Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Open University

  The Open University welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Science and Technology Committee questions. The Open University's Science Faculty has an annual budget of approx. £45M, teaching in 2003/04 in excess of 30,000 undergraduate students, approximately 700 taught higher degree students and 750 postgraduate research students, representing about one fifth of the total Open University student population. In UK HE terms, The Open University accounts for 55% of all part-time Biological Science undergraduates and 72% of all part-time Physical Sciences undergraduates (HESA data 2002/3). As well as dominating part-time Science provision this is a major contribution to Science higher education in general

  Science students can study individual courses, or follow degree programmes in Natural Sciences, Molecular Sciences, Geosciences, Physical Sciences or a range of combined awards.

  The first comment to make is about the assumption that all Science is the same. Where the particular Science does not need a large lab infrastructure (eg theoretical Physics and possibly some aspects of Earth Sciences) there is everything to be gained by continuing to support small groups of individuals rather than looking for concentrations. However it is clear that in the case of Chemistry and Biological Sciences research there is a step function in the provision of laboratories where there is clear advantage in concentrating groups of researchers around the provision of the highest quality of laboratory infrastructure.

  The University's Science Faculty offers the following evidence for the Committee:

1.  The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to RAE ratings, on the financial viability of university science departments.

  The change of the funding formula has been an important contributory factor in the closure of some departments. The funding changes, more detailed accounting procedures and introduction of full economic costing are forcing universities to consider the viability of departments. The consequences of grade 4 funding led Exeter, for example, to close its Chemistry department. Whilst the ability of large research organisations to generate major research outputs is clear, it is perhaps a surprise that just as online resources are increasingly becoming available to support widely distributed networks of isolated researchers, the ability of such academics to continue to research is threatened. A policy that limits research to a few large institutions is not only detrimental to research, it also threatens to impact negatively on teaching. Synergy between research and teaching produces an outcome substantially greater than its parts. Small departments where research is no longer funded may not be able to teach science as effectively as those with a strong culture of research. However the funding formulae are not the whole problem, and reduced student numbers have also been an important factor in determining financial viability of departments. Indeed the introduction of SRIF to support infrastructure has been a positive development.

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

  There is no denying that the large research-based departments are powerhouses of endeavour. The issue here is not so much about a smaller number of University departments, but the implication that research is concentrated in a smaller number of universities. It is not reasonable to expect that every University should teach/research in every subject. Neither is it sensible to jeopardise very highly regarded science research undertaken by a particular research group in a smaller department by withdrawing funding because the rest of the science research at that University is only of national excellence.

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

  The experience of the Open University is that the changes have led to a reduction in teaching resource of £2 million. If the effect of the changes is to make some areas of science became uneconomic to teach, the impact on the remaining science areas would be devastating. The missing subjects would still need to be taught as they underpin interdisciplinary and other more "fashionable" areas. Science is expensive to teach (whether face to face or at a distance) because of its very nature, as a subject based in experimental work. Sophisticated multimedia can be used to help explain conceptually difficult ideas and take the place of some practical and field work, but these skills are more complex and therefore expensive to teach than most other subjects.

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.

  The links between Teaching and Research and vice versa (so-called synergy) are significant and give life to the subject. That is important because people need to be enthused to study and enthused to teach. The two do feed off each other and there are numerous examples in the science carried on at The Open University. The University gave a specific example in its response to the HE White Paper The Future of Higher Education (extract attached together with case study as annex A and B). Our most innovative courses have often developed from research interests and co-publishing of some of our course materials would have been unlikely if it derived from a teaching-only department. The obvious response here is that while there is no problem in principle with having teaching-only departments, the practicality is with the staffing of them. Given the current training of scientists and the role of research in that, it is unreasonable to expect newly-appointed staff to cease what they have spent many years struggling to maintain—that is, their research. The solution may be for some staff to move at some point in their career to teaching-only contracts—especially it they are good at it (and talent in this aspect should be explicitly recognised). However all academic staff should be expected to contribute to teaching (it is after all the core business) but not all to the same extent.

  Brian White's early day motion (EDM 290) recognises the benefits that research brings to students. It is not coincidental that this motion was put just two weeks after his participation in the Royal Society's MP/Scientist Pairing Scheme to improve communications between parliamentarians and academics. To produce a lasting influence on policy, academics have continually to make clear to parliamentarians the importance of the teaching and the research they do.

  Charles Clarke, when he was Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said that he wanted to see the days of poor quality teaching become a thing of the past. The way to achieve that is not by artificially separating research from teaching, rather it is by building on their mutually supportive relationship.

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

  The increasing cost of university courses means that there is more pressure on students to stay at home. The Open University is the only nationwide provider for science HE and it has a strong regional presence. There have been several expressions of interest from local universities in offers of collaboration with the Open University, whereby crucial science subjects can still be delivered in all areas of the country, and this is a matter we are discussing with HEFCE. This is important not just for the students located in the regions where otherwise there is no provision for the science they need, but also for the regionally based industries which rely on well educated graduates in science.

  The Open University is able to look beyond regional boundaries, because the university provides a model for supporting science education at a national level, through its distinctive capability to deliver high quality teaching materials and support services to part-time students. The diverse part-time student population includes many undertaking further training in the context of their employment in the commercial world. Moreover, open entry systems on The Open University model for undergraduate students are particularly effective at drawing lower participatory groups into the higher education system (eg students with physical and mental disabilities, women into science and engineering).

6.  The extent to which the Government should intervene to ensure continuing provision of subjects of national or regional importance; and the mechanisms it should use for this purpose.

  The problem is that market forces have no way of supporting things which are not currently in demand but which may be again in the future. Universities have a role as the keeper and nurturer of knowledge for future generations. It is very much the role of Government to ensure that sufficient expertise is maintained in subjects which are not of to the highest priority for the average 18 year old. Also, it is not enough to maintain only those subjects currently thought to be of national importance "future proofing" is like the protection of the Amazon rainforest; you need to preserve something of everything even though you do not currently understand its true importance.

  An example comes from the Earth Sciences—an increasingly broad subject(s) area encompassing the whole of the Earth and its systems (Earth Systems Science). NERC's stated aim, advancing the knowledge of planet Earth as a complex interacting system, covers the full range of atmospheric, earth, terrestrial and aquatic sciences from the depths of the oceans to the upper atmosphere (and in The Open University's case the creation of CEPSAR—Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research) aims to include planetary science and astronomical research as well). Earth science (geoscience) is important economically (energy, water, mineral resources) and socially (climate change, pollution, natural disasters). The recent earthquake and tsunami in SE Asia serve to emphasise this. Geology as a separate subject is not widely taught in schools and so it is particularly important that as a subject area we communicate well with the public. Earth Science in the UK is now a relatively small grouping (since the Oxburgh report—Dundee, Newcastle, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Swansea, Exeter, Queens Belfast, Reading, Luton have closed their Departments; Glasgow & Strathclyde and Birmingham & Aston have amalgamated; others may yet close). History tells us that an effective science infrastructure does contribute to the national wellbeing. In the 1920s and '30s, when it was clear that the UK science base was uncoordinated, government funding for science took the form of the DISR. After WWII the network of government funded laboratories and grant programmes in the UK, US, and elsewhere was heavily influenced by defence agendas. A better reason to invest in science is provision of undergraduate, postgraduate and life long training. To quote from the Treasury's "Science & innovation investment framework 2004-14" report, "A highly skilled, diverse workforce will contribute to business productivity and innovation, enabling UK businesses to exploit fully new technologies and scientific discoveries, achieve world-class standards and compete globally."

January 2005

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