Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


APPENDIX 39

Memorandum from the University of Durham

1.  THE IMPACT OF HEFCE'S RESEARCH FUNDING FORMULAE, AS APPLIED TO RESEARCH ASSESSMENT EXERCISE RATINGS, ON THE FINANCIAL VIABILITY OF UNIVERSITY SCIENCE DEPARTMENTS

  The research funding formulae have had a strong effect on the financial viability of science departments. Since it has been acknowledged by the Government that research has been systematically under-funded in recent years, it follows that the most expensive research, mostly that in Science, has frequently required some form of subsidy. Whether this has been provided by neglecting infrastructure and maintenance or by cross-funding from other non-science research activities within universities, the effect of reducing significantly the QR funding for RAE grade 4 departments (nationally excellent) has been to call their viability into question. There is a multiplier effect in that the general under-funding of Science, even in 5* departments, produces pressures within universities which seek to protect the top-rated departments at the expense of lower graded subjects. Even SRIF funding, that was designed to compensate for the decay of the scientific infrastructure via a formulaic allocation, was not automatic for bids led by RAE grade 4 departments.

  Attractive additional sources of income might appear to be the recruitment of extra postgraduate and overseas students and from commercial contracts. It is of course difficult to do either of these if a research reputation is low but it is not impossible. It is those science departments that are unable to tap into these alternative sources of income and whose research rating is currently at 4 or below which are most badly affected by HEFCE's funding formulae.

2.  THE DESIRABILITY OF INCREASING THE CONCENTRATION OF RESEARCH IN A SMALL NUMBER OF UNIVERSITY DEPARTMENTS, AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF SUCH A TREND

  It is acknowledged that concentration is needed in certain research areas. Of course concentration is useful and economically necessary for research relying on expensive facilities, not just mega-pound scanners but specialist libraries. Other benefits of concentration include the relative ease of ensuring a good "research culture" within a subject and of fostering inter-disciplinary work between subjects. But if a good research culture at subject level were not possible in smaller departments, the RAE exercises would have explicitly penalised them and very small 5* departments would not have emerged. We therefore do not believe that concentration is automatically good for all subjects for all time.

  Those areas of research that require large teams and a strong "research culture" involve research students, visitors, research workers and academic staff interacting frequently. Some other areas do not. An example of the former is "big" science such as Particle Physics or Astronomy. An example of the latter is that many areas of Pure Mathematics might require only one individual or a very small team in order to be world-leading and would derive little benefit from concentration. However, developments in communications such as of the Access Grid mean that in future many of the benefits of concentration might be available without physical co-location. This may be particularly true in areas of research which depend mainly on computers, for example Computational Chemistry, Theoretical Physics and Bioinformatics.

  One drawback to unplanned concentration is the loss in some universities or regions of one or more of the core sciences such as Physics, Chemistry or Biology. Without a balanced portfolio of physical and biological sciences, growth in new interdisciplinary areas could be inhibited in that university or region. Such work by its nature frequently grows from contacts between different specialists and so can be facilitated by their physical proximity.

  Another drawback is the possibility that a regional group of universities cannot offer core science subjects to local students from which WP candidates are frequently drawn, cannot participate in outreach to schools in those subjects and cannot offer a technology transfer service to the local community and industry.

  In summary, concentration must not be allowed to be a consequence of other drivers such as purely financial ones but its desirability must be looked at on a case-by-case basis, allowing not only for the good of a subject at present but also future trends and emerging interdisciplinary fields.

3.  THE IMPLICATIONS FOR UNIVERSITY SCIENCE TEACHING OF CHANGES IN THE WEIGHTINGS GIVEN TO SCIENCE SUBJECTS IN THE TEACHING FUNDING FORMULA

  This is difficult to quantify because it happened at a time when Rewarding and Developing Staff money was included in mainstream T funds for the first time. The previous year large changes were also made to the way Widening Access and Improving Retention money was distributed which adds further complications.

  We estimate that the net effect of re-banding in Durham was a reduction in the income attributed to our Science Faculty of approximately £1 million. Inevitably, there is pressure internally to direct funding to those departments which appear from the HEFCE formula to make a net contribution to the University. Since the Price Band changes were made these departments are increasingly found in Arts and the Humanities. There would be a significant impact on Science teaching in the University if this were to happen and we were merely to pass on the income as it was "earned" with the new price banding.

