Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Loughborough University

  This is one of the most important reviews conducted by the Select Committee and we welcome the opportunity to input to it. We would be very pleased to provide any further information that to the Committee that would be of help to your deliberations.

  The issues raised by the Committee are at the heart of a university's governance and strategy, and inevitably there are many factors. The key is the determination of the Council and staff of the university to sustain a successful and vibrant science base in the institution, but external factors have made that a huge challenge. We are proud at Loughborough that we sustain vibrant grade 4 Physics and Chemistry Departments, both of which, with the rest of Science and Engineering, recruited UK/EU undergraduates to target in October this year—indeed Chemistry over-recruited.

  We comment in turn on the questions you raise.

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

  There is no doubt that the funding ratios of roughly 1: 2.8: 3.3 have been damaging for grade 4 departments. They have also no rational basis. For example, they are more selective than would be justified by supporting only research of international excellence and providing zero funding for research of national excellence (according to definitions of RAE grades). As has been analysed by our Vice-Chancellor (see Research Fortnight 15 October 2003), reasonable assumptions and private data suggest that ratios of roughly 1: 2: 3 would be the highest one could justify on the basis of RAE criteria of excellence.

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

  As background, it is important to recognise that Loughborough has excellent indicators of research activity. As far as externally funded research per academic staff costs are concerned, given our subject mix we have regained top position as the most research intensive university in the UK. This is according to the performance indicators published by HESA.

  Five members of senior staff have been chosen as RAE 2008 sub-panel chairs, equal with Oxford and second only to Cambridge who have six—remarkable given the relative size and subject breadth of these institutions. Although supporters of selectivity, we believe that further concentration of research funding would do more damage than any benefit it would bring.

  At the heart of our concerns is that it is essential that the purpose of QR funding from HEFCE is clearly re-articulated. This is in the light of the move to full economic costing of research and the change in funding of postgraduate research programmes. The latter move has eliminated the QR income we will receive from overseas research students. The loss to Loughborough is of the order of £1 million and the effect will be far worse for other, larger institutions with a higher proportion of overseas PhD students. The changes are intended to be cost neutral but it is unclear how this will happen through QR allocation.

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

  The crisis in science teaching in schools and the associated lack of demand for university places in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics have meant that HEIs have to use their much needed resource in determined efforts to widen participation and achievement at school as well as to recruit to these subjects in order to ensure departmental viability.

  Importantly recent changes (2003-04) in HEFCE policy has further exacerbated this situation. I refer specifically to the decision to cut the funding base to teach students with more than 17 A-level points. This was to release funds to support widening participation. Unfortunately this policy hit funding for science based subjects particularly hard where it is very necessary to recruit well-qualified students. Given our subject mix we were cut by effectively 4% in real terms, and lost c £1 million in funding. Around 14 other HEIs also lost net funding in this change. We fest this was perverse given our reputation in assisting business and industry and our graduate employment record.

  The history of HEFCE weights for teaching is complex. Prior to the recent changes, non-lab, intermediate and full-lab were in the ratio 1: 1.5: 2 (and 4 for clinical subjects).

  In the Autumn of 2003 HEFCE consulted on proposed weights and suggested an additional band with the ratios 1 : 1.3 : 1.6 : 2 with the last to include Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Materials and Physics. This change would have seriously undermined our science and engineering subjects. It was a further shock when, after consultation, HEFCE implemented bands of 1 : 1.3 : 1.7. We feel these are not better than the previous weights and continue therefore to use 1 : 1.3 : 1.85. Ironically, we have therefore moved from cross-subsidising non-lab-based to subsidising lab-based subjects!

  HEFCE defend their strategy in part by referring to the "block grant" nature of the HEFCE funding, ie they should allocate HEFCE funding as they best see fit. This freedom is largely a chimera. Universities are increasingly transparent in their funding streams and cost-apportionment. It is extremely difficult in an open and collegiate environment to sustain large deviations from income-streaming over an extended period. With the pressures on academics, the elasticity of collegiality is limited. It will be vital for HEIs in the future to be able to take collegiate decisions on other than financial grounds (ironically, now that we have them!).

  With a view to ensuring the health of the science base reducing the teaching weight from 2 to 1.7 was the wrong message to send to University Senates and Councils.

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:

  At Loughborough we strongly believe that teaching in a university department must be research-led. We do not consider teaching-only science departments to be desirable. That is not to say we insist on being funded to conduct research in every aspect of a science subject we teach. In areas of a subject which are outside the immediate research interests of our staff we ensure the highest levels of scholarship are maintained. In this way our teaching is delivered "in the spirit of mutual enquiry", ie research-led.

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

  It is increasingly important that universities reach out into their local regions. We welcome schemes such as "Researchers in Residence" and funding for the "public understanding of science". The former associates PhD students with local schools. This is to be welcomed as any schemes which burden academic staff with further responsibility would be difficult to reconcile given the pressures they already find themselves under.

  Maintaining a regional capacity in university science research is largely driven by regional demand, dictated by the regions' business/industry base. Loughborough has strong connections with business and industry and works closely with our regional development agency.

February 2005

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