Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the University of Oxford

Q1.  The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to research assessment exercise ratings, on the financial viability of the university's science departments.

  To protect science research, it is essential that research selectivity applied by HEFCE in respect of its QR funding is maintained. This is especially so if the UK is to maintain international competitiveness. If funds are limited, they must be concentrated in the most successful and competitive departments.

  The level of overall public funding must cover the full costs of the research it supports, and the relationship between HEFCE QR and other funding from research councils is critical. FEC will help but the transition to full FEC will not be complete until at least 2010.

Q2.  The desirability of increasing the concentration of research in a small number of university departments, and the consequences of such a trend.

  Maintenance of research selectivity at least at its present level is essential for the reasons stated above. It is likely that funding pressures will require some further increase in the concentration of research, but this is essential if excellence and international competitiveness are to be maintained.

  There are downsides: too few departments risk reducing national viability and critical mass, and undermining the ability to train enough graduate students. The highest quality undergraduate teaching also requires a good research interface.

Q3.  The implications for university science teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula.

  The squeezing of differentials[6] between clinical medicine and laboratory-intensive sciences on the one hand, and other subjects on the other in the HEFCE teaching funding formula has not been welcomed. It has (in effect) allowed a shift of resource away from experimental science subjects. This does not, in our experience, reflect the increasing complexity and cost of experimental sciences. There are difficulties at the margin in disentangling research related from teaching related costs, but experimental teaching laboratories are expensive to equip and operate, and for example new safety legislation has also increased costs.

Q4.  The optimal balance between teaching and research provision in universities giving particular consideration to the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science departments.

  There is no single "optimal balance". In this university we see a vital link between teaching on the one hand and the maintenance of high international quality research capacity on the other. This is especially so in postgraduate and doctoral training. HEFCE's new Research Capability Fund will enable the development of research capacity in emerging subjects, and changes to the method for allocating HEIF funding will give less research intensive universities the potential to access this source of funds. Clearly, it is essential that good teaching should be informed by the outcome of good research, but it is impossible to return to a situation where all teaching departments are funded at a similar level to undertake research: as indicated above, the continuance of research selectivity at least at its current level is essential for UK science.

Q5.  The importance of maintaining a regional capacity in university science teaching and research.

  Given the increase in costs to students on first degrees, it is important to maintain good regional capacity in university science teaching. However, it does not follow from this that there needs to be an equally strong regional dimension in research, and the desirability of an even regional spread of high-quality research in universities cannot possibly outweigh the need to maintain national and international excellence through maintenance of research selectivity.

Q6.  The extent to which the Government should intervene to make sure continuing provision of subjects of strategic national or regional importance; and the mechanisms it should use for this purpose.

  Current selectivity in the distribution of QR by HEFCE should at least be maintained. The Government's FEC initiative is also vital, and move from 80% to 100% by Research Councils should take place as soon as possible, so that universities can recover the full costs of the research they undertake and thereby become able to invest responsibly in their faculties and departments. But the Government's role must be to provide the funding and strategic framework to enable HEIs to function effectively. We do not support moves which would lead to the Government directly interfering in the academic and research priorities of individual universities. Government's role is to provide adequate funding, and to enable universities to charge full cost prices for their research. In the case of teaching, Government needs to move as rapidly as possible to enable universities to recover the full costs of their teaching: even with the £3K fee, unit prices for teaching in experimental sciences are seriously inadequate.


  We would make four general points about the subjects raised:

  (1).  To protect science research it is essential that the research selectivity via QR, and the Government's FEC initiative are maintained and funded.

  (2).  On teaching, the main problem is the continued underfunding of both graduate and undergraduate science programmes for home/EU students; the £3K undergraduate fee will only go a small part of the way to overcoming this. There are particular problems associated with attracting able graduates to remain in research after their first degree, because of the relatively low salaries for postdoctoral workers and contract research workers.

  (3).  The decline of science in maintained schools, especially single science options, and too few qualified teachers at that level, is a problem which needs careful investigation since it affects recruitment to universities' science degree programmes.

  (4).  As the Select Committee knows, there are issues concerning rewards and recruitment in university science careers which reduce their attractiveness.

January 2005

6   The weighting for clinical medicine was reduced from 4.5 to 4.0; and the weighting for laboratory science from 2.0 to 1.7. Back

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