission to this inquiry builds on previous contributions to the debate around the Higher Education White Paper and subsequent Act, the Roberts review of the RAE and the Labour Party Education and Skills Policy Commission. We have drawn attention to the problem and impact of science course closures in all of these previous contributions, and welcome the opportunity to focus on it in this submission to the Science and Technology Select Committee.


    —  The Committee will need no persuasion as to the importance of science and technology, both in terms of direct benefits to the UK economy and to society in areas such as healthcare and as a part of our cultural heritage.

    —  Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in their speeches to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, stressed the importance of improving the knowledge and skills of the workforce so that Britain can continue to compete in high-tech sectors of the global economy.

    —  The Government's 10 year framework for science[85] estimates that academic research underpins up to 5% of sales in some industries. This surely is to look only at very short-term impact, as all high-tech industries are based ultimately on the fruits of academic research. These academic developments must be translated into industrial products, either by or in collaboration with industry, and then manufactured and utilised by workers who also have scientific and technical skills.

    —  Despite this acknowledged need to improve the scientific and technical skills base, recent years have seen a worrying decline in provision of science courses, particularly in fundamental sciences such as physics and chemistry.

    —  There is a vicious circle in that decline in science course uptake and places not only has direct implications for the scientific workforce, but also impacts on the availability and skills of the next generation of science teachers, fuelling a spiral of decline.

    —  The problem is worse than the estimates in the 10 year framework suggest. For example the number of HEIs offering physics courses declined from 79 to 53 between 1994 and 2001.[86] About 30% of physics departments closed between 1994 and 2004. Since 1997, numbers of materials science undergraduates have fallen by 40%, despite this being a subject with strong industrial demand.

    —  Increasing participation in higher education means that more students from poorer backgrounds will enter the system. It is important, both in terms of social justice and for the national economy, that these students have the opportunity to study a full range of scientific disciplines. The development of, for example, "physics deserts": areas of the country bereft of undergraduate physics provision, militates against this.

    —  These and other "science deserts" are an obstacle to the Government's regional development policies, as set out in the 10 year framework. We do not believe that the solution lies entirely in inter-regional knowledge transfer, as is suggested in the framework paper, since the whole tenor of that paper recognises that strong local universities are essential to the regional economy.


    —  The problem is sometimes attributed to poor student uptake, sometimes to the cost of science course provision relative to per capita funding, and sometimes to the effects of overselectivity in research funding. All three elements are important, and there is a complex interplay between them.

    —  Poor uptake of science courses at university is strongly linked to poor uptake of the necessary A-levels at school. This is a problem common to degree courses requiring specific A-levels, which for example also affects modern languages. In the case of the sciences it is compounded by the fact that science A-levels are perceived as being difficult and likely to depress a candidate's overall A-level score. Furthermore, most university physics departments regard A-level performance in mathematics as of greater importance than that in physics itself.

    —  Another relevant factor is the shortage of teachers qualified in physical sciences. For example, it is believed that the majority of physics teachers currently are life sciences graduates (and so may be lacking crucial mathematical skills). This is likely to impact on the quality of their teaching in physics in particular, and hence on the enthusiasm imparted to students. No central data exists to verify this, and the Government has recently agreed to conduct a survey to find out exactly who is teaching physics in schools.

    —  It is also felt that "market breakdown" has occurred, in that school students are failing to appreciate the advantages of science subjects that confer excellent transferable skills and career options, while other subjects have become fashionable out of all proportion to job opportunities. For example, forensic science courses are burgeoning, allegedly due in part to popular television series, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there are up to 200 applicants for each job in the field.

    —  Against this background of poor uptake, it is easy to see that, in the free market model that now operates in the HE sector, science course closures may be driven by market forces. Such courses are expensive to run, with high fixed infrastructure costs that cannot easily be met with the income from small classes. Although universities may choose to invest strategically in expensive sciences, it is hard to see why they should chose to do so unless there is a clear benefit in sight for the university or earmarked funding is available.

    —  These developments cannot be treated in isolation from the issue of overselectivity in research funding through the RAE. Forthcoming replacement of "make-or-break" grade boundaries with departmental quality profiles is a welcome initiative, but it remains to be seen how far these changes will address the problems of the current system. Overselectivity is extremely damaging to departments rated 4 in the current RAE, who have lost 42% of their research funding since 2001. Faced with the combination of this underfunding of research and poor uptake of expensive courses, many universities feel that they have no choice but to close departments that are merely `nationally excellent'.

