Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Ian Peterson, Coventry University

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

  The research funding formula is proving to be extremely harmful, both in the university at which I held my Chair and in many universities known to me. I was taken on to do research, as a result of my good publication record (now over 120 publications, the vast majority in rated refereed journals, and well cited). In the last RAE, the Unit of Assessment of which I was a part managed to improve its rating by one point, to which improvement I made a major contribution. This improvement was achieved by great effort, in spite of a continuous loss of support staff over the period covered by the exercise. Instead of being a matter for congratulation, the improved research rating led within months to swingeing (40%) cuts, justified by the poor financial position of the school. In fact, in spite of the improved rating, the income brought in by the RAE was substantially reduced compared to the previous one. Other Units of Assessment were even more severely affected. The action taken in 1992 did not stop the rot, and further savage staff cuts are currently on the agenda.

  This may appear anecdotal, but I have heard many similar stories from colleagues all over the UK. As a result of the level of research funding provided by the UK Government, many Vice-Chancellors are deciding that research in areas with special equipment needs, particularly the natural sciences, is not financially viable. This situation was highlighted by the recent decision at Exeter University to close the Chemistry Department. The events at Exeter were publicised by the efforts of Prof. Kroto, who as a Nobel prize winner is in a position to go public without prejudicing his employment prospects. However, Exeter is by far from being the only example, and Physics is also severely affected.

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

  Incremental scientific advances can be made by large groups following agreed protocols approved by the funding committees. However, I would stress to the Committee that unexpected fundamental discoveries, of the sort for which the UK has in the past had a great reputation, are very often not made in this way. No matter how highly rated by expert panels, fewer research groups means a smaller chance of making discoveries, and the country will suffer a loss of capability.

  Over the last few years, we have seen whole departments sacked because their research rating, though good, was not excellent. This is breeding a situation where all research is being conducted on "bandwagon" topics meeting the approval of funding bodies. The Committee must be aware that such topics are not guaranteed of success or significance. Moreover it is breeding an attitude where research is driven by the necessity of bringing in money rather than a love of the subject. Risky research, following up hunches, is being strongly discouraged.

Point 3:  The implications for University Science teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula.

  I believe that the capitation weighting in the UK for undergraduate teaching of Physics and Chemistry is 1.7 times that of subjects requiring no special equipment, and that this is considerably lower than that in other European countries. Science subjects require laboratories, technicians and infrastructure support. This is expensive because hands-on training with up-to-date equipment is essential for these subjects with their relevance to manufacturing industry. The trained personnel who come out from these courses are able to contribute to the balance of trade in a way that service industries cannot.

  The steady loss of teaching and support personnel in science subjects at my former University has been constantly justified by the poor financial position of the school. The inadequacy of the level of provision by the Government across the board, not necessarily just in science subjects, was also confirmed last year by the debate on top-up fees. There has been a steady trend, away from meaty traditional subjects valid for a whole spectrum of future employments, to lightweight specialist courses chosen for their superficial attractiveness to students, and with no connection to future employment prospects, eg sports science and forensics.

Point 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.

  There always have been colleges of higher education of this sort, and it is recognised that the quality of their teaching is not as good. Effectively, it is a continuation of secondary schooling. The factors involved are intangible. Some boil down to the fact that the teaching staff are not conversant with the latest state of the art, nor are they aware of subtleties of interpretation. Others concern the consequent lack of training of research skills. Research projects are only possible if there is state-of-the-art apparatus already in the laboratory for research usage, and if the undergraduates can receive practical assistance from postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers who are there to undertake research. Research projects give training in how to approach open-ended problems, devise a means to solve the various unexpected problems which arise, and assess the value of data obtained. The resulting ability to handle real-world problems as well as the usual textbook questions benefits the student in whatever walk of life they may end up in, even if it is not in science.

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

  This point overlaps Points 2 and 4.

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

  Virtually all higher education funding in this country originates from the Government. Since HEFCE controls the quotas of students per subject, and controls the amount of funding per student per subject, then the only sanction open to a Vice-Chancellor is to alter the mix of courses on offer, most often by closing courses down. Vice-Chancellors are held responsible for the finances of their institution, but there are no sanctions for failing on any wider intellectual or macroeconomic issues of importance to the country as a whole. It is therefore essential that government intervenes to direct the use of resources. It is surprising that a country of 60 million inhabitants could end up with only 20 (if that becomes the number) of good academic research units in key natural sciences, and that we cannot support the teaching of eg 3,000 new students in chemistry per year, yet this appears to be the case. If it is true that higher education is being effectively funded then why is this not visible on the ground (ie teaching resources)? Where is the funding going? If the provision of higher education is being expanded to give 50% of the population chances for a life-enhancing experience, why are traditional intellectually-challenging courses being closed down and replaced by light-weight ones without realistic employment prospects?

  I would be delighted if the Committee could address possible solutions. One possibility is that an independent panel be set up to adjudicate on course closures and other changes in educational provision. A university planning to close courses would need to lay the reasons before this panel. If nothing else this would help to clarify matters for those involved. At my former institution it is not clear that the balance of costs and benefits of science teaching has been properly considered. The contribution of science to university patents and "third strand" activities is notable. No doubt there are other extenuating issues for courses at other institutions.

  An independent panel would be able to take a national strategic view. At present it seems that Vice-Chancellors are being encouraged to take decisions based on short-term financial considerations. Decisions as to what is taught are also being put in the hands of people with no experience or overview, and without consideration of long term national benefit. This situation needs urgently to be redressed. Damage is being done, and the longer corrective action is put off, the longer it will take to recover.

January 2005

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