Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the University of Surrey

  1.  The University of Surrey is a medium-sized research-led university with a relatively high concentration of its research and teaching activity in science, engineering and technology. The University's evidence to the Committee grows out of its distinctive mission and experience. In submitting this evidence it is aware of the submissions being made by Universities UK, the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, and the Biosciences Federation. It notes the high degree of convergence between the positions advanced by these distinguished bodies, and endorses the points being made in common. Its own view is further influenced by its commitment to supporting links between universities and enterprise, which are important not only to its SET subjects but also to the research and teaching in social sciences, humanities, management, and healthcare which constitute the rest of its academic provision.

  2.  The University has a particular strategy of managed and focused research which paid dividends in the 2001 RAE, with particular effect in Electronic Engineering, Biomedical Sciences and Sociology, which were all graded 5*A. Its basic and applied sciences are grouped into three Schools: Electronics and Physical Sciences (comprising Electronic Engineering, Mathematics, Computing, and Physics); Engineering, and Biomedical and Molecular Sciences (comprising basic and applied Biomedical Sciences and Chemistry). This internal academic organisation reflects an academic philosophy, in which research and teaching capacity in basic sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Biochemistry) is supported for its own sake but also underpins capacity in engineering and applied sciences. Research groups and centres within the Schools frequently combine researchers from different disciplines—thus for example the Advanced Technology Institute within the School of Electronics and Physical Sciences is staffed by solid-state physicists and electronic engineers—and the University has set up a multidisciplinary Materials Institute with membership drawn from Engineering, Electronic Engineering, Physics and Chemistry.

  3.  In this structure, and with this philosophy, the University has been particularly challenged by the experience of those departments which were not rated at 5 or 5* in the 2001 RAE, but which are nevertheless important to its educational and research provision. With the support of the Higher Education Funding Council for England it has invested heavily in restructuring and refocusing its School of Engineering, which was financially disadvantaged by the fact that three of its four units of assessment were rated at 4 (the fourth, the Centre for Environmental Strategy, was rated 5). It faced an even greater challenge to preserve Chemistry, rated at 3a. In this case without external financial support, the University reorganised the department and made it part of a new School of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences. With development of its research mission to contribute, through analytical and biological chemistry, to the work of research groups in biomedical sciences, and through materials chemists to work undertaken in the Materials Institute, it has been possible to sustain a significant staff group (16 academics) who are able to teach a full undergraduate chemistry syllabus and thus preserve the subject in this part of the South East region. A financial analysis shows that Chemistry is still operating in substantial deficit—hence the continuing need for cross-subsidy from the University—but is increasing its income from research grants and contracts and building up its student numbers.

  4.  A somewhat different situation faces Physics, rated 5 in the 2001 RAE, which shares with almost every other Physics department in the country a shortage of undergraduate students (and hence a deficit in teaching income) despite its research success. The Surrey department has in this respect been successful relative to most of its neighbours in the region, seeing a small growth in undergraduate numbers over the last five years and enjoying a relatively large cohort of postgraduate taught students. Even so, its income from all sources is significantly less than its full allocated costs. As a highly successful generator of research output in its own right, and an essential contributor to the work of the Advanced Technology Institute and the Materials Institute, it is a discipline which the University needs to preserve, but must cross-subsidise heavily because of the funding methodologies of HEFCE and the research councils.

  5.  It is with this mission, background and experience and that the University approaches the Select Committee's questions. Its detailed responses are set out below under the Committee's headings. The general themes are as follows:

    —  The predicament of "strategic subjects"—largely but not exclusively science subjects—comes about because of the failure of the whole educational system, starting in secondary schools, to produce enough scientifically-minded individuals. This is not a problem which can be solved by the universities alone, though it is one in which university action can help.

    —  The details of university funding formulae allocations for science with respect to other subjects are less significant than the absolute level of funding for university teaching, which is too low.

    —  Concentration of research, in the form imposed by ministers, is misguided and counter-productive.