    —  The 10 year framework recognises the geographical disparity in research funding. This disparity is due to the effects of RAE over-selectivity, and contributes directly to the development of "science deserts".

    —  Establishment of "teaching only" departments is sometimes proposed as a means of addressing this problem. However, in science good teaching at degree level requires a research base. The Higher Education White Paper[87] cites a report[88] on the interactions between teaching and research in HE, which found that it is not necessary for academics to be involved in research in order to provide excellent teaching. Whilst this was the overall conclusion of the report, as far as science is concerned it actually came to the opposite conclusion, stating: "for students in some disciplines . . . some of the staff at least do need to be involved with research", and "we find that this relationship is generally much closer, in the science-based subjects". As far as teaching-only institutions are concerned, the authors stated that "it might . . . be difficult for such institutions to teach very research-intensive subjects".

4.  What can be done about it?

    —  The Government's recognition of the problem of science course provision in the 10 year framework, with initiatives to examine the effect on access at regional level and the model for funding teaching, is welcome.

    —  Initiatives to identify strategically important subjects and make additional funding available through HEFCE are also welcome. Perhaps in future HEFCE could be required to ring-fence a proportion of income from variable tuition fees for this purpose. However, we agree with other commentators[89] that this funding is needed urgently. We caution against a lengthy investigative process, during which time further departments will be lost (as indeed they have been since this initiative was announced).

    —  A serious policy issue is, to what extent should HEIs, essentially independent institutions, be encouraged or required to make available places match likely employment demand, as has been done by capping medical student numbers? Given the amount of public money invested in HE, it does not seem unreasonable that HEFCE should be required to steer funding in this way. However, other initiatives are needed as well.

    —  It should not be assumed that aspects of the problem that are associated with the RAE will necessarily be solved by the forthcoming changes to that exercise. The situation should be monitored to see what improvements, if any, result.

    —  A crucial element in increasing uptake of science courses at university, and hence the technical skill levels of the workforce, lies in strengthening science and mathematics teaching at school. The seeds of mathematical illiteracy, in particular, are sown at an early age, and attention must be given to mathematical aspects of early years education if current shortcomings are to be redressed effectively.

    —  We suggest that the proposed survey of science teaching should be widened to look also at which institutions are producing would-be teachers, and whether there is any correlation with departmental size or RAE score.

    —  We support improved links between schools and universities, including the partnerships, student associates scheme and ambassadorships discussed in the framework paper.

    —  There needs to be strengthened careers advice in schools, including careers advisers with scientific backgrounds who are familiar with the range of careers open to science graduates.

    —  Joint degree courses, such as physical sciences and sports science, should not be undervalued (nor risk closure). While such courses may not attract the aspiring Nobel Prize winner, they provide an excellent source of schoolteachers.

    —  The White Paper comments that in order to meet Government targets for teacher recruitment, 40% of all mathematics graduates would be needed. The current figure is much smaller, which is not too surprising given the pay and status of teachers relative to other possible career choices for graduate mathematicians, who are much sought after in the financial sector.

    —  Similarly, better salaries and career structures are needed to encourage good science graduates to remain in science research and university teaching. This is especially true with the advent of higher tuition fees. Salaries for graduates in research and junior academic posts are already unattractive, and will fall further in real terms when fee repayment begins. Thus they will become even less attractive relative to the higher salaries offered to much sought-after graduates in subjects such as mathematics and physics by industry and the financial sector. It is no longer just these high paying sectors that compete with universities for the best graduates: academic salaries are now uncompetitive even with those offered to scientists in the NHS.

    —  A mechanism is required to ensure that the teaching role of academics is genuinely accorded equal status with research, particularly in research-intensive institutions that have traditionally emphasised the importance of research over teaching.

January 2005

85   Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14. HM Treasury, 2004. Back

86   Physics: Building a Flourishing Future. Report of the Inquiry into Undergraduate Physics. Institute of Physics, 2001. Back

87   The Future of Higher Education. Department for Education and Skills, 2003. Back

88   Interactions between Research, Teaching and Other Academic Activities. HEFCE, 2000. Back

89   Eg articles by Brian Iddon MP and Peter Main, Science in Parliament, Summer 2004. Back

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