Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Nottingham Trent University


Nottingham Trent University Provision

  Nottingham Trent University is a large University with a breadth of teaching provision in Science, rare within UK Universities.

    —  Programmes are provided in the more traditional core sciences of Biology, Chemistry and Physics and also within the modern interdisciplinary subjects of Sports Science, Forensic Science, Environmental Sciences and Biomedical Sciences.

    —  Uniqueness exists in the variety of levels of qualifications and modes of study (full-time, sandwich and part-time) which offer a multiplicity of entry and exit points for both traditional and non-traditional applicants, all the way from Foundation Degrees to PhDs.

    —  Many programmes have professional placement routes.

    —  Level one entry to Science programmes in 2004-05 is around 500 FTEs and total enrolments over all years and levels of taught provision are around 1,500.

  Our comprehensive teaching provision offers an ideal "one-stop shop" for candidates and schools searching for science in Higher Education.

  The Science provision at NTU is highly rated for both teaching and for research.

    —  Teaching was awarded the top grade in HEFCE/QAA subject reviews for all traditional subject areas: Chemistry, Physics and Molecular/Organismal Biosciences, plus an excellent grade for Sports Science (22/24 points).

    —  The university has just been awarded maximum funding under the HEFCE Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning to develop the Centre for Effective Learning in Science.

    —  Research in RAE 2001 was awarded a grade 5 in "Other Professions and Subjects Allied to Medicine" and a grade 3A in "Chemistry"; a submission which included physicists.

  A key feature of our provision in both research and teaching is its interdisciplinary nature.


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

  The extreme selectivity and lack of knowledge of changes to funding weightings before RAE 2001 has resulted in a total loss of HEFCE second stream income to the Physical Sciences part of our science base. The loss of HEFCE RAE income is despite a significant growth in our third stream activity over both the 1996-2001 and post-2001 periods.

  Based on a grade 5 post-RAE 2001 income of around £70k per member of staff entered in RAE 2001 and an undergraduate income of around £5.5k per student, the grade 5 award in our Biosciences equates to approximately an effective reduction in student-to-academic staff ratio (SSR) of 13 per member of staff submitted to RAE2001.

  It is clear that the differential in total HEFCE research and teaching income between a department submitting 100% of its academic staff and receiving an RAE grade 5, compared to a department receiving only HEFCE teaching income, when measured in terms of SSR is extreme.

  It is our belief that our grade 3A, which was one of very few two-grade increases, compared to RAE 1996, awarded within chemistry, was equivalent to grade 4 in many other units. However, this grade 3A has no associated income and the differential in income to our grade 5 is therefore very significant. Juxtaposing the greater difficulty in recruiting undergraduates to the Physical Sciences, an equivalent to 13 SSR is an extreme multiplier for RAE.

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

  NTU strategy is to provide a full complement of science provision, although the size of such a base in each sub-area reflects relative strengths in student recruitment.

  Our past experience is that a core of traditional science expertise is important in retaining flexibility and being able to respond when a new subject area develops. Thus, our new science degrees are fully underpinned with experience and facilities from the Physical and Biological Sciences. Examples include Sports Science and Forensic Science rather than less rigorous Sport Studies or Crime Scene Study. This approach retains scientific competency within graduates and reduces the loss of scientific competency from the overall graduate output. Focusing research in a small number of departments may lead to a downward spiral in which new subjects are offered in non-research departments offering predominantly "science studies" rather than "science".

  Further concentration of research is likely to reduce the ability of departments such as ours to recruit high quality staff across the full range of disciplines to support existing teaching and retain future flexibility.

  NTU research strategy supports cross-discipline approaches and this has underpinned our use of SRIF funding to construct interdisciplinary research spanning the Biological and Physical Sciences. An over-focussing of research on a smaller number of departments nationally is likely to reinforce a single-subject mentality within the UK.

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

  Recent proposals by HEFCE to increase the relative weight given to science were overturned and eventually the formula resulted in a cut in funding per student. This appeared to indicate confusion in policy similar to RAE2001 when it initially appeared that HEFCE would retain funding of grade 3A departments. The overall effect is to signal a lack of commitment to science.

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

  It appears unlikely that teaching-only science departments will be either desirable or financially viable, but we would not wish to use RAE outcomes, which have been reportedly subject to "games-playing", solely as a measure of, or to determine, research activity or provision. NTU practice in this area is that undergraduate teaching is underpinned by staff who undertake research.

  At present NTU science works on a student-to-academic staff ratio of around 20:1 and, whilst RAE 2001 income to physical sciences does not exist, there is a significant level of research funding from other sources, such as research councils and the EU. Forthcoming changes to research council funded projects, which are moving towards full economic costing, should reinforce our ability to maintain a small core of highest quality research within the Physical Sciences irrespective of RAE funding.

  An overall consequence of current HEFCE policy is that major provision in physical sciences now exists in less than 50% of universities. The loss of science and engineering from the majority of universities is likely to result in a lack of scientists and engineers within senior management teams and certain universities could become scientifically illiterate.

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

  If financial pressures, due to higher undergraduate fees, result in less student mobility from their home, then regional provision becomes increasingly important. Full provision of science within a geographical region is unlikely be delivered unless that provision includes all levels from foundation degree to postgraduate and all modes from full-time to part-time. Also increasing prevalence of local students should encourage more cooperation and collaboration between HE institutions to ensure optimal regional capacity.

"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"

  Universities are autonomous institutions but the Government is able to exert strong national influences collectively via HEFCE on the funding available to support such subjects, as well as at more local level through the Regional Development Agencies. Government should not intervene directly in the affairs of institutions such as the viability of individual departments but it should ensure that the funding councils have mechanisms to support key subjects at regional and local level, particularly by encouraging breadth of provision and interdisciplinarity in the sciences.

  A threat to the provision of physical science within interdisciplinary structures is the tendency for universities with long established high RAE grades in core physical sciences to recruit large undergraduate student numbers in these areas. These high RAE grades coupled with high undergraduate intakes reinforce the trend to single-subject departments. Marginally reducing undergraduate intakes in such departments.

January 2005

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