Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing (CPHC)

  Information Technology has become integral to the way countries and companies compete. It has become fundamental to how each of us lives our daily lives. IT skills, therefore, lie at the heart of our success as individuals and as a nation. The scope of the challenge is broad; it goes from the factory floor to the board room, from the corridors of power in government to the hospital ward. IT literacy and digital inclusion are key parts of the government agenda . . . Action is required if the UK is to continue to be one of the beneficiaries rather than one of the casualties of the Information Age. The responsibility for taking this forward lies with business, government, the education sector and the UK's employees themselves.[7]

  Success today in a developed nation's industry, education, and commerce seems to depend increasingly on bringing the latest computing technology to bear. Failure to keep up brings the risk of failure in the global marketplace. And with barriers to international commerce falling (especially in western Europe), failure in the global marketplace brings failure in the local marketplace. In addition, we find critical national infrastructures—communication, finance, energy distribution, and transportation, not to mention civil and national defence—also coming to depend more and more on networked computer systems. Thus, at least in developed nations, quality of life is affected by access to computing technology and expertise in deploying it.[8]


  Before answering the specific questions posed by the Committee, we provide the context for our responses. This context:

    —  Introduces the subject body for Computing that represents all universities in the UK;

    —  Summarises why IT is vital for the future competitiveness (if not survival) of this country;

    —  Outlines employers' needs for IT professionals;

    —  Looks at the role of Computing departments in universities in supplying the needs of employers in private and public sectors;

  In answering the Committee's questions, we highlight some serious difficulties that the majority of Computing departments face as a result of decisions that lie outwith our control.


  CPHC is the subject body for Computing for all universities in the UK. "Computing" is concerned with the understanding, design and exploitation of Information Technology, perhaps the most significant advance of the twentieth century. The design and the exploitation of computer technologies lie at opposite ends of the spectrum that Computing represents. Some of our members focus on the design of sophisticated, high-performance computer systems, others focus on innovative software technology, while others address the integration of information systems into organisations (such as the NHS) to improve efficiency and customer service. Computing supports the goals of the largest and smallest organisations, and helps individuals in their everyday lives; it is ubiquitous and diversely applied to a range of applications, yet important components are invisible to the naked eye. Computing, or Information Technology is the infrastructure vital to the knowledge economy. CPHC works very closely with the British Computer Society, the professional body for Computing.


  The IT industry makes a significant and increasing contribution to the UK economy. It represents almost 5% of the total UK GVA and is almost twice as productive as the all-industry benchmark.[9] The UK IT Industry is also a major European player, with the UK IT services sector being the largest by turnover and number of enterprises of all sectors of the EU. Computer Services, with Electrical, Electronic and Instrument Engineering, are also the areas of the UK economy that enjoy the largest international market for their products, measured as a percentage of the business in an industry.[10] It is undoubtedly a subject "at the heart of the UK economy and is a key source of competitiveness for all sectors, opening new markets, increasing performance and driving productivity",[11], underpinning innovation and competitiveness in every sector of the economy. Indeed, IT-intensive industries represent 45% of the total UK GVA, which exceeds the corresponding figure for all other G7 countries save Germany.[12]


  "A series of trends are emerging which cause, and are caused by, greater exploitation of IT by an informed community of interest."[13] Among these trends are mobile computing, which supports remote and collaborative working, while providing new opportunities for organisations (such as the NHS) to communicate effectively with customers and clients. Information Technology has provided new channels to markets. The internet is now used routinely for shopping, banking and other financial services and, increasingly for access to government and its services. Another trend that is enabled by IT but also has an impact on IT-related industries is the offshore outsourcing of services and business processes.


  "I see ICT and its potential to transform how we teach, learn and communicate as crucial to our drive to raise standards."[14] IT provides the infrastructure for e-learning, which enables learners to reduce their dependence on the place and time of study. Notwithstanding the spectacular failure of UKeU, government, Hefce and the education sector remain committed to the appropriate use of technology to support learning.


