Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Universities UK


  1.  Universities UK is pleased to be able to submit evidence to the Science and Technology Committee and aid its inquiry. On the 30 November Diana Warwick wrote to the Committee Chairman to outline Universities UK's initial views on this issue in the light of the announcement of the proposed closure of the Chemistry department at the University of Exeter. We hope that this letter was helpful in informing the session held with the Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, on this matter. This written memorandum reiterates and builds upon the key points made in that letter.

  2.  We acknowledge the concerns, expressed by the Committee and many others, about the closure of Chemistry departments within the HE sector. Universities UK's membership is currently looking at how we can explore further the implications of such closures at a local, regional and national level, and have been discussing with Government and the Funding Councils the underlying problems and possible measures that may need to be introduced to address them.

  3.  The reasons for such closures are complex and vary from case to case. However, we would make the following broad points:

    —  Funding for both teaching and research in English universities is currently inadequate. In general, both are loss-making activities for universities. This leaves Vice-Chancellors with little room for manoeuvre and especially vulnerable to changes in the allocation methodology or fluctuations in student demand for certain subjects.

    —  The Government's stated policy to further concentrate research funds in top-rated departments is misguided. We warned in 2001 that it could have an adverse impact at the level of individual subject provision, and believe that our predictions have been proved accurate. Our fear is that the impacts of any further concentration of research funds may prove irreversible. The Government should reconsider the policy of concentrating research funding further before further damage is done to the strength of the research base.

    —  While we understand that the Committee has a particular interest in Science and Technology subjects, we note that the funding constraints and policy decisions outlined above are likely to impact on a wide range of subjects. We do not believe that intervention on behalf of, for example, Chemistry would be sensible if it meant removing funding from other subjects or other parts of the system. A large proportion of teaching and research in HE is not science and technology based, though is just as vital to the UK as a whole. Indeed, the letter from the Secretary of State for Education to HEFCE has asked for views on minority languages and vocationally oriented courses of particular interest to employers in areas of growing importance to the UK economy, as well as science-technology-engineering-mathematics.

  4.  Universities UK believe that there is a need for open and transparent dialogue between the higher education sector and all relevant parties. In particular, it will be important to make progress based on robust and relevant evidence. Universities UK look forward to responding to the Funding Council's proposals.


  5.  In December Universities UK wrote to the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, in response to his letter to the Funding Council outlining the agreed views of the UUK Main Committee. The key points in this letter can be summarised as follows:

    (i)    There is a real concern that HEFCE intervention will compromise institutional autonomy and investment decisions will be distorted.

    (ii)    Despite improved funding settlements in recent years, the sector's finances remain finely balanced: institutions cannot afford to subsidise courses for which there is insufficient market demand;

    (iii)    The financial effect of increasing research concentration also needs to be considered: the combined impact of low demand and cuts in funding for departments rated 4 has compelled universities to make difficult decisions about the future of specific departments;

    (iv)    Uncertainty about the funding impact of the next RAE is a further constraint on institutions' long term financial planning;

    (v)    The underlying problem of variable demand relates to decisions made by students in schools and greater priority needs to be given to stimulating interest in national priority subjects in school. (In some of the examples employers would have a role in sending a clearer market signal);

    (vi)    Any assessment of provision in these subjects in England needs to take account of the position in other parts of the UK.

  6.  As we have made clear in previous submissions to the Committee, Universities UK believes that reasons for decisions to close a department can be complex and reliant on a number of factors. Departments rated 5 or 5* which are also recruiting students may remain secure, but when one or other side of this equation is changed, a department may become vulnerable. In some cases the combined impact of falling student rolls and cuts in university research funding can leave Vice-Chancellors with little choice but to close a department.

  7.  Much may be achieved by stimulating student demand, particularly by encouraging potential scientists during the 14 to 19 phase. The problems with demand in Science Engineering and Technology subjects (SET) were analysed in some depth in Sir Gareth Roberts' report, SET for Success, and we welcome the government's move to support many of Sir Gareth's proposals. We do recognise, however, that this will represent a practical challenge for schools, and that these are long-term solutions that will need time to bed down. Meanwhile universities are working hard to reach out to potential students and there are some notable example of efforts to encourage participation in science in Universities UK's 2002 report Social Class and Participation[46]. For example, the University of Ulster runs a programme called "Step up to Science" which targets school pupils from the lower social classes who are about to start GNVQ studies in science subjects.

  8.  In some cases, falling student demand does not appear to be a factor. Universities UK believes that the effects of cuts in funding for departments rated 4 in the RAE have been deeply damaging. We have welcomed the committee's support for our view that the concentration of research funds has gone far enough, and that Government should provide public funding to sustain research of the level described by the 4 grade, because of its importance in regional terms, but also because this is the research which is likely to provide the basis of future world-class discoveries.

