Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Sheffield Hallam University

  Sheffield Hallam University is consistently ranked as one of the top performing modern universities in the UK for research. The last three research assessment exercises have given ratings of "international and national excellence" in a number of our research areas.

  Research is organised into research institutes and centres, of which the Materials and Engineering Research Institute (MERI) and Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) having the strongest science focus.

  The research institutes and centres pursue a portfolio of research related activities including research (funded by research councils, EU, charities and through contracts with industry), consultancy, and the provision of postgraduate education and continued professional development (CPD) courses. They are applications focussed and benefit from strong links to regional and national industry, funding bodies and other research organisations.

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

  Over recent years HEFCE QR research funding has been increasingly focussed on the most highly rated departments, which has resulted in research becoming concentrated in a smaller number of departments. It also focuses research funding according to the criteria of the RAE. It can be argued that in the past sufficient weight has not been given to applied research, particularly research conducted in collaboration with companies who are often concerned about the potential loss of intellectual property resulting from publishing results in academic journals. It is yet to be seen if this will be addressed for the next RAE.

  Some applied research is not world-leading in the RAE sense, but highly relevant to UK or regional industry. With HEFCE funding focussing on highly (RAE) rated departments, this research is struggling for support. This is the "funding gap" referred to in the Lambert Review.

  The MERI strategy is to pursue a research programme which is high quality in RAE terms but also relevant to market needs. This requires balancing a research portfolio funded by HEFCE research funding, research council and EU framework grants and contract research and encompassing long-term, speculative programmes to shorter term projects with more predictable outcomes. Any reduction in HEFCE research funding would result in the balance moving towards the latter, while it is the former which are more likely to give rise to innovative developments. Over time, the consequences of this shift will be a reduction in the levels of expertise in the institute which will then impact on the effectiveness of other activities including teaching. Long term, high quality research projects ensure that staff, who also engage in contract research, consultancy, training and teaching are at the forefront of their fields and their expertise feeds through directly to the customers and students. Customers benefit from access to novel technology and students are made aware of the most recent developments in the subject.

  The move to full economic costs for research council funding will reduce the reliance on QR funding.

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

  As several independent studies have shown, research is already more concentrated in the UK than in other leading industrialised nations. The further concentration of research in a small number of university departments will reduce diversity in terms for research themes and approaches. It will further remove the important link between teaching and research in many universities and in some scenarios will weaken the research capacity in some regions.

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

  Science courses tend to be expensive to deliver because of the requirements of a practical component. Any reduction in funding will lead to the reduction in practical components of courses and thereby the quality of the student experience.

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

  One of the most effective channels by which scientific developments and technical innovation can be channelled from universities into the economy is through well-equipped graduates joining the work force. Students who have been taught by staff actively engaged in research and used state of the art equipment and techniques will take their knowledge into the workplace and potentially strengthen links between companies and their university.

  University science departments that do not engage in research will not be able to offer as informed a student experience as those that do. Students in research active departments can be involved in original research as part of a final year project of postgraduate course work, giving them valuable practice experience at the forefront of their discipline. In a teaching-only department the knowledge of teaching staff will tend to be less current, and they will tend to be less engaged in developing their subject.

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

  MERI is a Yorkshire Forward designated Centre of Industrial Collaboration (CIC) as the Materials Analysis and Research Service (MARS). The CIC, provides research and consultancy services to a range of companies in Yorkshire ranging from SMEs to larger companies. Physical proximity and a shared understanding of capabilities and requirements are important aspects of an effective symbiotic relationship between a company and the research institute, with expertise and knowledge passing from research institute to the companies and market-awareness passing the other way. If the regional research capability were to be reduced the consequences would be felt by regional industry.

  Approximately 50% of the student population (undergraduate and postgraduate together) at Sheffield Hallam University comes from the Sheffield area and a similar percentage remain in the area after graduation. Increasing regionalisation means that Sheffield Hallam University and other HE providers in the region are playing an increasingly important role in training the region's workforce. Concentration of research into a few universities will inevitably mean that some regions will have lower university research activity, thereby reducing the quality of the science teaching available in the region and also the research capacity available to regional industry. Reducing the provision of science and engineering teaching and research in the region will have a direct impact on the regional skills base and thereby the regional economy.

  At Sheffield Hallam University, the Solutions Centre offers companies in South Yorkshire the opportunity to employ a sandwich student who receives additional training that is relevant to the company's requirements, and potentially augmented by the universities research resources. CASE studentships, whereby PhD students engage in collaborative research programme involving the research institute and a local company, represent other opportunities of effective technology transfer between the university and regional industry.

  The BRC provides undergraduate and postgraduate training and CPD for NHS pathology services in the region, and that training benefits from the strong coupling that exists in the BRC between research and training. Any reduction in either will have an impact on the provision of a skilled workforce in this area.

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.

  Science departments throughout the country are under significant financial pressure which has resulted in the reduction of teaching provision in strategic subjects and the well-publicised closure of departments. Once a course has been stopped it becomes very difficult to restart it because staff, expertise and reputation quickly leave the university. Government intervention is required to maintain science teaching provision and research capability.

  We have stressed the consequences of increased concentration of research and science teaching provision in the context of increasing regionalisation; this should be borne in mind when a mechanism for Government intervention is considered. Specifically, any intervention should recognise institutional autonomy and the need for institutions to make academically and financially rational solutions. Intervention should take place in an agreed regional economic framework (not necessarily an RDA region), and focus on finding creative ways of maintaining provision using a range of mechanisms including collaboration.

January 2005

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