  1.2 million people are employed in the IT sector in the UK, and the workforce is forecast to grow by between 1.5% and 2.2% per year for the next decade. In addition, it has been forecast that from within the IT industry, there will be a need to replace workers who are moving into non-IT roles, taking career breaks or retiring. The total demand for new staff in the IT workforce has therefore been estimated at 156,000 to 179,000 per year.[15]


Supply of graduates

  Universities have a key role to play in delivering this trained workforce, either as graduates from a spectrum of IT-related courses, or through retraining. Specialist, high-level computing education is essential to the UK's competitive position, especially in areas such as security, maintenance of business critical systems, internet and communications technology, the development of highly complex information systems (particularly in the public services), and healthcare technology. Without an adequate supply of skills in these areas, the UK will suffer a slowdown in economic growth as companies look beyond the UK to supply these skills. This is easy to do given the global market for IT services and the ease of global communication. Further, public services will be squeezed out of the competition for IT talent, as commercial enterprises offer higher salaries.


  "In a number of areas, the UK is a world-wide leader, demonstrating an outstanding record of innovation and first-rate science."[16] Since the earliest days of computation, UK research has had a significant impact on the development of and the application of the technologies it has spawned, and it is also key in the majority of research and development activity in industry and universities in the UK. Virtually all science and technology (the genome project, for example) relies on easy access to state-of-the-art computer expertise. Today, industry in the UK, Europe and US benefits directly from research conducted in UK universities. Some of that work is funded directly by the beneficiary (such as Rolls Royce, BAE Systems, BT, Airbus, Daimler Chrysler, NHS, Microsoft, IBM) and some through the dual support system via research councils and the funding councils. Internationally sponsored research is a means of inward investment. PhD students from UK universities are an important source of research capacity for UK-based companies.

Knowledge Transfer

  Many universities engage in knowledge transfer activities with (usually local) organisations, ranging from multinational companies, through SMEs to microbusinesses. The Knowledge Transfer Programme is a particularly effective mechanism for supporting businesses.


  Computing departments have driven innovations in the application of their own technology to support learning. It is important that UK-based academics, through their own research and innovations in learning and teaching technology engage in driving e-learning forward. Or, as the Secretary of State continued in her keynote address to BETT 2005 "We must be sure that we are squeezing every ounce of innovation from new and emerging technology. We should not simply wait for technology to offer solutions. We must also drive technological developments by clearly articulating what it is that learners and teachers need. By combining the forces of supply and demand in this way we can tease out the best that ICT has to offer."


  This submission to the Science and Technology Committee from CPHC clearly addresses the concerns the Council has for the ability of universities to respond to the national needs for appropriately skilled graduates and for innovation in the development and innovative application of Information Technology. While the plight of other sciences and technologies is frequently acknowledged, in answering the questions posed by the Committee, we illustrate that the problems we face in our own discipline should be of no less concern to government. We strongly support the Committee's initiative to safeguard the level of science teaching and research across universities in England.

1.  The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings, on the financial viability of university science departments

  The financial returns from RAE 2001 were a great disappointment to many Computing departments (and their Vice-Chancellors), especially in the many cases where a significant improvement in performance yielded a lower income. This has led to some structural changes and re-focussing of effort in some departments, but is not on its own a major cause for concern. However, it becomes highly significant when juxtaposed with shortfalls in income from teaching (see the answer to point 3 below).

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

  The definitions of quality levels in the Guidance to panels for RAE 2008, just published as RAE 01/2005, makes it clear that a broader distribution of research income through QR is not the intent. RAE 2008, coupled with the application of Full Economic Costing from 2005-06, will lead to an even greater concentration of research. While CPHC supports the maintenance of world-class research in Computing in the UK, it does not support the ever-increasing concentration of that research in fewer and fewer institutions. It is a myth that researchers need to be concentrated—most researchers collaborate with colleagues in other institutions across the UK and across the globe, and less frequently with colleagues in the office next door. CPHC believes that there needs to be a broad research base that informs excellent teaching and provides a local source of expertise for businesses and organisations. Students who wish to study Computing should be able to access undergraduate and postgraduate programmes locally.

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

  Following the "dot com" shake-out of 2001, applications for undergraduate Computing courses have fallen by over one-quarter from 2001 to 2003; simultaneously, HEFCE[17] reduced the level of its funding for Computing by 35%, by moving it from Band B to Band C, which had a much greater impact than for any other subject in science and technology. These two factors have reduced budgets for Computing in universities and led to reductions in staff at a time when, according to the Government's own reports, employers are increasingly demanding higher level skills in this area. (For some universities, the impact has been exacerbated by shortfalls in research income.) For 2005 entry, applications to Computing would appear to be increasing again.

