Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Academic Staff, Department of Chemistry, University of Exeter

  This submission is divided into two main sections—a 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 University view.

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 appointment—departments where life had probably been tougher and departments where ongoing institutional support was less clear. This culminated in RAE2001—a triumph of form filling over process—where 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 surplus—Oxford 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 above—changes 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 intended.

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

  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[45]) 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 Cross).

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

  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 the case.

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

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