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

  6.  HEFCE's funding formula as applied before the 2001 RAE provided a steep differential between departments with little research of national significance and those whose work was rated as being of national or international quality. The funding was nevertheless just adequate to support a limited research infrastructure for departments which were striving to improve their quality, and thus weaker departments were given both the incentive and some of the means to move towards the general level of excellence which the government claimed to want. Funding decisions taken after 2001 were doubly destructive. The decision to reduce "R" funding to 4-rated departments, which was understood to have been forced by ministers upon the Council despite its reservations, reduced funding faster than fixed costs could easily be removed, thus forcing universities to take on short-term costs from other funding. The coincident inability of the funding council to "fully fund" 5-rated departments in the first year after the RAE further reduced universities' capacity to manage change in their research portfolios.

  7.  In the (nearly) steady state of funding since 2003 the predicament of science departments rated 4 or below, and even of some rated 5, is still grave. Although universities could theoretically choose whether their science departments should to become "teaching intensive" or "research intensive" according to the level of R funding received, it is not in practice possible to run a science department without some contribution from R funding towards the cost of academic and support salaries and recurrent non-staff costs. The teaching income from a student cohort will not generally support a sufficient number of staff to teach an acceptable academic programme (as defined in QAA benchmarks). Thus the decision about R funding is always a determinant of financial viability.

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

  8.  The UK science base has an enviable and justified reputation for producing more and better research for each pound spent than other national science communities. Given the rising cost of the science infrastructure, there is obviously a concern that limited national resources should be deployed carefully to protect this position. There is no reliable or robust evidence, however, that the productivity of fewer, larger departments would be greater than that of smaller departments. (see Funding Research Diversity: summary report (2003), Evidence Limited for UUK).

  9.  It is important to distinguish here between the human resources required for big science and the material resources. The case for concentrating expensive instrumentation is very strong, and is based on the argument that it is only cost-effective when intensively used. Major national facilities will be used from researchers from across the country—and indeed across the world. Less expensive instrumentation can be, and often is, concentrated regionally.

  10.  There is much less justification for concentrating the researchers who use these resources. Scientists work in communities which are not bounded geographically. Their collaborations are habitually conducted remotely, in conferences, over the internet, or by travelling, and no single department, however large, will be enough to provide an active researcher with the research community he or she needs. While there is probably a minimum critical mass of researchers in one place in any subject, it does not follow that once that critical mass is achieved the returns to scale are linear, especially as numbers rise very high. An optimal distribution of scientists will in turn be influenced by the optimal distribution of students. Thus the users of concentrated facilities will generally have other tasks, notably in teaching, which have to be undertaken away from the equipment and this is the norm, for example, in researchers working at Daresbury or CERN. Good communications and proper work planning, and career planning, enables scientists to be productive wherever they are geographically sited in relation to their instruments.

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

  11.  The weightings in the T formula are used by HEFCE council to calculate university block grants, and not every university uses the same weightings to allocate funds to departments because differences in real costs cannot be reflected in the broad weightings used centrally. Most universities are forced to cross-subsidise science teaching from somewhere—often other teaching grant but also from other non-governmental income. However, the assumption that universities will be able to cross-subsidise one subject area's T grant from another only holds good if there is enough slack from subjects allocated more money by the formula than they really need for them to be able to provide for subjects allocated less than they need. Since the funding level for arts and social science subjects (bands D and C in the current formula) is not generous, the effect of cross-subsidy is to squeeze both the classroom-based subjects and the more expensive laboratory-based subjects. The change in weighting was most damaging in that it sent signals to universities to re-arrange their internal allocations against the interests of science. Some universities heeded these signals, some did not. But changing the weighting back to the levels current in 2003-4 would not significantly help universities to support science teaching unless the total sum of money available were increased.

