Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Department for Education and Skills


  1.  Our science base is among the best in the world, and keeping it so is vital to the UK's status as a key knowledge hub in the global economy. Government's strong commitment to sustaining excellence in science and research was detailed in The Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14, published in July 2004 by HMT, DTI and DfES. It is backed up by substantial new investment across the key departments: over £1 billion additional funding for Science over the next Spending Review period—in addition to the £1.25 billion increase in the period leading up to 2005-06.

  2.  Our commitment is also backed up by long-term strategic planning. In developing the Framework, we took a hard look at all aspects of research capacity. We are familiar with the concerns prompting the Committee's inquiry, and we welcome this further opportunity to explore the tensions and complexities involved in addressing them. We are confident, however, that the approach we have adopted is the right one to sustain excellence and we do not agree with some of the assumptions the Committee makes in its call for evidence.

  3.  Chapter 6 of the Framework considers the supply of talent to the science base. It recognises that learner demand is declining at school and university level for some science disciplines which nonetheless remain important to our economy and society. The UK is not alone in facing this decline—many developed nations have similar problems—but we realise that it is those countries which not only recognise but address the issues that will enjoy scientific and economic success in the future. We want the UK to be successful and a leader.

  4.  "Science" covers a broad range of disciplines and activities, and continues to develop new ones: it should not be surprising that there are fluctuations in popularity within this world. The similarly broad sphere of Arts is also experiencing such fluctuations in demand. The challenge for Government—and for others who need new chemists and physicists—is both to stimulate fresh demand to match our needs and to ensure that capacity is maintained to respond to demand as it develops. This inquiry focuses on the second of these areas, but Government is active in both.


  5.  A number of departments and courses have been closed by their HEIs over the past few years (and new courses and departments have also been created). The individual cases show a mixture of precipitating factors connected with demand, funding and HEIs' strategic interests. We have already acted to address more widespread consequences of these specific closures, by inviting the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to advise on HE subjects or courses of national strategic importance, where intervention might be appropriate to strengthen or secure them. Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses are among those subjects of strategic importance and we are seeking HEFCE's views on the circumstances when intervention might be right, and the types of intervention which could be considered.

  6.  The Office of Science and Technology (OST) and the Research Councils are working alongside DfES to assess and stimulate the "health" of science disciplines, with initiatives aimed at renewing capacity in key research areas. An example of action being taken at Research Council level is the EPSRC's pilot scheme, in partnership with HEFCE and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC), of Science and Innovation awards to start to restore and renew capacity in some of the most threatened research areas in engineering and the physical sciences, including physical inorganic chemistry and research at the chemistry/chemical engineering interface. These awards are large, long-term grants, typically £3-5 million over five years supporting staff in a research group, with a commitment from the host HEIs to continue support after the end of the grant.

  7.  As part of its drive to translate overall strategic priorities for the science base into specific aims and objectives for the Research Councils and other delivery agents, OST is actively encouraging them to bring forward imaginative proposals to address the health of key disciplines of science, in particular those which are likely to impact on the successful development of other disciplines. The health of disciplines is also being discussed by the Research Base Funders' Forum set up to allow governmental and non-governmental funders of "public good" research to consider the collective impact of their strategies on the research base.


  8.  The Committee has invited evidence on the impact of the research funding formula, as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings. Our research policy is to support excellence wherever it is found, and we make no apologies for providing a higher level of public funding to the best departments. We believe a proper level of funding for the highest quality research is necessary if the UK is to compete globally. Excellent research facilities are competing internationally, and this involves a high level of investment. We are clear that we should not ask excellent departments to take less in order to keep poorly performing departments viable.

  9.  It is not for Government to assess research quality, of course, and that it why we look to the peer-review based Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). As well as measuring quality, the RAE helps to promote it. Research quality rose significantly in the period between the 1996 and 2001 RAEs, with 55% of researchers found to be working in departments rated 5 or 5* in 2001, compared with 31% in 1996.

  10.  This general improvement in quality must be a good thing, but it has perhaps brought to the fore difficult decisions for HEIs about departments which perform well, but are not among the best. HEFCE has put in more money from 2004-05 and guaranteed that funding for departments rated 4 will be maintained in real terms as they consider their strategies towards the next RAE. Institutions' decisions may involve judgements about departments' direction of travel, their function in an institution, their income from sources other than Government and other factors. HEIs will want to focus on activities that complement each other, and serve their overall missions. We would encourage them to do that. By no means will they inevitably conclude that "good not excellent"" departments are not viable: many 4 rated departments are flourishing.


  11.  The Committee has invited evidence on the desirability of concentrating research in a small number of departments. Linking funding to the RAE is not aimed at concentrating resources in a small number of departments or in particular institutions, or at creating centres of excellence. It is not Government's policy to concentrate funding or research in this way, and we are not convinced that there is such a concentration. Our policy is to fund selectively, based on the quality of research and we expect institutions to determine where they concentrate their efforts. There may be more concentration than there was 20 or 30 years ago, but we need to recognise the range of high quality research taking place with support from funders other than Government. There is excellent work being done too outside the Russell Group: in the CMU and elsewhere.

