Memorandum from the Royal Academy of Engineering
1. THE IMPACT
1.1 University science departments receive
their funding from several sources including the monies allocated
through the RAE assessment process and project based research
funded by the Research Councils. It is now recognised that these
funds in total have been inadequate to cover the overheads and
therefore it is an over simplification to put the blame for the
closure of departments solely at the door of the RAE process.
1.2 Whilst the RAE process has been beneficial
in encouraging UK Universities to take research activity seriously
and improve its quality, there are several issues with the funding
formulae that require greater attention.
1.3 One issue is that the funding formulae
are currently unable to reward pockets of excellence within departments.
Such pockets certainly enhance the knowledge base and wealth generation
in the UK but are often only recognised at an international level.
Because they are part of a larger department which might not be
of the same research standing, but classified at the same grading,
they are subject to lower funding. As the financial stability
of the whole department is reliant on a good RAE grading, an unsatisfactory
performance can ultimately lead to closure. Proposals for RAE
2008 to replace the single rating with a Quality profile enabling
a small high quality group to score more highly are welcome and
should be endorsed.
1.4 Even higher rated departments are not
immune from closures. Reading University, for example, was forced
to close its undergraduate degree programmes in mechanical engineering
despite receiving an RAE grade 5 in 2001. Budget reallocations
have not helped to ease this situation. In the 2001 RAE, for example,
one department rated 5 lost £0.25 million from its annual
income due to a budget reallocation between grades. Clearly the
funding formulae need to ensure consistency in funding streams
so that departments can plan for their own financial stability.
1.5 The impact of HEFCE's research funding
formulae is just one of a number of factors which influence the
financial viability of science departments. The other major factors
are the teaching grant and demand for undergraduate and post-graduate
teaching places and decisions taken by the Vice Chancellor on
how to allocate the money. There are cases where departments have
been forced to close due to fluctuations in demand for teaching
places and a lack of research funding due to a lower RAE score.
What is needed is a funded safety net to allow departments to
restructure to meet new demands rather than forcing them to use
their own resources.
2. THE DESIRABILITY
2.1 Views on this subject, even within the
Royal Academy, are somewhat polarised. Whilst from a purely research
perspective there are some strong arguments for encouraging further
concentration, there are also significant negative implications.
Greater analysis of the costs and benefits of concentration needs
to be taken into consideration before pursuing such a strategy.
2.2 The benefits of concentration are that
it prevents resources from being spread too thinly and brings
high quality expertise together in better funded facilities. This
approach can work as can be seen in the United States where only
a handful of top engineering schools carry out the majority of
the research. Concentration of research has also been occurring
in computer science departments in the UK. There are over 100
departments across the country and uniform research funding across
all of these could potentially weaken the research and remove
the financial motivation for the best to stay at the top. Whilst
concentration of funding has had some success, it is the view
of many that it has gone far enough and further concentration
would adversely impact on the long-term capacity of the system
to produce top-quality researchers. In other subjects such as
materials there are already too few departments of significant
size to satisfy future needs.
2.3 One consequence of further concentrating
research is that a two tier system could be created where the
highest ranked departments carried out most of the research and
the remainder focused on teaching. As cutting edge research is
invariably the basis for cutting edge teaching there are quality
implications for those departments which find themselves suddenly
without research funding. In addition, the departments which do
not qualify for the top tier will be condemned by implication
as not providing the best teaching.
2.4 Innovation can arise wherever there
are talented individuals which may not necessarily be in the areas
of concentration. It is often the case that new initiatives come
from other than the big "world class" departments and
often smaller departments act as breeding grounds for ambitious
young researchers. A concentration policy, too crudely applied,
could damage the ability of young researchers in less favoured
institutions to win funding and affect the flow of talent.
3. THE IMPLICATIONS
3.1 Currently, SET subjects are seriously
disadvantaged in the weightings considering the scope and breadth
that they are required to cover. They receive less than 50% of
the funding for medicine despite being equally, if not more, expensive
in terms of resources for equipment and laboratory staff and the
cost of industrial projects and design. The weightings used in
the current funding model do not reflect this adequately and this
is another reason for lack of financial robustness in these departments.
If the UK believes that SET is vital to the economy then sufficient
resources should be made available to see that it is adequately
3.2 In addition, the funding per student
for teaching is too low for many science and engineering departments.
