Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Committee of Heads of University Geoscience Departments (CHUGD)


  Overall, universities are driven by two things—money and league tables. The league tables include the RAE grade and teaching quality assessment as well as such factors as student A level scores. Due to the strong gearing of RAE grade in the funding formula, Universities look to those departments with lower grades and instigate a departmental plan to improve the grade at the next RAE. The most straightforward way to do that is to evaluate all the academic staff, look at those with the weakest research record and take action. Almost inevitably those individuals will be the people with the highest teaching loads, and who are running the undergraduate and postgraduate teaching—lectures, practicals and fieldwork—programmes. Their loss reduces the teaching effectiveness of the department and results in a decline in the student experience and achievements. This feeds through negatively into student recruitment in subsequent years. The new RAE system is designed to avoid the "cliffs" between the grades, and will mean that all academic staff can be submitted with no loss of income. However, it is inevitable that the results will be used to form league tables, and the pressures to lose the essential academic coordinators who will inevitably be lowly-rated for research will continue.

  A significant problem with RAE ratings in the Earth Sciences is that commissioned research was largely discounted from the RAE exercise. This had a heavy negative impact on many departments (especially, but not exclusively, in post-1992 Universities) working closely with industry, and does not seem to be compatible with the Government's S&T 10 year framework, viz:

  "The strategy will provide a framework for a successful and competitive science and innovation system in the UK, based on:

    —  a financially robust network of universities and public research laboratories across the UK;

    —  world class research;

    —  a continuing step-change in the responsiveness of the research base to the needs of the economy;

    —  raising business investment in R&D and innovation and encouraging stronger business engagement with the ideas and talent of the UK research base;

    —  making the supply of science and technology skills more responsive to demand;

    —  greater flexibility within schools and universities to attract the skills they need; and

    —  greater public understanding of, engagement with and confidence in UK scientific research and its innovative applications.


  Since Earth Sciences is only taught and researched in a small proportion of UK Universities (compared with Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Engineering), the impact of further increased concentration would be a marked reduction of choice. It would reduce the opportunities for industry, businesses, SMEs etc to work with their local University, and they are less inclined to invest in R&D with an institution with which they perforce have a more distant physical relation. One of the strengths of earth science departments over the years has been their diversity, with a few large, high profile departments with prominent research schools, but also a number of smaller, mainly post-1992 Universities, concentrating on teaching and applied geology research linked to local industry. The former are being decimated, while the latter are simply disappearing altogether. This is a largely unplanned activity—Universities are simply responding ad hoc to "market forces". In contrast, the Oxburgh Review of Earth Sciences in the late 1980s resulted in major structured reorganisation of the subject within UK Universities, with significant injections of money for equipment and facilities, and to enable mobility of academics. Our understanding is that the proposed follow-up reviews of other subjects (eg Sam Edwards' review of Physics) were shelved because of the high cost of implementing the Oxburgh Review. A case can be made to reorganise to concentrate existing effort into a smaller number of University departments, but it is not cheap. What is happening instead is that capacity and output are falling as departments close. The consequences of this are that we are unable to produce the workforce, and undertake the R&D, that the country needs.


  We reproduce below our response to the previous consultation on this matter. The tables of supporting data are missing, but the conclusions are clear. We can provide the tables if requested by the Committee. "CHUGD emphatically disagrees with the proposal to split the price group (Question 1 of the Response Document) and specifically with the proposed assignment of Geosciences to price group B2 (Question 2).

Comment on HEFCE methodology

  The proposed category of Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences embraces very different levels of high cost laboratory and field-based activities. The bench mark statements (Quality Assurance Agency for HE) clearly recognise this distinction:

  The grouping of Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences (Annexe A, Graph 14) has one of the largest standard deviations, and differences between mean and median, for the group size (as judged by FTE). The table of underlying data provided by Thom Brain shows extraordinary variability, even for a given institution, the figure can change by a factor of two over the five-year period studied by HEFCE, ie the data are particularly non-robust. HEFCE's choice of measures and treatment of the data are therefore inappropriate. We are also unclear as to whether the regressions are weighted by number of students, which we feel is important in this instance, as there are many institutions teaching small numbers of students.

  Modern Earth Sciences departments provide laboratory-based training in chemical and physical techniques in precisely the same way as do Chemistry and Physics departments. It is these scientific skills which are highly valued by industry and other employers, eg our resource industries from water through to the extractive and the energy industries. Earth Science departments therefore have the same equipment and resource needs as Chemistry and Physics departments.

  Since the university sector spends most, if not all, of its HEFCE income each year, crudely speaking, at institutional level those cost centres showing costs below the price group average must be cross subsidising those above it. It is highly likely that those cost centres that have been able to recruit strongly in many universities have been subsidising those that have found it increasingly difficult to recruit. In Cost Band B Physics and Chemistry have been under considerable recruitment pressures in recent years whereas student numbers in Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences have remained buoyant. To subdivide the cost centre into two different sub-bands will only serve to support subjects performing poorly at recruitment and retention at the expense of the rest. To expect universities (Review, para 18) to allocate HEFCE funding using a methodology which fails to echo the HEFCE original is unrealistic.


