Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the University of Leeds


  This University takes the view that engineering and physical sciences are core disciplines and that closure of the core science departments, particularly in the light of current emphasis on interdisciplinary research (and postgraduate teaching), is not an option. The problem facing UK science/engineering is a complex one. The subject areas, as in the countries that made up the EU before it was joined by a number from the former eastern block, are unpopular with potential undergraduates; the science teacher base at the secondary level of education has been decimated; for good or bad the university sector is run on a business footing and is thus subject to market forces as we are seeing.

  The underlying reason that Sciences and Engineering Teaching is in difficulty is that the pool of students wishing to take these subjects has been decreasing for a long time, at least since the 1970s. In the Sciences this trend is to be observed throughout Europe, leading to the suspicion that there are cultural causes which may not be so easy to remedy. We could identify a number of factors which exacerbate this trend in the UK; one is the comparative lack of competent and enthusiastic mathematics and science teachers in schools, a consequence both of the declining number of students in the physical sciences and, paradoxically, of the enormously increased employment prospects for such students, particularly in the well-paid financial sector. Another is the perception of the physical science and mathematics as "hard" subjects, fuelled by data on A-level results. It is vital that Universities engage more closely with local schools so as to promote science and mathematics through schemes such as Rothschild.

  Turning to the situation within Universities, if we are to correct this situation, there is a need to both attract more students into the sciences and mathematics and to inspire them to become teachers. Having a good regional spread is important here: though some of the outreach work we do (particularly in mathematics) can be delivered in Schools, for laboratory experience it is crucial that students should be able to come to the Universities themselves.

  Failure to grow our intake when funded student numbers were available meant that our subject areas have been particularly defenceless during a period of 40% drop in funding unit of resource. The teaching unit of resource for physical science at Leeds, even on non-full economic cost (fEC) basis, is at least 40% too low and on a fEC basis is possibly of the order of 1-200% under-funded. Equipment is old and infrastructure failing.

  Laboratory-based subjects have high overhead costs and so are significantly disadvantaged by funding regimes that are simply proportional to fte numbers (ie linear growth of funding with fte and with a zero intercept)—small departments cannot recruit and manage a volume necessary to cover the fixed costs. This is true irrespective of whether Universities internally operate space charging explicitly. The speed of increase in expectations of a well-found and Health and Safety compliant laboratory in physical sciences requires regular and expensive infrastructure investment, providing further management challenges to Universities. A welcome move to modernising laboratory classes is allowing reductions in laboratory space required, but again implies refurbishment costs. Moreover, once closed, physical science departments are prohibitively expensive to re-start.

  Graduates of UK maths and physical science departments are highly valued and readily employable and contribute significantly to UK GDP (estimates of £200k pa per person working in the chemical industry). This comes from having teaching aligned to research; teaching-only departments are a poor substitute. Exactly similar comments apply to biological science and engineering; funding one subgroup at the expense of the other does not address the fundamental problem.

  Given the social aspect of the problem of attracting good students, concerted national (not simply governmental) effort is needed. A model of good practice might be the Finnish government's underpinning of music tuition at all levels. Such a policy is expensive, but, in the long term will pay off in both expected and unexpected ways. But if the problem of attracting students is not addressed, whatever is done within the University system to counteract the difficulties in the physical sciences will fail in about two generations.


  HEFCE QR funding is a zero sum game so the RAE is all about the distribution (or re-distribution) of the available funding. If the available money is distributed more uniformly, then with increasing costs the excellent departments will see a reduction in real terms. If the funding is distributed even more selectively than in 2001, then all the grade 4 departments and most of the grade 5 ones will see a reduction in funding which could be disastrous and would probably result in closures or amalgamations.

  We are not convinced that the funding really takes account of the laboratory space required to undertake leading edge research. All laboratory subjects have fixed overheads and thus are peculiarly vulnerable to reductions in income, be it from a reduction in student numbers or in the QR funding formula or from a poor RAE result. Typically, if space is charged for, there is no cheap way of reducing this charge in the light of reduced income. Reconfiguration of teaching laboratories on that kind of scale costs millions of pounds: there is a limit to the frequency of a University's doing this, if it chooses to do it at all. So, unless we return to the generous funding regime of the 1960s, or special measures are taken for all laboratory sciences, Universities will always be faced, from time to time, with the choice between cross-subsidising or closure. Nationally, this points to the inevitability of continuing closure of laboratory-based departments.

A Civil Engineering Perspective:

  The RAE leads to a distortion in relation to staffing—engineering departments now cannot afford to recruit excellent teaching staff who do not have a research pedigree. If a department is struggling, there is a temptation to make appointments with the RAE in mind, ie to appoint academics who will meet the requirement for a minimum of 4 academic papers per year. These are unlikely to be practitioners from industry, who would bring the full breadth of knowledge about civil engineering. Increasingly, university civil engineering staff lack any industrial experience. The long-term consequence on the education of future civil engineers is serious: students are less likely to interact on a regular basis with practitioners.