  A brief survey of members revealed that almost all universities passed on the funding shortfall to departments. As a result, a number of universities, old and new, are having to shed staff to make up shortfalls of the order of £500,000 per annum. HEFCE's funding decision has had a major impact. See Annex A for CPHC's submission to Sir Howard Newby in response to HEFCE's "consultation" on the funding (not printed). We believe that HEFCE's methodology was fatally flawed.

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

  CPHC does not support the notion of teaching-only science departments. Science is underpinned by the application of high-level knowledge to the process of discovery, to satisfying curiosity—by research. As noted above, we believe that excellent teaching should be informed by research and we believe that local universities should be drivers of local and regional economies through the application of their knowledge and expertise. There is increasing evidence (see, for example:  id=3556596 ) that international students are becoming more selective and have a greater number of choices available to them, especially in continental Europe, where research-active universities offer attractive programmes, all taught in English. A teaching-only institution will have no appeal. This is one of several self-imposed threats to the Prime Minister's Initiative (to recruit international students).

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

  CPHC believes that a number of universities will not be able to respond to an increase in demand, if the attrition is as high as reported. This will have a significant impact on widening access and participation. As our letter to Sir Howard noted, UCAS statistics show that Computing (and Mathematics) have been very successful in widening participation with respect to other areas. In fact, HEFCE's own performance indicators show that Computing and Mathematical Sciences had the second highest proportion of young entrants from social classes IIIM-V between 1998 and 2001, while at the same time, it accounted for the third highest proportion of students from low participation neighbourhoods. We fear that students who are not in a position to travel to study will be denied the opportunity to study Computing at their local university. (See also our response to 2.)

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

  While universities are autonomous institutions, vice-chancellors have few reasons to depart from the funding models set down by HEFCE in allocating their internal resources. HEFCE and the Government should understand how its own decisions on funding (not good for any science, but especially bad for Computing) are at odds with the avowed priorities of DfES, Treasury and dti, and that the UK's future competitiveness, on a variety of fronts, is being seriously compromised.

  It is difficult to predict the impact of variable fees when they are introduced in 2006. It is possible that there will be a negative impact on recruitment to science and technology programmes. The Government needs to incentivise the study of subjects, including computing, of key strategic importance to the UK economy, through its own system of bursaries to allow students to study subjects of national strategic importance, and to ensure that those subjects are adequately funded by individual higher education institutions.

  We believe that the Government should waive fees for Computing graduates (and other science and technology graduates) to pursue a PGCE, so that we counter the vicious circle of decline that seems to be gathering pace.

  CPHC believes that the unchecked approval of offshore outsourcing will lead to the erosion of the UK's science (and technology) base, through the increased migration of work overseas. It is not just work requiring low-level skills that is going offshore, jobs requiring graduate-level knowledge, ability and skills are not far behind. See Annex B, a report produced by CPHC.

January 2005

7   IT insights: trends and UK skills implications, e-skills UK and Gartner Consulting, November 2004, p 7. Back

8   International Review of UK Research in Computer Science, Fred B Schneider & Mike Rood, Editors, EPSRC, BCS & IEE, 2001. Back

9   IT insights: drivers of demand for skills, e-skills UK and MRM Solutions Ltd, November 2004. Back

10   21st century skiolls: realising our potential, HMSO, July 2003. Back

11   IT insights: trends and UK skills implications, e-skills UK and Gartner Consulting, November 2004, p 18. Back

12   IT insights: trends and UK skills implications, e-skills UK and Gartner Consulting, November 2004, p 19. Back

13   IT insights: trends and UK skills implications, e-skills UK and Gartner Consulting, November 2004, p 22. Back

14   Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education & Skills, BETT 2005 Keynote Address. Back

15   IT insights: trends and UK skills implications, e-skills UK and Gartner Consulting, November 2004, pp 34-35. Back

16   International Review of UK Research in Computer Science, Fred B Schneider and Mike Rodd, Editors, EPSRC, BCS & IEE, 2001. Back

17   HEFCE circular 2003/42. Back

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