Memorandum from the Academic Staff, Department
of Chemistry, University of Exeter
This submission is divided into two main sectionsa
generic response to the questions posed by the Committee and a
small annex that highlights some aspects of the recently announced
closure of Chemistry at Exeter.
The views are those of the academic staff within
the Department and are not necessarily representative of an official
The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae,
as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings, on the financial
viability of university science departments
The Research Assessment Exercises, which have
run over three iterations in their present form, at one level
satisfy a perceived need for Universities to be accountable for
the work they do in research. There is then a potential parallel
with Teaching Quality Assessments that seek to monitor delivery
of, and provision for, teaching of degree programmes. However,
successive RAEs have increasingly geared funding towards more
highly rated departments to the extent that after RAE2001, the
desire in HEFCE had initially been to withhold QR funding from
all but 5- and 5*-rated units of assessment (it is relevant to
talk about HEFCE in particular, as funding structures are slightly
different, we believe, in Wales and Scotland).
An important piece of background here is that
for many years, Universities have been subject to 1% "efficiency
gains" year on year and pay awards have been underfunded.
This squeeze on the central grant has been a major driver in Universities
following government funding initiatives and in seeking to maximise
their income from QR through the RAE. This has led, inevitably,
to those who can afford it buying in high-profile, high-grant-earning
staff to ensure a strong RAE return. Of course, many of these
staff came from more "lowly" departments where they
had been nurtured from first appointmentdepartments where
life had probably been tougher and departments where ongoing institutional
support was less clear. This culminated in RAE2001a triumph
of form filling over processwhere the number of staff in
5- and 5*-rated UoAs increased massively from 1996.
With such strong grade inflation and a fairly
fixed pot of cash, the first result was that departments with
5-ratings were likely to lose money in order that the 5* departments
be "properly" rewarded. This downward pressure led to
the initial decision not to fund grade 4 departments and it was
only some time later that money was found to preserve some QR
funding of 4-rated UoAs and to restore at least level funding
to 5-rated UoAs. It should, of course, be remembered that grade-4
status does not imply that a department is substandard or unsuccessful.
Indeed, HEFCE define grade-4 departments as demonstrating "national
excellence in virtually all of the research activity submitted
and showing some evidence of international excellence".
Clearly then, despite the fact that most Departments
derive the majority of their income from teaching streams (fees
and income from the HEFCE contract) (see also below), the difference
in resource available to grade 4 UoAs compared to grade 5 or 5*
UoAs (and later 6* UoAs) is huge. Many Universities will then
operate an internal accounting system that allocates to a Department
all the money it earns and then taxes it under various spending
headings such as costs of services (water, electricity, gas, oil),
central administration (always large), strategic funds and, in
many cases, space.
What is absolutely clear is that science is
expensive and requires, in the majority of cases, appreciable
and occasionally substantial, amounts of space. The TRAC exercise,
which seeks to identify the real overhead costs of research, suggests
a figure significantly in excess of 200% of direct costs (ie salaries),
whereas Research Councils now pay 46%. This is scheduled to change
totally by 2010. So research is subsidised by teaching. But then
the teaching is expensive, too, for laboratories and equipment
must be provided and maintained. In our own University, the arbitrary
financial model imposes a punitive cost multiplier for all space
in science because "it is expensive to maintain".
So, how should a University deal with varying
levels of QR income from its different subject areas? Universities
have a range of approaches. Being academic institutions, one might
suppose that a University would come up with an academic plan
and would make the financial model fit that plan. We believe that
there are few Chemistry Department in the UK in surplusOxford
Chemistry is running at a current annual deficit of £1 million
as reported widely in the media before Christmas. So if a University
wants Chemistry (or any other loss-making subject) it needs to
develop and use a financial model that facilitates this. The model
must include cross-subsidy between disciplines, which may be more
or less transparent. In Universities that have made a commitment
to Chemistry, it is interesting that in many cases space is not
charged and cross-subsidy exists. In this way, many Universities
have risen successfully to the challenge of managing their funding
in order to preserve central subjects.
The desirability of increasing the concentration
of research in a small number of university departments, and the
consequences of such a trend
The trend towards the concentration of research
is predicated on the need for UK science to be competitive with
the best laboratories in countries such as the USA and Japan,
where funding patterns are different and there is generally more
resource available. Such a trend appears to accept that size is
the predominant factor in scientific "clout", yet it
is true that much good science has come out of smaller departments.
For example, the whole world-wide liquid crystal industry took
off following discoveries made in the Chemistry Department at
Hull University in the early 1970s. Liquid crystal displays are
now the dominant display technology worldwide, and despite advances
in other technologies, will remain so for very many years to come.
Of course, it is true that in some circumstances,
assembling larger teams to tackle particular problems can be advantageous,
but the continued concentration of funding into fewer, larger
units does assume that this is only way to do things. This is
clearly not the case.
One consequence of this approach is that it
can become increasingly difficult for small-to-medium-sized Departments
to grow to the size necessary to "fit" the current model
of concentration, for this requires financial commitment from
the University in terms of both staffing and capital resource.
In Universities of more modest means, good Departments may exist
without any real hope of expansion.
An additional point is that the concentration
of effort will inevitably not result in all Universities having
an appropriate spread of interdependent subjects. For example,
suppose a University withdrew from Chemistry. How might it realistically
plan to continue cutting-edge research in modern Biology or Medicine
with their huge dependence on the Chemical Sciences?