  Another consequence of strict subject banding is the under-funding of some teaching arising from the significant differences in costs within subjects depending on the nature of the research base and hence in some respects the emphasis in teaching. As an example, Psychology departments can be largely laboratory-based neuroscience with expensive scanners at one end of a spectrum to a department similar in its needs to Sociology at the other. Physics departments can contain many large experimental facilities or be full of theoreticians. Through the research in a subject informing the teaching and because science undergraduates are exposed, especially in their later years, to the research of their teachers, the banding structure for teaching resource does not make sufficient allowance for these factors.

4.  THE OPTIMAL BALANCE BETWEEN TEACHING AND RESEARCH PROVISION IN UNIVERSITIES, GIVING PARTICULAR CONSIDERATION TO THE DESIRABILITY AND FINANCIAL VIABILITY OF TEACHING-ONLY SCIENCE DEPARTMENTS

  At Durham it would be unthinkable that we should have teaching-only science departments. We believe that high quality science teaching at university level must be informed by active engagement in research. Especially in the final year of an undergraduate programme, the material offered should be directly informed by the latest research and scholarship rather than rely on yesterday's knowledge via textbooks.

  In the case of four-year undergraduate Masters programmes, active research is strictly necessary in the teaching departments. The fourth year of these programmes generally contains a large element (usually half of the year's activity) of research in an established research group or with a research-active academic. It would not be practical and neither would it be permitted by the various accrediting bodies to offer these programmes without a vigorous research base. In Durham 40% of all science students are enrolled on such four-year programmes, and this will be likely to increase when some subjects without four-year programmes offer them.

  Finally, the close engagement of undergraduates with active, often young, researchers plays no small part in Durham's extremely low drop-out rate.

  The direct answer to your question is that teaching-only science departments are highly undesirable and probably unworkable, at least those that teach subjects to a level required for progression either to research or a professional qualification.

5.  THE IMPORTANCE OF MAINTAINING A REGIONAL CAPACITY IN UNIVERSITY SCIENCE TEACHING AND RESEARCH

  We agree that there should be a regional capacity in university science teaching and research. This capacity will inevitably vary from one region to another. For example, the North East of England has a very strong presence in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Its RDA has placed the universities of the region at the heart of its regeneration strategy. It is essential to the regional economy that the Universities of Newcastle and Durham have the capacity to provide research that brings tangible benefits to these industries via our departments of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, respectively. The same can be said for the five regional Centres of Excellence in which we play vital roles.

  The proportion of school-leavers who stay in post-16 education and enter higher education is smaller in the North East than in any other English region. This poor take-up is particularly marked in science subjects in which there is a correlation between school type and the achievement of the good grades at science A levels which are needed for entry into the core science subjects at university. A significant role in the region for universities like Durham is to foster links with schools and with teachers, across the science subjects. Durham University hosts the North East Regional Science Learning Centre which engages with professional development of science teachers in the region, in part through creating partnerships between teachers and active researchers.

6.  THE EXTENT TO WHICH THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD INTERVENE TO ENSURE CONTINUING PROVISION OF SUBJECTS OF STRATEGIC NATIONAL OR REGIONAL IMPORTANCE; AND THE MECHANISMS IT SHOULD USE FOR THIS PURPOSE.

  At regional level the RDA might take a view on the desirability of maintaining subjects of local importance, as the North East RDA has effectively done. Nationally the problem is not new and no consensus has emerged over the years about even the desirability of explicit national planning by Government. However, implicit national planning has been and is being carried out through the decisions that have been taken in the relative funding of subjects by HEFCE (teaching and QR), the relative funding of the Research Councils and by the DTI and other ministries. Market forces have been modified frequently, for example by supplying the same teaching resource for a Chemistry student despite significant variations in costs at different localities. A clear example of dealing with shortages in strategically important subjects is in the teaching arena where there have been special measures for some years, aimed at individuals, which aim to make a teaching career in some sciences more attractive. These measures have not had any impact on the supply of potential recruits but on the proportion going into teaching.

  One thing is clear, any attempt to tinker any more must start with a clear strategy that most players are signed up to. The system has been blown one way then another in the last decade or more and some clarity of purpose would be preferable to sporadic panic measures and challenge funding to deal with discovered deficiencies. The problem is that any clearly articulated strategy might well involve sums that would inevitably cause the Treasury to blink and the issues would be fudged. On the other hand it might not.

January 2005



 
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