  In response to the hostile funding environment, civil engineering departments have closed in a number of Universities and in others merged into schools/faculties of engineering or built environment. This led to a decrease in the number of departments submitting under the civil engineering unit of assessment in the RAE from 40 in 1996 to 29 in 2001, a 37% decline. The outcome is that the civil engineering influence has declined, and this will create damage to the civil engineering profession, industry and UK plc. The strength of civil engineering research in the UK is its diversity, and this is because of broadly-based civil engineering departments.

  The RAE can also affect the choice of research topics, and this may be detrimental to the education of future engineers. The HSE Research Report 275 "Identification and management of risk in undergraduate construction courses" (Supplementary report—April 2004) made the following specific conclusion that may be relevant to the Inquiry:

    The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) continues to exert a negative influence upon this topic, particularly at Centres where it is seen as a diversion from the main declared focus of maintaining or improving research standards.

  This is coming at a time when the numbers entering civil engineering first degree programmes has increased for the third year in a row, and by 15% in 2004 over 2003. Therefore some reports of government attributing the plight of science in HE to the lack of demand are disappointing and certainly not the case for civil engineering. More could and should be done to communicate the facts—that a degree in engineering will equip young people to pursue an exciting, well-paid career where they can help to build a sustainable environment.

A Mathematics Perspective:

  The cause of closure of mathematics departments, which has been much less marked, is the consequence of a static or diminishing pool of students, the decline of mathematics service teaching and the very significant expansion of the more prestigious mathematics departments. In other words, we are seeing the result of the operation of both external and internal markets for students. There has been some evidence that mathematics within Universities has been systematically under-funded by comparison with the amounts allocated in the HEFCE formula. If it is the case that money intended for maths teaching is going to other subjects, then it would need to be established whether this was a significant factor in closures.


  Increasing the concentration of research in a small number of departments under the present system enables continuity and quality to be maintained. There is recognition of the need for a critical mass of staff necessary to sustain research in a particular discipline and to ensure impact. Wide dilution and equal funding for each university would not be practicable or useful.

  However, no university has a monopoly on innovation and there must be serious competition in key areas. Concentrating research tends to maintain the status quo, makes it difficult for new departments to join the "research club", with a danger of perpetuating former divides (Russell Group and new Universities). In the best English tradition, teaching in an environment of research is optimal and indeed desirable from a health of the discipline point of view. The consequence of such a trend in the short term would be to improve the lot of a few; longer term this would not arrest the current decline in the popularity of the subjects concerned.

A Mathematics Perspective:

  It is not desirable that mathematics research is concentrated in a small number of departments: this has been authoritatively stated in the recent International Review of Mathematics. Once a department is above a critical mass (so that you can have a reasonable seminar programme and train research students) modern physical and electronic communication means that mathematicians can flourish. For the laboratory subjects you need a certain amount of physical infrastructure, so the "critical mass" is larger. It only follows that you need concentrate if you have a fixed pot of money or a limited supply of scientists.


  The changes in the funding of teaching are potentially disastrous for science and engineering. It needs to be understood that laboratory-based subjects (including computing) have high standing costs and thus small numbers of students make the cost per student appear high and vice-versa. Engineering departments tend to be more dependent on teaching than on research. Thus not resourcing teaching at a sustainable level is a central problem for engineering departments. Years ago, the weightings were similar to those for medicine; in 2004, HEFCE changed the price group weightings for science and engineering students from 2.0 in 2003 to 1.7 in 2004, a 15% fall. In this regard there is a disconnect between government policy, with its strong and realistic emphasis on science and technology as a basis for economic well-being and growth, and the HEFCE formula.

  There is then a tendency for Universities to target the recruitment of overseas (non-EU) students instead of home students, thus attracting higher fees, in order to become financially viable without excessive student: staff ratios. If high, these ratios have a significant impact on an engineering department's ability to remain at the leading edge of research.

  In addition, it is a temptation in cash starved Universities to distribute this money to other disciplines through the internal accounting models. For example, the imposition of a "space tax" transfers funds from engineering and science (where more space is needed) to other disciplines, thus the engineers then subsidise the arts and humanities. In some Universities, the HEFCE weightings increases have tended to favour the humanities anyway, and the HEFCE model has put at risk the industrially relevant science and engineering base in the UK.

  Either the weightings given to the teaching funding need to incorporate the total, not just the marginal, costs of teaching laboratory subjects, or there need to be separate formula-based capital grants to deal with the necessity to regularly refurbish and reconfigure labs. This is not only to deal with changes in the volume of students, but to keep the labs up to date with current developments in the theory and practice of the subject, and of course, to ensure compliance with Health and Safety regulations. However, because of the instability of income streams, this will not of itself guarantee against closures. If HEFCE wants to provide a hedge against closure, it needs to pay a premium on science subjects so that all the other subjects will lose if a science subject closes (or even if it fails to recruit adequately).