  9.  Whilst we welcome the substantial additional funding provided in the last two spending reviews to meet more of the full economic costs of research councils projects, up to 80%, the pressures on university research departments may well increase in coming years as HEIs move towards implementing full economic costing and ensuring that the research base is sustainable across all activities. For example, as the full costs of EU funded activities come into focus, research funded through the Framework Programme (FP) will be potentially unsustainable in the medium to long term. This will undoubtedly result in a reduction in the current volume of EU funded research. UK universities will therefore not be in a position to take advantage of any increase in the budget under FP7 and risks losing its position as the premier recipient of EU research funds unless the UK Government is able to provide support for this at a national level and ensure that more of the full economic costs is provided by the EU. Failure to address this problem could result in significant damage to UK higher education and UK competitiveness as a whole. It is not unlikely that increased pressure on this front will add to the vulnerability of some academic departments.

  10.  If the general financial circumstances of our universities were healthier, Vice-Chancellors might well be able to put off, or avert completely departmental closures. However, there is currently little slack in the system and Vice-Chancellors may have to make tough decisions in the interests of the survival of the rest of the institution. We hope that the introduction of variable fees in 2006 will begin to address at least part of the problem by reducing the extent to which universities make a loss for teaching certain subjects. However, there will continue to be a significant funding gap.

  11.  We firmly believe that if the Funding Council does decide to introduce measures to address vulnerable subjects and courses, they should be supported with additional funds, and should be sustainable in the long term.


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

  12.  The key issue here concerns the rules for funding QR following the outcome of the 2001 RAE. The results of the 2001 RAE exceeded expectations, but the failure of the Government to fund fully the results caused extreme concern to the academic community. In many cases, Vice-Chancellors had invested heavily prior to RAE 2001 in the expectation that if they were successful in raising the quality of research in a department to a level of national and some international excellence, funding would follow roughly in proportion to past RAEs. Indeed of the research submitted at the last RAE, 64% was found to be of national or international excellence, a rise from 43% at the previous RAE. This outstanding success of UK research in universities made the impact of the actual funding decisions following the 2001 RAE doubly hard to bear.

  13.  In particular, Universities UK has been deeply concerned by the cuts in funding to departments rated 4 and below. These changes have had a significant impact the finances of those institutions affected by the cuts. We know that Professor Steve Smith has provided you with information which shows that in the University of Exeter a 4 ranking unit got 55% of the funding per staff member given to a 5* unit and 66% of the funding for a 5 in 2001-02, by 2003 that had fallen to 30% of the 5* and 36% of a 5.

  14.  Use of the HEFCE funding formula to manipulate retrospectively is highly damaging to sector and we remain concerned that the funding outcomes following RAE2008 will continue to be open to manipulation.

  15.  Universities UK is therefore concerned that there is as yet no clarity about the future relationship between research assessment and funding for RAE2008. If universities are to sustain their activities and avert closures they must be able to plan on the basis of some reasonable assumptions about future levels of income. This issue should really have been considered as part of the 10-year science and innovation framework given that this was intended to provide an overarching strategy for the medium term and allow more for effective planning within the research base. Universities UK has stated that it is essential for the funding for the different rankings to be reasonably predictable so that higher education institutions can invest and plan within a stable financial framework.

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

  16.  All the evidence suggests that the current basic research profile of UK universities shows research of international standards. We are gravely concerned that increasing levels of selectivity in research funding will damage this. It is critical that the balance between funding top-rated departments to support excellence, protecting areas of research excellence across the sector and the encouragement of new and developing areas of research is not further distorted through fundamental revision to the allocation of public funding.

  17.  As the Committee will be aware, in 2003 Universities UK commissioned a report from Evidence Limited, Funding Research Diversity[47], to explore the impact of any further concentration on university research performance and regional research capacity. The study aimed to gather evidence to test the assumptions and implications of the UK government's White Paper proposals for university research funding. The policy as proposed is not based on any clear evidence though would change the structure of the research base by concentrating funding in the largest and most highly rated university units.

  18.  The Evidence Ltd study was very clear in its conclusions. It found that firstly there is no evidence that there is a current problem with performance of the UK research base that needs to be addressed, either overall or at the level of the units most likely to see a funding loss. Second, if there were an emerging problem, then there is no clear evidence that the UK's research performance would benefit from further concentration of research funding. Third, there is evidence that research concentration as proposed would seriously exacerbate existing regional differences in research capacity and performance. We have included a copy of this report with the submission.

