Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Institution of Civil Engineers

  The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) is a UK-based international organisation with over 75,000 members ranging from professional civil engineers to students. It is an educational and qualifying body and has charitable status under UK law. Founded in 1818, ICE has become recognised worldwide for its excellence as a centre of learning, as a qualifying body and as a public voice for the profession.

  ICE has close links with the HE sector, for example through the Joint Board of Moderators (JBM) accreditation—jointly with three other professional bodies—of a wide range of degree programmes, including 4 year MEng, 3 year BEng and foundation years. During this process, involving periodic visits to civil engineering departments, issues related to the scope of this Inquiry are reviewed, including: the departmental resources, staff:student ratios, industrial liaison, research and consultancy activities, and graduate employment.

1.  The Impact on HE of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings, on the financial viability of university science departments

  1.1  At present the UK has a marginal costing system which does not cover full costs; the introduction of Full Economic Costing of Research will help research active universities. HEFCE funding for 2004-05:

    —  In 2004-05 the HEFCE funding is £3,557 million for teaching, £273 million on widening participation and £1,081 million on research.

    —  Of the research funding £118 million (about 10%) is available for all grade 4 departments.

    —  The average unit of resource for 4-rated submissions is capped in 2004-05 in real terms at the 2003-04 level.

  The HEFCE policy is not to spread the research funding thinly across the grades.

  1.2  The financial viability of a research department, or a department with research aspirations, is thus dependent on a 5 grade or higher. The average unit of resource for units rated 5 and 5* should be at least maintained in real terms

  1.3  A 4 grade leaves a financial drop that cannot be immediately offset by student numbers, particularly as the unit of resource, the price group weighting, has reduced. A change from a 5 to a 4 in the RAE has significant financial implications and has led to closure of departments. However, the issue is complicated and this needs to be considered alongside another central problem: HE is not resourced at a sustainable level for teaching (see below).

  1.4  The RAE leads to a distortion in relation to staffing—engineering departments now cannot afford to recruit excellent teaching staff who do not have a significant research pedigree. In the 2000-01 RAE, 57% of research active staff were in 5 and 5* departments (an increase of staff of 9,000 from 1996). If a department is struggling, there is a temptation to make appointments with the RAE in mind, ie to appoint academics who will meet the requirement for a minimum of four quality academic papers in the assessment period. These are unlikely to be practitioners from industry, who would bring the full breadth of knowledge about civil engineering. Increasingly, university civil engineering staff lack any industrial experience. The long-term consequence on the education of future civil engineers is serious: students are less likely to interact on a regular basis with practitioners.

  1.5  A recent sad example illustrates a further consequence: a young academic is leaving academe because senior staff pass all their teaching on him whilst they carry out research.

  1.6  In response to the hostile funding environment, civil engineering departments have closed in a number of universities and in others merged into schools/faculties of engineering or built environment. This led to a decrease in the number of departments submitting under the civil engineering unit of assessment in the RAE from 40 in 1996 to 29 in 2001, a 37% decline. The outcome is that the civil engineering influence has declined, and this will create damage to the civil engineering profession, industry and UK plc. The strength of civil engineering research in the UK is its diversity, and this is because of broadly-based civil engineering departments.

  1.7  The RAE can also affect the choice of research topics, and this may be detrimental to the education of future engineers. The HSE Research Report 275 "Identification and management of risk in undergraduate construction courses" (Supplementary report—April 2004) made the following specific conclusion that may be relevant to the Inquiry:

    "The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) continues to exert a negative influence upon this topic, particularly at Centres where it is seen as a diversion from the main declared focus of maintaining or improving research standards."

  1.8  This is coming at a time when the numbers entering civil engineering first degree programmes has increased for the third year in a row, and by 15% in 2004 over 2003. Therefore some reports of government attributing the plight of science in HE to the lack of demand are disappointing and certainly not the case for civil engineering. More could and should be done to communicate the facts—that a degree in engineering will equip young people to pursue an exciting, well-paid career where they can help to build a sustainable environment.