The implications for university science teaching
of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the
teaching funding formula
As the Inquiry will be aware, subjects are grouped
into one of four bands for the purposes of allocating funding.
In band D are the classroom-based subjects (English, History,
etc) that are funded with a multiplier of 1. Subjects with some
laboratory component (eg Modern Languages, Psychology) are Band
C and are funded with a multiplier of 1.3, while medicine (Band
A) is funded with a multiplier of 4. Sciences such as Chemistry,
Physics and Biology come within Band B where the multiplier has
recently dropped to 1.7.
The amount of staff-student contact time in
sciences is heavier than in the Arts subjects due mainly to laboratory
classes and also the use of the lecture as the primary means of
communicating new information. This had led to lower student/staff
ratios in the sciences. Further, in addition to seminar rooms
and staff offices, sciences need laboratories (which must be staffed),
equipment (which has a finite life and so needs replacing on a
rolling basis) and consumables (where inflation outstrips the
normal 2-3% uplift in budget heading each year). The cost of such
provision is clearly very much more than 70% greater than that
provided to, for example, History.
Thus, science teaching is underfunded and yet
this scarce resource needs to be used to subsidise research as
outlined above. This is clearly crazy.
In the last two years, Universities were consulted
on proposed changes to the formula described abovechanges
that would have seen the teaching multiplier in physical sciences
increase to a multiplier of 2, but with a larger base unit of
resource by which the 2 was multiplied. Interestingly, Vice Chancellors
(so we are led to believe) did not support this change as most
Universities can recruit more heavily into Arts and Social Science
subjects and so would have lost out financially under the proposed
change. The result was effectively the status quo, save for the
re-banding of a small number subjects.
One other thing bears comment at this time.
The Times Higher Education Supplement reported in November 2004
on the official acceptance on the link between good research and
good teaching. This coincided with information that HEFCE was
likely to make more money available for teaching in certain subjects,
but that none of this additional teaching resource would go to
UoAs with grade 4 RAE ratings or lower. While academics have long
argued the positive link between good research and good teaching
(especially in practical subjects where final-year research projects
rely on active researchers), we believe that the approach that
HEFCE is believed to be considering for adoption, uses that link
to further concentrate funding in a way that the argument never
The optimal balance between teaching and research
provision in universities, giving particular consideration to
the desirability and financial viability of teaching-only science
In our professional experience, individuals
become academics because they with to undertake original research
and because they wish to share and communicate their passion and
enthusiasm for their subject. This argues for a "good"
department to have both teaching and research. And the balance?
Increasingly the "next RAE" has dominated thinking and
decisions made in Universities on a day-to-day basis, and people
worry about "overteaching" and the detrimental effect
this has on time available for research. Thus, we believe that
RAE factors (along with the increasingly burdensome and obtrusive
rise in administration and paperwork)
can squeeze time that individuals would wish to assign to teaching.
However, we believe strongly that this is not an argument for
teaching-only departments for all the reasons that were expounded
in the previous paragraph to do with the positive research-teaching
link. Further, we do not believe that this constitutes an argument
for a Foundation Degree component in "teaching-only"
departments as we believe strongly that students should be taught
be active practitioners at each stage of their degree.
The importance of maintaining a regional capacity
in university science teaching and research
In England, the tradition has been for students
to move away from home to read for a degree, contrasting to some
degree with practice in continental Europe, in Scotland and to
some extent Wales. The abolition of maintenance grants, the emphasis
on Widening Participation, and the advent of tuition fees will
all conspire to ensure that a great number of students will study
at, or close to, home. If their chosen subject is not available
at their local institution, then they will be faced with the choice
of moving away (which may not be viable financially, or which
may be impossible for many mature students with families) or studying
another subject. Of course, not all institutions can offer all
subjects, and some will have historical specialities, but the
wide availability at local institutions of what might be perceived
as core subjects, or those valuable to a particular region, ought
to be a realistic goal.
In this context, it is important that the London-centric
view of regions does not always prevail. For example, the South-West
extends another two-and-a-half hours driving time from Exeter,
which is, in turn, more than an hour distant from Bristol. Asking
someone from Penzance to study Chemistry in, for example, Bristol
is akin to asking a Londoner to study in Leeds (driving time)
or north of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (train travel time from Kings
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
However this is answered, the question is highly
contentious. Universities are in the position of being independent
in their decision-making, yet centrally reliant on Government
for the bulk of their cash. This means that they will jump through
whatever hoops a Government puts in front of them (RAE, TQA, Widening
Participation), but Government keeps its hands off when a subject
area is closed down, even when such an act contradicts its own
policy for provision of strategically important subjects.
Increasingly, Government's agenda is about the
next election (wherever we find ourselves in a parliamentary term),
whereas Vice Chancellors often stay little more than five to eight
years in one place and so work to a different set of imperatives.
The most powerful incentive Government can offer is money and
the carrot most attractive to cash-strapped Universities is also
money. Government has been ingenious in ensuring that reluctant
Universities chase money attached to initiatives they would otherwise
rather ignore. Should Government wish to take control then we
are sure it can find a way.
Given the above and that Government has already
defined certain subject areas as being of strategic importance,
then where an individual University's decision-making jeopardises
that policy, surely Government has a duty to intervene.
We have to some extent interchanged the terms
"Department" and "Unit of Assessment". In
reality, these are often coincident, although this is not necessarily
45 The Committee may wish to consider to what extent
the funds provided to Universities are used in central administration,
to what purpose, and to what extent that is desirable. Back