Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Annex A

IEE evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry: Strategic Science Provision in Universities


  1.  The RAE gradings of departments or subjects do not necessarily provide a true picture of the contribution of the academic community to wealth creation and quality of life. Successful innovations do not flow only from world-class research departments. There are very many significant pockets of excellence in non grade 5 departments, which frequently produce excellent and internationally competitive PhDs as well as exploitable innovation. There are also many pockets of speculative research that go on to achieve great breakthroughs. However, the over emphasis on publication quality and international reputation threatens to significantly disadvantage research that has yet to generate published material or other mechanisms for defining outcomes. In turn this threatens to discourage rather than encourage those "blue skies", "curiosity" and "adventurous" research activities that should be positively encouraged and adequately rewarded. There is a severe risk that the vital work of these groups will be placed in jeopardy by a funding formulae that is biased towards 5/5* departments. Indeed, the cut-off between 4 and 5 is now so great as to potentially jeopardise the financial stability of whole departments. In essence, the current RAE formula places at risk many of the departments which provide opportunities for young/new researchers to develop their skills and confidence and hence threatens to undermine the sustainability of the UK research community.

  2.  An equally problematic issue is that, not withstanding the headline figures showing real term increases in funding, much of this is associated with special initiatives with hypothecated funding, the consequence being that the core grant is always under pressure. To enable the universities to plan strategically for what is most important for them, their students and their region, it is essential to ensure that the core grant, especially the QR element, is maximised.


  3.  Exploitable innovations spring up in a vast range of institutions—the wider the (fertile) field the greater the probability and scale of innovation in the UK. In addition, innovation can arise wherever there are bright people and these might not be concentrated only in 5/5* departments. In fact, so called "lesser" universities and departments are often the breeding ground for elite departments and provide a natural succession for ambitious young researchers. In addition, whilst the larger industrial companies could probably cope with research departments "not on their doorsteps", small and medium sized organisations tend to build relationships with their local universities, often creating local spin-offs that inject wealth creation into local areas. Concentrating research into fewer departments would create deserts of research in many areas of the country, and would adversely impact on local innovation and wealth creation initiatives, and regional development plans. We must maintain a regional and national capacity in university science and engineering teaching and research, providing of course that the research is internationally competitive. On the other hand, in some subjects there are probably too many departments vying for limited funding. Spreading funding too thinly tends only to create mediocrity amongst many whilst we should be aiming for excellence amongst a few. The question to be answered is "how few is few?"


  4.  In November 2003 the IEE responded robustly to the HEFCE consultation "Developing the Funding Method for Teaching from 2004-05" which included a proposal to downrate the funding of engineering courses from B (with a multiplying ratio of 2) to B2 (with a ratio of 1.6) on the basis that engineering courses do not need the large traditional labs. This proposal appeared to be based firstly on a view that engineering departments were receiving more funds than actually required and secondly that simulation and modelling can replace high cost equipment.

  5.  There is clear evidence from the IEE's accreditation visits that the assumptions that have led to the proposal to downrate the funding for engineering course are fundamentally flawed. However, generous cash allocations might seem, they are simply insufficient to equip laboratories with equipment of the type that graduates are likely to be confronted with when they progress into industry.

  6.  One of the ways in which electrical and electronic engineering departments have responded to the dilemma of teaching with out of date equipment and insufficient resource has been to introduce the use of computer simulations. There are many advantages to simulating activities such as system design using computer software, and of course there is the added advantage that the computers can then be used for a wide range of additional activities, unlike specialist laboratory equipment. However, reports from our accreditation teams provide overwhelming evidence of the value to students of properly equipped hands-on laboratories and adequately resourced practical work, in terms of the potential to gain real-world hands-on practical skills. We are of the opinion that computer simulation should be supplementing practical work and not replacing it.