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

  12.  The TRAC exercise has confirmed that in most British universities most of the time, research activity is conducted at a huge loss and the teaching of publicly-funded students—ie students from the UK and the European Union—is conducted at about break-even or slightly worse. Analysis at a more detailed level suggests that laboratory-based subjects are much more likely to be the ones falling below break-even. The overall business model for a research-based university is that its earnings from endowment, industrial links, and overseas students—very often the latter to a considerable extent—allow it to continue to support publicly-funded research and publicly-funded teaching. A teaching-only science department would not have all, or necessarily any of these resources to call upon. It would get no R income from the funding council. It can by definition have no research grant and contract income, and without a significant research presence it would be unable to attract overseas students. For that reason alone a teaching-only department would have very little chance of financial viability (sustainability in current HEFCE terminology). Nor would it be a desirable environment in which to learn or to teach. Research attracts good teachers at university level, and it then inspires the teachers in the laboratory. Given the shortage of students for science undergraduate courses, a teaching-only department would attract steadily fewer students, its teaching income would go down, and it would face financial ruin rather earlier than a department with research resources upon which to call.

  13.  Those are the financial arguments for rejecting the concept of a teaching-only science department. The academic argument is that the quality of teaching and of the student experience of science is irremediably diminished if the undergraduate does not have access to the act of research and knowledge-creation.

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

  14.  Regional capacity for research is relevant insofar as research departments support local and regional businesses. This will vary from region to region and industrial sector to industrial sector, but the existence of significant high-technology clusters in areas well-served with universities (Cambridge, the S.E., central Scotland) strongly suggests that it would be more difficult to launch and nourish effective technology-driven industry in areas without university research capacity. This is at least in part because graduates tend to cluster around their places of study, as well as because of direct knowledge transfer from universities to business.

  15.  The need to maintain regional capacity for teaching is indicated principally by the increasing trend for students to attend universities within a relatively short distance of home, even if they do not live in the parental home. The lack of a convenient, if not strictly local university teaching science will be a tangible discouragement to some students, and will thus challenge a major strategic objective of raising the number of science graduates.

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.

  16.  "Strategic subjects" in the sense used in this debate generally refers to subjects in which both the knowledge and the trained manpower is disproportionately important to society. We need both science and scientists, skilled linguists and a scholarly knowledge of different languages and cultures. This is clearly an area in which there has been major market failure, to the extent that the UK science base is insufficiently large to generate enough trained scientists to refresh itself. There are neither the science teachers to educate enough schoolchildren into a sufficient scientific competence to undertake further study, nor enough graduate scientists in the pipeline to fill scientific posts in universities and research establishments when current senior generations retire. In cases of market failure, there is no-one to intervene but government. Mechanisms must be appropriate to each stage of the cycle of regenerating the labour force.

    —  The school teaching career must be made more attractive to scientists, but the result of putting more scientists into schools will not be seen before two electoral cycles have passed.

    —  Short-term career prospects for science graduates (which are already quite attractive because of shortages) must be maintained to encourage school-leavers to make the right choices of university course.

    —  The quality of teaching and teaching equipment in universities must be enhanced, to the same end and also to maintain the quality of graduates. This will require an increase in the unit of resource for science teaching, not merely a redistribution of existing funds through manipulation of the funding formula. This will require immediate intervention and will have an immediate effect, but will on its own produce a less fundamental change in the long term than the first recommendation above.

    —  Fiscal and other incentives should be developed to encourage employers to promote lifelong learning and professional development among career scientists.

  17.  There is also a market failure in research, which was highlighted by Lambert. The appropriate responses are more expensive:

    —  It should be accepted that business will tend not to invest in research or development to the level which government has wished. To expect business to fund the necessary basic or applied research in universities is therefore not realistic in the short term.

    —  Nor is it realistic to expect universities to make sufficient money out of exploiting scientific IP to support the creation of that IP.

    —  Government, through the OST, should protect the "responsive mode" funding of basic science research which generates the new understanding on which applications closer to market are built.

    —  All Government departments should guarantee to pay full economic costs of research for the work they commission (which is almost entirely applied).

January 2005

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