  12.  It is our policy to fund the best research, wherever and in whatever context it is found. Changes introduced by the funding bodies following the review of the RAE after 2001, will ensure that the next RAE in 2008 delivers this policy. "Quality profiling" will replace single averaged ratings for departments, enabling identification and funding of excellent research within and across departments, and other changes will better recognise collaborative and interdisciplinary research. We are pleased that the Committee's report Research Assessment Exercise: a re-assessment in September 2004, following its inquiry on the RAE, has endorsed the 2008 RAE going ahead as planned.

  13.  The funding methodology for 2008 will not be announced before the submissions process, and this should help to reduce the games-playing which has sometimes obscured the purpose of previous RAEs. As always, funding linked to the RAE will be allocated as part of a block grant to institutions, leaving them free to support departments according to their strategic priorities.


  14.  Universities also have flexibility in deciding where the best balance lies between their research and other activities and teaching. The Committee has raised the question of the balance between teaching and research: the HE Research Forum's gave well considered advice to Government on this in summer 2004, concluding that good teaching should be "research informed". The Forum described a variety of ways in which this may happen, making it clear that there is no straight choice between top RAE performers and "teaching only" HEIs. We recognise the importance of research informed teaching, and we are making some funding available to help develop it in HEIs with less QR income.

  15.  This is in line with our expectation that, regardless of their other strengths, all universities should provide good teaching. Like QR, teaching funding is part of a block grant, and institutions decide how much they actually spend on what courses. HEFCE decide the formula for teaching funding. They expect to consult on the aims and objectives of a new method for calculating teaching funding in April, with a consultation on an outline method following in November. Work will then be undertaken during 2006, to develop the method in order to inform allocations for 2007-08.


  16.  The Committee has invited comments on the importance of maintaining capacity at regional level, and the "regional mission of higher education" is another area on which the Secretary of State has recently sought advice from HEFCE. Generally speaking, we view the provision of university science teaching and research in the context of a national asset, which can make valuable contributions to economic growth at local, regional, national and international levels. Higher education institutions have important international and national roles as well as regional and local roles in supporting the competitiveness of UK plc. These roles are reflected in Individual institution's missions in varying degrees and some institutions will look to have a specific regional role whilst others will concentrate on their international/national roles.

  17.  We, and institutions, recognise that they can make a valuable contribution to regional economic progress. Our Skills Strategy aims to strengthen regional structures, moving away from a "one size fits all" approach, to one in which skills and business development activities are tailored to meet specific regional, local and sectoral business needs. Universities and colleges are already contributing to this, through membership of the Regional Skills Partnerships being established to address skills and business priorities within each region.

  18.  HE institutions and Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) have developed HE networks that support collaboration, knowledge transfers, innovation and inward investment as well as the commercialisation of products arising from research and development activity. They have also been partners in inter-regional initiatives like the Northern Way, Midlands Way and Thames Gateway. Involvement in these should help the HE institutions to play to their strengths and pool expertise and resources on a wider front.

  19.  Government recognises that it is possible that independent universities, acting separately, may take decisions which, taken collectively, are not in the best interests of individual regions (or of the country as a whole). We do not believe, however, that every branch of science (or arts) needs to be taught in every region. Some sciences are specialised to the degree that only one or two centres of excellence will be found nationally. The Framework also sets out that HEFCE will now consider providing additional funding to particular departments if there is a powerful case that weakening provision in a particular region would hinder student access to disciplines that are important to national and regional economic development. We do not believe there to be any immediate regional crisis in science: high quality research departments and associated funding are located throughout the UK in a wide spread of institutions.


  20.  At our request, HEFCE is considering what can be done for strategic subjects. Government is prevented by law from instructing universities which courses to run. We do not wish to change this position, and we do not believe anyone else wishes us to do so. It is right and proper that universities, as independent autonomous bodies, take action in support of their individual strategic missions. It is up to each university to decide for itself what its mission is. It is not desirable to revert to a state-controlled curriculum, where government decides what courses universities can run. That route would destroy university autonomy, and leave subjects fossilised according to last century's needs.

  21.  Government is acting strategically to influence demand for science and technology subjects. As well as providing financial support for research through funding grant proposals under the Dual Support system, one of OST's key objectives, delivered both through the Research Councils and support for Learned Societies, is to fund training for our brightest and best researchers. This is delivered through a range of grant award schemes, including awards to promote international collaboration.

  22.  We recognise the need take action at both university and school levels. The Framework sets out our plans to increase physical sciences and engineering participation in higher education and improve the quality of science teachers and lecturers; the results for students studying science at GCSE; the numbers choosing SET subjects in post 16 education and further education; and the proportion of better qualified students pursuing R & D careers. This approach recognises that there are no instant solutions, and that demand for these subjects has to be kindled in schools.

  23.  Within the limits set by respecting university autonomy, we believe that our policies assuring quality and stimulating demand provide the right basis from which to consider any further action to maintain the health of science disciplines. We await HEFCE's advice, and the Committee's views, on whether and what additional intervention may be sensible.

February 2005

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