  7.  Science, engineering and technology (SET) subjects are already seriously disadvantaged and receive less than 50% of the funding going into medicine. Furthermore what is invariably misunderstood is that design is an essential component of engineering. However, design can only be taught in small groups and hence the staff-student ratios are intensive, and equipment must be available for each group. Indeed, the resource demands of engineering design are as equally intensive as those necessary to cater for the "four around a bed" principal for medicine. The scope and breadth of SET disciplines, and the infrastructure required to support them is certainly no less than that required for medicine. Therefore, if the UK believes that SET is vital to the UK economy then sufficient resources should be made available to see that it is adequately funded. If implemented the HEFCE proposal would have had a very severe adverse impact on computer, electrical and electronic engineering departments. The dire state of the laboratory facilities in many, and some might say the majority, of university engineering departments provides clear evidence that these departments need their funding levels to be uprated.


  8.  We have received evidence that supports two schools of thought. The first suggests that research provides dynamism to teaching. Teaching-only units could appear to the students as lacking in involvement with the wider academic community. Postgraduate research students, through laboratory demonstrations and other tutorial activities, contribute significantly to the learning experience of undergraduates. In all departments some research is necessary for curriculum richness, relevance and modernity, and ultimately for credibility and viability. Furthermore, students (particularly those from overseas) will select universities that provide the best overall learning experience and there is clear evidence that their selection decision is heavily weighted in favour of those departments that have vibrant research activities and access to the most current knowledge. On the other hand it can be argued that provided lecturers keep abreast of research in their areas and ensure their teaching reflects the most recent science, then there is no overwhelming requirement for research to be carried out in every institution. The two models can exist side-by-side and would not only sustain the research base but also allow some universities without research departments to remain viable. For our science and engineering based industry to prosper in a world market place, we need graduates who have the skills and tools to use advanced knowledge to the benefit of their employers and the general economy.


  9.  Regional capacity has two elements. Firstly there are the demands of the RDAs, and secondly the fact that university departments "are where they are". Research departments can contribute enormously to the evolution of regional high technology ventures and to the development of regional policy, providing a dynamic and secure future for the regions. RDAs and Devolved Administrations (DA) need to tackle this in relation to such issues as inward investment and the presence of (and plans for the development of) science or engineering based multinational companies and SMEs. However, whilst RDAs and DAs are well placed to invest in established technologies and industries within their communities of interest, they are not well placed to deal with "new" or strategic science issues. Indeed a lesson was learned in the area of nanotechnology where each RDA wanted its own centre but with no coherent knowledge transfer or exploitation strategy. This was resolved by putting in place a national strategy driven from the Centre. The nanotechnology experience has clearly demonstrated that the national science strategy must be planned and coordinated centrally. However, even here regional requirements must be considered and of course elements of this strategy could be delivered regionally, but again in a planned manner. In essence the RDAs must clearly understand what research they can reasonably influence and fund, and what must be the domain of the research councils or other central funding bodies. Similarly the research councils must be aware of regional capacity needs and these should be addressed in a planned manner rather than the ad hoc process that currently exists.


  10.  A two-part approach may be useful. Too often, for example, chemistry is being taught by biology graduates and too often the mathematics tuition is not provided at a sufficient level to support pupils in (for instance) their instruction in physics. Coupled with this, league tables for secondary schools have encouraged schools to direct pupils into areas where high grades will be achieved (at the expense of science). The secondary school/college population needs to be much better encouraged into science and technology—properly qualified teachers, more intellectually exciting syllabus material and less of the entirely practical "CDT" activities. Gripping advertising, such as used by the armed forces in cinemas, could also be a possibility. On the other hand, government intervention in the overall "size and shape" of university departments needs a more careful and coherent approach. What is required is a model that takes a long-term view on the number of graduates and researchers required to maintain and sustain the national science and innovation strategy. Government intervention should therefore be based on measures that ensure its long-term strategy for science and innovation will be delivered. This intervention needs to be timely and involve all stakeholders.

  11.  Industry also has a role to play, particularly to ensure that critical infrastructure and industrial capabilities can be sustained. An excellent example is the IEE's Power Academy. Under this scheme the electrical power industry has established its long-term requirement for graduates and has put in place arrangements (including incentives) to assure the necessary flow of engineers. Selected universities have agreed to run undergraduate courses to meet these needs. Government should encourage other sectors of industry to establish similar models, and indeed the manufacturing sector is already considering this type of scheme.

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Prepared 11 April 2005