  Earth Sciences programmes are highly field intensive, and must meet extensive fieldwork requirements to obtain professional accreditation by the Geological Society of London, the professional body for UK geologists. Most earth sciences departments spend a considerable amount (5-10%) of their "T" income supporting fieldwork programmes and this generally falls well short of the full costs, typically covering only 50-70% of total fieldwork expenditure. Students have to contribute the difference. In most cases this is a considerable sum, typically three figures per annum. Loss of "V" income to Earth (and Environmental) Science Departments will inevitably lead either to significant increase in fieldwork costs for students or to reductions in fieldwork. We cannot identify any other ways of reducing costs or increasing "teaching efficiency".

  In the majority of our institutions, the fieldwork costs passed on to students have increased significantly during the past decade. If they increase any more, we anticipate that the financial burden imposed on students will result in a substantial reduction in Earth Science admissions. This, coupled with increased drop-outs for financial reasons, will lead to major reductions in Earth Science graduates. Arguments that students will simply have to generate additional income during vacations are unrealistic for our students. Because of timetabling and other restrictions, our fieldwork programmes usually take place outside normal University teaching times, particularly vacations and weekends or during extended terms. Thus Earth Science students are doubly penalised having to contribute to the cost of field courses, and being unable to undertake paid work while they take place.

  If we adopt the alternative policy of reducing fieldwork activities, we will not be able to mount degree programmes that satisfy the accreditation requirements of the Geological Society. In addition, industry already complains of a reduction in fieldwork and practical experience in graduates. Any further reduction in fieldwork would lead to major concerns about the viability of UK Earth Science degrees.

  Fieldwork programmes tie up significant amounts of staff time, in part to ensure that we operate within the Health and Safety Executive framework. This reduces the time available for applying for and conducting paid research; thus, there is a double financial penalty for Earth Science departments.

  Recognition of this essential fieldwork component must therefore be reflected in the price group to which Earth Science is assigned.

Other costs

  Fieldwork is not the only significant financial outlay for Earth Science departments. Our teaching necessarily includes the physical, chemical and biological properties of earth materials. We therefore have high costs associated with expensive equipment, dedicated laboratories, and IT facilities, to at least the extent required by physics and chemistry departments. Many disciplines are highly specialised, meaning that a large staff complement is required (including technical and other support staff) to teach and train students effectively. We find it hard to believe that the difference in costs for earth science compared to physics and chemistry in the HEFCE figures is due to a genuine greater expense for physics and chemistry teaching, and is more likely to be due to higher staff, laboratory space and equipment costs than is now justified by their diminishing student numbers.

Further comments

  The UK needs well-trained geoscientists. They are essential for hydrocarbon and mineral exploration and exploitation; groundwater resources (where the UK has responded well to EU directives), brown field site studies, monitoring and remediation and a variety of other industries. They are also highly-valued by a number of other employers of science graduates for which the specialisation is less important, in particular for their well-roundedness, ability to apply their knowledge to new situations and problems, capacity to think "out of the box", and the transferable skills they bring. We take our teaching seriously, a fact which is reflected by LTSN-GEES (the Learning and Teaching Support Network in Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences) being judged the top learning centre.

  Proposing to divide up, and reduce the funding for part of price group B is divisive. We cannot afford to divert the efforts and energy of scientists and engineers from teaching and research into change management at a time when attracting science and engineering students is so difficult, and when the country needs well-trained and numerate scientists more than ever. We argue that, reducing T income from Earth and Environmental Science and related subjects will do nothing to increase recruitment to those Band Bi subjects that recruit low student numbers. It will, however, lead to a reduction in Earth and Environmental students, thereby significantly reducing the total number of science graduates. Science and engineering need more money to train the 21st century workforce, not less. The increasing demand for scientific and engineering-based skills, and demographic changes, threatens the UK's productivity, competitive position and level of innovation through a shortage of appropriately-qualified people."