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

  2.1  Increasing the concentration of research in a small number of departments under the present system is desirable in that it enables continuity and quality to be maintained. There is recognition of the need for a critical mass of staff necessary to sustain research in a particular discipline and to ensure impact. Wide dilution and equal funding for each university would not be practicable or useful.

  2.2  However, no university has a monopoly on innovation and there must be serious competition in key areas. Concentrating research would be detrimental. It would lead to a loss of regional input and, if based on critical mass, the loss of quality departments with an international reputation. The UK's breadth of civil engineering research would be lost, for example in the sphere of construction management. In addition, it makes it difficult for new departments to join the "research club", with a danger of perpetuating former divides (Russell Group and new universities).

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

  3.1  Engineering departments tend to be more financially dependent on teaching than on research. Thus not resourcing teaching at a sustainable level is a central problem for engineering departments. Years ago, the weightings were similar to those for medicine; in 2004, HEFCE changed the price group weightings for science and engineering students from 2.0 in 2003 to 1.7 in 2004, a 15% fall. In this regard there is a disconnect between government policy, with its strong and realistic emphasis on science and technology as a basis for economic well-being and growth, and the HEFCE formula.

  3.2  The changes in price group weightings means that departments that are largely "teaching" have suffered a 15% cut in home student income. There is then a tendency for universities to target the recruitment of overseas (non-EU) students instead of home students, thus attracting higher fees, in order to become financially viable without excessive student:staff ratios. If high, these ratios have a significant impact on an engineering department's ability to remain at the leading edge of research (see below). It is noted that Oxford University has just declared a policy to recruit from overseas and reduce home students; we are aware that this policy may become more widespread in the near future.

  3.3  The changes in weightings for science and engineering subjects do not seem to take account of the fact that the number of academic staff/student contact hours is typically higher (about 15 hours/week) in these disciplines than in most other subjects.

  3.4  In addition, it is a temptation in cash starved universities to distribute this money to other disciplines through the internal accounting models. For example, the imposition of a "space tax" transfers funds from engineering and science (where more space is needed) to other disciplines, thus the engineers then subsidise the arts and humanities. The HEFCE model has put at risk the industrially relevant science and engineering base in the UK.

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

  4.1  Research-led universities need to maintain their national and international reputations in order to survive, and their staff:student ratio has to be low (about 1:10 or 12) so that staff have the time to undertake research.

  4.2  In teaching-led universities, funding is largely dependent on student numbers. Any fall in numbers, particularly overseas students, in a discipline could therefore be critical to viability. Teaching-led universities play an essential part in the education of incorporated engineers, so an optimal balance is essential. Good teaching is not dependent on good research grading.

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

  5.1  It is important to maintain regional provision of civil engineering programmes to meet the needs of those students who, perhaps for financial reasons, seek to study close to home.

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

  6.1 Civil engineering is a subject of strategic national and international importance; the future of the UK economy is dependent on these graduates. It warrants a strategic look forward to ensure that the UK both maintains its position globally especially in areas where we currently excel (such as innovation, engineering management, and legal and contracting aspects) and also develops programmes that are at the cutting edge, and that meet the UK's strategic skills requirements.

  6.2  On government intervention, there are different views: it is supported, for example where the numbers of graduate scientists and engineers falls below a pre-agreed level. Some argue that the advent of fees from 2006 may force students to concentrate on disciplines which have a revenue stream attached, and hence engineering may benefit; others believe it may make students consider degrees with less contact time than civil engineering so they can undertake part-time work, and numbers will fall. The intervention mechanism could be government scholarships or fee re-imbursement to ensure the number and quality of future graduates in subjects of strategic national importance.

  6.3  Some feel that Government should intervene as little as possible, but should be consistent across government's own departments, for example across Construction (where skills shortages are acknowledged and the Minister aims to address) and DfES (in respect of funding models). A view from employers is that it is important that graduates have skill sets that meet the needs of business and the community. This requires there to be a stock take of what is needed and encouraging appropriate provision.

  6.4  Government decision-making in relation to policy such as HE funding, would benefit from the inclusion of more scientists and engineers. Training, identifying and encouraging the engagement of leading scientists and engineers in political discussions on such policy issues, is urgently required.

January 2005

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