  Educationally, having teaching only science/engineering departments would be a retrograde step and not desirable. Research activity generates the state of the art that is fed back into the curriculum—very importantly through project work and specialist courses. We are not convinced that teaching—only departments are financially viable or will prove at all attractive to potential students, however, they do play an essential part in the education of incorporated engineers.

  The optimal balance between teaching and research provision is all about maintaining a critical mass. There is little point in having too many departments competing for limited funds—the UK will not be able to carry out world-class research or teaching. Graduates in science and engineering are crucial for the future of the UK economy and that implies increasing the numbers of well-qualified students entering university courses and sustaining healthy departments to take them. There is little purpose in "propping up"" departments that are not academically viable (ie comprised of research-active staff) and struggle to recruit adequately qualified students. However, for a research-led university the SSR needs to be reasonably low (about 1:10 or 12) so that staff can have the time to undertake research.

  The balance between teaching and research in University departments changes over the years and it is probably not worth trying to find a theoretical optimal balance, as long as both teaching and research are done well. (The basis for the original division of the grant into different proportions of teaching and research for different subjects by the then University Grants Committee, was never explained and the division itself led to significant problems for some departments.) For this University, it is important that teaching be research-led; that teaching be carried out in a research environment, so that, for example, final year projects in laboratory subjects will interact with, and maybe contribute to, the research taking place. Indeed, the MChem degree, now accredited by the Royal Society of Chemistry as the professional grade for Chartered Chemist status would not be viable without a good research base to support fourth year projects. Full economic costing of research may well sharpen the trend for front-line researchers to do very little teaching. As to the financial viability of teaching-only departments, it is necessary, with full economic costing of research activities that the teaching of all departments be separately financially viable.


  Centres of research excellence are likely to continue to develop and a regional capacity is important not just for the university but also for the professions and industry. However, it is important to recognise that science and engineering research is national and international activity. However, it is likely that, with increased tuition fees and mounting student debt, a higher proportion of students will wish to attend a local university and live at home.

  A research (and teaching) presence is also important to support and help develop local SMEs (as exemplified in Leeds by the interaction between Colour Chemistry and printing firms in the region) as well as to create spin-offs which impact on the regional economy.


  On government intervention, there are different views: it is supported, for example where the numbers of graduate scientists and engineers falls below a pre-agreed level. Some argue that the advent of fees from 2006 may force students to concentrate on disciplines which have a revenue stream attached, and hence engineering may benefit; others believe it may make students consider degrees with less contact time so they can undertake part-time work, and numbers will fall.

  Science and engineering innovation is paramount to the UK remaining internationally competitive in the market place. The question the government and the general public should ask themselves is "Does the UK wish to remain a technologically advanced nation providing the high tech jobs for its population or does it prefer the alternative scenario of seeing the necessity for future generations having to emigrate to China, etc to seek the high tech jobs that will no longer exist at home" This is a very real prospect in the next 20 years or so for children now entering primary education.

  How should the Government intervene? One option is to do nothing and let market forces dictate the outcome on the basis that sufficient engineers and scientists are being produced worldwide to satisfy demand—after all, China graduate more engineering students in a year than the total number of students who graduate in a year in all subject areas across the entire higher education sector! The alternative is to contemplate direct intervention by increasing funding for both research and teaching provision in Universities—research, QR, bursaries, scholarships, golden hellos or fee re-imbursement to ensure the number and quality of future graduates in subjects of strategic national importance.

  Consistency across government's own departments is needed, for example across Construction (where skills shortages are acknowledged and the Minister aims to address) and DfES (in respect of funding models). Government decision-making in relation to policy such as HE funding, would benefit from the inclusion of more scientists and engineers. Training, identifying and encouraging the engagement of leading scientists and engineers in political discussions on such policy issues, is urgently required.

A Computer Science Perspective:

  We note that many Computing departments around the country are in serious difficulty as a result of a fall in student numbers; facts and many reports suggest this is a blip. The recent Gartner report [e-Skills] makes clear that the demand for computing/IT staff exceeds supply, and this gap will worsen. In many Universities, Computing departments are suffering seriously as a result of the "money following the student" system. This is badly exacerbated by the recent misguided rebanding of Computing from B to C.

  The country may well lose departments, or at least see them emasculated, in an area which the nation will find indispensable. It is essential for Government to see the merit in ironing out bumps in supply and demand. We are convinced of the long-term need for qualified computer scientists; this is over and above the country's need for wide-based "IT expertise". We are similarly convinced that such qualification comes from studying with those at the edge of the subject—engaged in quality research. It is possible that regional provision could allow such specialist provision to live alongside more vocational provision that goes beyond "IT".

January 2005

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