  Note that this response touches on the issue of recruitment of science undergraduate students, and science teaching in schools. CHUGD in convinced that poor science and mathematics teaching is reducing the pool of students willing to contemplate science and engineering degrees, either because they feel they don't have the necessary skills ("I'm not clever enough to do a science degree"), or because they have found science boring at school (or both). Many individual members expend considerable effort to help school teachers, by giving talks (the recent Asian earthquake and tsunami disaster has provided a sad but popular topical theme), and providing exciting teaching materials using earth science examples to convey basic physics, mathematics and chemistry, hoping that such examples will make basic concepts more accessible to students. But the impact of such measures does not extend much beyond local schools. CHUGD is a member of the Earth Sciences Education Forum (England and Wales), which includes such other interested bodies as the Earth Sciences Teachers Association and the recently opened Earth Science Education Unit at the University of Keele. Well-coordinated and well-focussed efforts provided by bodies such as these can have greater impact, but they are invariably run on a shoestring by dedicated people in their "spare time" (as is the schools liaison activity of most academics). Additional finance to establish and run science-based workshops, talks, and activities with local schools would assist in raising the profile of science in the teenage community. These activities should be required of each university and department and funded by HEFCE. Increased funding isn't sufficient to ensure better provision, but it is necessary.


  Teaching-only science departments are undesirable. They would automatically become second-rate with the best students preferentially attending departments with better RAE grades. Students benefit enormously from being taught by staff engaged hands-on in research; staff like the opportunity to do research, and therefore have greater job fulfilment which students sense, research results and methodologies are often brought into teaching material, research contacts can lead to cutting-edge student projects, and being an active researcher means keeping up-to-date with the subject. The move to full economic costing is likely to change the current balance (whether optimal or not) in that it is widely anticipated to lead to further concentration of research in fewer, larger institutions with high RAE grades.


  CHUGD represents something of a "niche" subject in which there has never been regional capacity. However, for basic science, we strongly support the provision of regional capacity in both teaching and research, given the decreasing mobility of students with the increasing debt burden they face. Top schools will always send pupils to university, but generally there must be local provision so that there is no postcode discrimination in opportunities at degree level. Science must not become a niche set of subjects. For all science, technology and engineering subjects, there are occasional "strategic" reasons for having a particular department in a given location, for example, to take advantage of local industry (for both site visits as part of student coursework, and liaison over student projects and research activity), or local sites of special scientific interest, or other field locations (in our case, quarries, coastlines, and particular geological features). In addition, Universities provide a focus for local further and continuing education, and public understanding of science, activities.


  A technological society as we are has a long-term strategic need for science, engineering, technology and medical graduates. They are required not just to fill the high-profile top level positions, but at all levels, since the system cannot function without technicians, chemistry teachers, etc Provision could be achieved and assured by raising the subject cost factor so that the universities are able to keep science departments open instead of their current practice of trading science students for students who can be crammed into large lecture theatres and do not need the laboratory space or the long contact hours of teaching each week.

  To stimulate demand, additional financial provision for students on all science degree courses (probably paid year-by-year on completion or upon graduation) would encourage teenagers to consider science more seriously at AS and A level and at university. A write-off of some part of the student loan upon graduation with a science degree would be another option, similar to the golden handshake system.

  CHUGD is concerned that the UK is not producing adequate numbers of earth sciences graduates. Over recent years, the number of vocational MSc courses and places, as well as the number of PhD places, in Earth Science, have reduced drastically. The country is facing a serious skills shortage in key subjects such as hydrogeology, mining engineering, exploration geophysics, environmental geoscience (especially where health matters are concerned) and engineering geology; these shortages have been well documented by the Natural Environment Research Council (eg NERC Training Review, 2004). At a recent meeting organised in the Houses of Parliament by the Earth Sciences Education Forum (England and Wales), the Environment Agency (with statutory responsibility for fulfilling the European Union Water Directive) said that it was trying to train people in-house to MSc level because they are unable to recruit staff at the necessary level and there are no Universities in the UK able to offer the course they need. Many traditional employers of UK earth scientists, particularly in the hydrocarbon sector and supporting exploration industries, are seeking to recruit significant numbers over the next decade to replace a "bulge" in staff reaching retirement age. At the same time, there is a huge expansion in the extractive industries. The UK is currently not training enough earth scientists to satisfy demand, either at BSc or MSc level—some members are reporting that even BSc students without specialist training are walking into jobs at the moment. Earlier, NERC argued that the companies in need of the MSc graduates should be funding places on courses; the companies retort that they already pay taxes to cover this. Furthermore, more skilled earth science jobs associated with these industries, and with environmental monitoring, protection and remediation, are transferring into SMEs. Although collectively SMEs recruit a significant fraction of MSc "output", individually they only recruit rarely because by their very nature they employ small numbers. They are not in a position to provide regular and continuing support to MSc courses to maintain their viability. Last year (NERC Training Review 2004), NERC accepted that companies can contribute by supporting MSc courses "in kind", but in the meantime, many MSc courses have closed without NERC support. It seems inconceivable to CHUGD that Government should not feel it necessary to intervene to ensure an adequate provision of earth science graduates, particularly at MSc level in subjects of strategic national importance. The exact mechanisms should be determined by a proper analysis of future need, followed by implementation of a policy to achieve the required provision, in stark contrast to the "market" (ie student preference) led, short-term "planning strategies" currently adopted by Universities and Government.

January 2005

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