Memorandum from the University of Durham
1. THE IMPACT
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
6. THE EXTENT
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.