Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham

  Please find below a statement on the factors determining the sustainability of university departments in the physical sciences. The views expressed are based on my experience as Head of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham, and on consultations with academic colleagues.

  Members of the School are keenly aware of the current controversy and public debate surrounding the closure of university departments in the physical sciences. However, we question the prevailing explanation for such closures which is based principally on a "supply side" problem—ie a consequence of reduced student demand. On the basis of our experience the problem is essentially a financial one, arising from the low level of funding provided per physics student. This undermines the financial sustainability of the physical sciences regardless of the level of student demand.

  These views are based on the following experience:

    (i)  We have an annual intake of about 170 first year undergraduates and have successfully filled our HEFCE quota with high quality applicants for many years.

    (ii)  We have one of the highest number of students per staff member amongst iUK Physics departments.

    (iii)  We were awarded Grade 5 in RAE 2001. A recent notable recognition of the School's research was the award of a Nobel prize to Professor Sir Peter Mansfield. This is the first time in over a quarter of a century that research undertaken in a UK physics department has been so recognised.

  Despite our successful long term performance, the School has run at a deficit for many years. Since we are achieving our targets in student recruitment, operate with fewer staff members than other UK departments with comparable student numbers, and benefit from HEFCE Research support commensurate with our Grade 5 rating, it follows that our financial deficit is a consequence of the low unit of resource for laboratory-based science subjects. We were particularly disappointed that HEFCE considered raising the unit of resource for Physics last summer, but then decided at a late stage not to take this step. Clearly this decision will have impacted on the sustainability of physics departments at some universities and has almost certainly contributed to recent closures.

  We fully acknowledge that more suitably qualified and motivated school leavers should be encouraged to take degrees in physics and that, for some Universities, falling numbers of applicants leads to difficulties in filling HEFCE quotas. However, we emphasise that even when quotas are filled, physics departments generally run in deficit.


The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings, on the financial viability of university science departments;

  It is clear that the HEFCE funding formula does not provide sufficient funding to sustain financial viability of physics departments. Even departments which are successful both in terms of research and undergraduate recruitment find themselves under-resourced.

The desirability of increasing the concentration of research in a small number of university departments, and the consequences of such a trend

  We believe it would be disastrous to concentrate research in a small number of departments. This is not only because of the loss of many world leading, and potentially Nobel-prize winning, groups outside of Cambridge, London and Oxford, but also because of the close and important relationship between teaching and research.

The implications for university science teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula;

  As stated above, the unit of resource for science-based subjects is clearly too small to enable many of them to be financially viable.

The optimal balance between teaching and research provision in universities, giving particular consideration to the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science departments;

  Teaching-only science departments do not make good sense educationally in the university sector, nor would they be financially viable. This is especially true in science and technology where our knowledge base is rapidly growing and evolving, driven mainly by university-based researchers. It is most unlikely that such departments would attract staff of the necessary calibre to provide world-class university education and equip the country with the scientists it needs for the future. The main reason why UK Universities compete so successfully at international level in science and technology is due to the quality of their staff.

The importance of maintaining a regional capacity in university science teaching and research;

  It is clearly necessary to maintain a regional balance in science teaching and research. At present there are many world-class science departments spread across the regions. Concentration on a few research-led departments would cause serious regional imbalance. Furthermore, the link between regional centres of excellence and the ability to attract a new generation of students into physics should not be underestimated. In recent months, we have had many requests for lectures, for EPSRC researchers in residence and for the establishment of other links with schools both locally from Nottingham and right across the East of England in locations up to 150 miles away. If there were only a handful of Physics departments in the country, very few school children would have the opportunity to visit a department, or meet a research physicist in their school.

  In addition, we are aware that many pupils taking physics in the leading 6th form colleges in Nottingham do not wish to leave the city to attend university. It is likely that this view will become more prevalent as fees increase, particularly amongst students from families who have not previously participated in higher education. A regional perspective is vital to ensure that the Government's ambitions for wider participation in higher education are realised.

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.

  As noted above, the low level of resource is a national strategic issue and needs to be addressed urgently by central government. Unless adequate support is forthcoming for science at both schools and universities, the trend of declining numbers of students taking science and engineering subjects will continue; even successful departments will remain under-resourced leading, potentially, to further closures.

January 2005

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