Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the School of Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton

  The School undertakes teaching and research training in geology and in all fields of marine science. An RAE 2001 Grade 5 department, we are based at the Southampton Oceanography Centre, Europe's largest centre for research and education in ocean and earth science and currently have 500 undergraduate students, 170 postgraduates with 46 academic staff and 80 research and support staff. Oceanography involves the application of the core disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology to the marine environment. Our students must learn these subjects through a balanced education involving an appropriate mix of theory, laboratory experiment and practical work and field work on land and at sea. Our graduates form a key pool of trained scientists with expertise in the marine environment ranging from our estuaries and coasts, coastal seas and fisheries, to the open ocean that is a key component of our climate system and the deep sea floor. (Two of our staff are currently with HMS Scott leading the survey of the seabed rupture caused by the Indonesian Earthquake).

  While a letter from the Russell Group Vice-Chancellors to your Committee deals with many of the strategic issues, we wish to address the issue that has put the most recent and immediate financial pressure on science subjects, the change in the HEFCE subject weightings.

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

  The change in HEFCE's relative weighting of laboratory subjects to classroom subjects, last year, from 2 to 1.7 has had a serious effect on our financial sustainability. Our situation is different from Chemistry and Physics departments in that we have buoyant undergraduate student numbers (relatively fewer University Departments teach marine science and there is a "Jacques Cousteau" effect in attracting recruits). Nevertheless, with the reduction in funding that the weighting change has brought, we are now struggling to make ends meet. We cannot compromise the delivery of our teaching, and would be unable to do so since our degrees are accredited by professional bodies who rightly monitor the quality and appropriateness of our programmes. For example, training students to sample and monitor pollution in estuaries involves sampling from inshore vessels and chemical analysis with expensive equipment housed in "clean" laboratories. The enforced solution therefore, has been to continue with student:staff ratios that are unsustainably high for a research-led University delivering research-led education. The upshot is a severe and unsustainable pressure on existing staff.

  We believe that the decision to reduce the relative resource weighting for laboratory (Band B) subjects before implementing the review of the full costs of teaching using the TRAC methodology has significantly increased the pressures on science and engineering subjects all of which depend on laboratory training and some of which (like oceanography, ecology and geology) also depend on fieldwork.

  The extent of Government intervention should include an urgent implementation of a TRAC methodology review of the true costs of teaching these subjects at sustainable levels of student numbers.

January 2005

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