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
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.
1. THE IMPACT
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
A Civil Engineering Perspective:
The RAE leads to a distortion in relation to
staffingengineering 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
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 reportApril 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 factsthat 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.
2. THE DESIRABILITY
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
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
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.
3. THE IMPLICATIONS
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).
4. THE OPTIMAL
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 curriculumvery importantly through project work and
specialist courses. We are not convinced that teachingonly
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 fundsthe
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.
5. THE IMPORTANCE
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.
6. THE EXTENT
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 demandafter 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 Universitiesresearch, 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 subjectengaged in
quality research. It is possible that regional provision could
allow such specialist provision to live alongside more vocational
provision that goes beyond "IT".