As a general trend, for every home or EU student in the physical
sciences and engineering, the amount received per student for
teaching is less than the amount the department spends. For example,
the recent press coverage of the implications of the Oxford University
deficit indicates a gap of about £10k per student per annum.
Even with £3k per annum in additional student fees, the funding
gap will be significant, and there are real concerns about the
impact that such additional fees will have on student uptake of
four year courses in science and engineering.
3.3 Many departments are therefore being
forced to subsidise teaching from overseas student fees and research
income. However, without sufficient numbers of oversea students
or a high research rating they cannot do this, potentially resulting
in department closures. The weightings given to science and engineering
subjects in the teaching funding formula need to be substantially
increased in order to effectively tackle this problem.
3.4 The weightings have had a particularly
adverse implication for computer science, where the primary classification
of teaching has been re-banded to a lower funding level at a time
when recruitment to computing courses has become very difficult.
The viability of many of the UK's computing departments, particularly
those most dependent on teaching for income, is now being called
4. THE OPTIMAL
4.1 As highlighted in question two, there
is a mutually reinforcing relationship between teaching and research
which should be maintained. If the UK is to remain competitive
at the industrial level then it must have access to the best trained
graduates who in turn need to have access to up to date SET knowledge
and this can only come from vibrant research. Also, if UK universities
are to attract the best overseas students in sufficient numbers
then they have to prove that the education system, especially
higher education, is at the cutting edge. It cannot do so without
a sound and broad research base.
4.2 In terms of an optimal balance, all
universities should be encouraged to engage in some research,
from close-to-market commercial research to more "blue-sky"
work. The Royal Academy of Engineering received one suggestion
that leading research departments should aim to achieve about
2:1 research to teaching income whilst those with less of a research
focus should still aim to achieve 1:2. However, it must be recognised
that the balance depends strongly in the nature of the researchcomputing
is very different from civil engineering which is very different
from materials. However, maintaining some sort of balance between
research and teaching is the key to achieving overall financial
5. THE IMPORTANCE
5.1 Maintaining regional capacity is a highly
important issue in the context of increasing science and engineering
department closures and rising tuition fees. Students are being
forced either to travel to university or not study at all. Clearly
this has implications for the already low numbers of SET graduates
but also for future generations of students who will be disadvantaged
by lack of provision.
5.2 Allowing the loss of regional capacity
is currently encouraging the concentration of university capacity
in the south east. This is undesirable as it generates instability
in national demographics and also has implications for local economic
development as many students who attend university in their region
are likely, at least initially, to take up employment in that
region. The solution is to establish world-class universities
in the regions rather than diverting funding from and weakening
those already strong in the south-east.
5.3 A national strategy for SET would provide
much needed context for the development of regional capacity.
Regional capacity in core subjects could be part of a national
research strategy in science and engineering. Such a strategy
should also recognise that there are certain areas where the UK
needs to maintain an international presence, for example in ship
design or nuclear power plant design, and the concentration of
teaching and research in a national centre may be justified.
6. THE EXTENT
6.1 It is widely recognized that the UK
currently faces a serious shortage in the number of physical science
and engineering graduates needed to support industry and academia.
The core problem originates in schools where an insufficient proportion
of the population are being trained in science and maths. This
trend is compounded at university level by a lack of government
support for SET subjects and the increasing number of departments
under threat of closure.
6.2 Significant government intervention
is needed to reverse this trend and there are several mechanisms
government can employ to achieve this. As a priority a strategy
should be established to encourage better teaching of physical
sciences and maths in schools, with appropriately qualified graduates
going into these teaching positions. Incentives also need to be
given to students to take science and engineering disciplines
6.3 Offering differential "top-up"
fees, or developing a national scheme to award government-funded
science scholarships in preference to other disciplines are some
examples of such incentives. Top graduates could also be retained
in engineering and research by waiving fees which only have to
be repaid in the event of the graduate accepting a non-engineering
or research related position. Tax incentives could also be given
to industry to sponsor scholarships in science and engineering.
6.4 Whilst government intervention is to
be welcomed it is imperative that is it based on good advice.
A good example of such advice would be the "Roberts Report"
on SET. Such in-depth reviews need to be encouraged and their
recommendations acted upon.