Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Engineering Professor's Council


  1.  Since it appears that the HEFCE QR funding is a "zero sum" exercise, then the RAE is all about the distribution (or re-distribution) of the available funding. If the available money is distributed more uniformly, then the excellent departments will see a reduction in real terms. If the funding is distributed even more selectively than in 2001, then all the grade 4 departments and most of the grade 5 ones will see a reduction in funding which could be disastrous and would probably result in closures or amalgamations.

  2.  It is not desirable, in principle, to concentrate research in fewer departments, but appears to be a necessity to maintain quality if there is not more funding.

  3.  The changes in the funding of teaching are potentially disastrous for science and engineering. It needs to be understood that laboratory-based subjects (including computing) have high standing costs and thus small numbers of students make the cost per student appear high and viceversa. A decline in the unit of resource increases the critical minimum size for a viable department. Many departments will now be threatened as a result of the HEFCE changes in bands.

  4.  The optimal balance between teaching and research provision is all about maintaining a critical mass. It cannot be sensible to have departments devoting a great deal of time competing for limited funds—the UK will not be able to carry out world-class research or teaching. Graduates in science and engineering are crucial for the future of the UK economy and that implies increasing the numbers of well-qualified students entering university courses and sustaining healthy departments to take them. There is little purpose in "propping up" departments that are not academically viable (ie comprised of research-active staff) and struggle to recruit adequately qualified students. However, for a university to maintain strong research, the student-staff ratio needs to be reasonably low so that staff can have the time to undertake research. Any fall in numbers, particularly overseas students, in a discipline could therefore be critical to viability.

  5.  Centres of research excellence are likely to continue to develop and a regional capacity is important not just for the universities but also for the professions and industry. However, it is important to recognise that science and engineering research is national and international activity. It is also probable that, with increased tuition fees and mounting student debt, a higher proportion of students will wish to attend a local university and live at home.

  6.  There is a need for Government intervention to ensure continued provision of science and engineering subjects which are of strategic national importance. Thus, for example, it is acknowledged that in certain sectors, such as civil engineering, there is a skills shortage. The funding model for universities does not properly support science and engineering and with the advent of full economic costing some departments, because of their research/teaching mix, may not continue to be economically viable because of pressure from HEFCE resource allocation combined with internal university allocation and taxation models. Possible support mechanisms include providing financial support for academically well-qualified students enrolling on science and engineering courses deemed to be strategically important and ensuring that departments remain viable by not allowing funding to decline in real terms.

January 2005

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