  19.  The report specifically looked at the impact of research concentration on regional research capacity, which is a key consideration when looking at this issue. If all regions had similar proportions of four and five graded staff and units, and similar distributions by subject then policy changes would be balanced by pro-rata losses and gains. However, this is not the case and selectivity and concentration will inevitably favour those regions that already have a relatively high number and proportion of research excellent staff and units. It therefore pertains that regions with a relatively high proportion of four units, and a high proportion of staff in such units, will lose relatively more of their capacity if funding is reduced for four graded units. Regions with a high proportion of five units will make a relative gain if funding is more selectively concentrated on the highest performing units. For those institutions facing cuts this will inevitably present difficult choices when considering which departments are financially sustainable.

  20.  Universities UK made these arguments clearly to the Government in our 2004 Spending review submission, Achieving our vision[48], which also suggested that removing or reducing funding from departments graded three and four would have a significant impact on individual subject areas and would likely damage the teaching mission.

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

  21.  The impact on science teaching of recent changes in the HEFCE formula for allocating resources for teaching to institutions for science based subjects will vary across the sector depending on the particular circumstances of that institution and the way in which resources are allocated internally. Universities UK believe, however, that there are two additional and more fundamental issues that need to be considered—the inadequate funding base for university teaching and learning and the historic basis upon which the funding is allocated.

  22.  The inadequate public funding base for teaching and learning provided for English institutions through HEFCE remains a major difficulty for the sector. It is well known that there has been a 40% reduction in the level of unit funding in the last 10 years alone, and significant damage has been done by many years of under-funded expansion. As stated in our 2004 Spending Review submission, Transparency Review data demonstrates that the total overall cost to universities and colleges of delivering teaching and learning activities is significantly in excess of the price paid for them by government. This situation was worsened by HEFCE's recurrent funding allocations for 2003-04, when in attempting to make provision for the additional costs to institutions of recruiting and retaining widening participation students, it chose to top-slice the mainstream teaching grant to increase widening participation funding. UUK have consistently asked that the additional costs of widening participation be identified and met by the funding councils from additional funds provided by government. As UUK stated in our response to the Government's White Paper[49] "Mainstream teaching does not cost less because widening participation costs more". Unfortunately, in a number of institutions, this policy hit funding for science based subjects particularly hard.

  23.  Part of the problem is that the HEFCE allocation formula is based on a combination of historical assumptions and annual expenditure data. Any formula for allocating funds to institutions needs to be informed by a full economic cost model. A full cost model would, for instance, take into account factors such as capital depreciation and the need to reinvest in teaching and learning infrastructure. We therefore welcome the incorporation of this element into the current review of the funding formula.

  24.  As we have suggested, if the financial position of universities was healthier, institutions might be able to put off or postpone difficult decisions, or, perhaps more importantly, make decisions based on non-financial criteria. The most recent financial forecasts for English higher education institutions provided to HEFCE reveal a continuing level of instability in the sector's operating base. HEFCE previously estimated that the sector in aggregate needs an operating surplus of at least 3 to 4% of income per annum to provide a positive cash flow for reinvestment and to fund future developments. In fact, the operating surplus for 2002-03 was 1.3% and for 2001-02 was 0.4%. These are average figures across the sector—large numbers of individual universities are in a far worse position and will be making business decisions based on the need to reverse historical deficits.

  25.  We hope that the introduction of variable fees in 2006 will begin to address at least part of the problem by reducing the extent to which universities make a loss for teaching certain subjects, however, it is essential that income from fees is truly additional and that the publicly provided unit of funding is not further eroded.

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

  26.  We do not believe that there is any such thing as an optimal balance between teaching and research. Not only would this be impossible to define and prescribe but also, quite rightly, this differs across institutions depending on their own institutional priorities and missions. However, Universities UK has maintained that higher education institutions benefit from the vital interdependence of teaching and research and that removing or reducing funding for departments graded four and below will have a significant impact on individual subject areas. Removal of research funds is likely to damage the teaching mission, as staff will lack the necessary resources to maintain their knowledge at the cutting edge of their discipline.

  27.  The work of Professor Sir Graham Davies' Research Forum has been helpful in informing this debate. In their advice to Ministers[50] the Forum have suggested that "in each academic department, (or within each course team), there needs to be appropriate resources, a reasonable research culture, and sufficient research activity (broadly defined) to enable such programmes of study to be designed, led and taught effectively." The Forum go on to suggest that "It is clear to us that, effectively managed, student learning can benefit immensely from staff research, and that students not exposed to staff research in an appropriate environment may be at a disadvantage as compared to those who are." Universities UK would support this view.

  28.  The Forum also suggested that the focus on research in RAE terms can have a distortionary effect on overall provision within the sector. ". . . since the RAE is at present the only mechanism by which basic funding to support research in departments is delivered, the pressure to be research active in RAE terms is immense—and distorting of what the sector overall requires. It is clear, therefore that more imaginative approaches are needed than those currently available for providing research resources to underpin teaching at a higher education level." This conclusion has led the Forum to proposed a funding model that would provide for a practical level of funding to support research informed teaching in HEIs with low levels of QR funding. Universities UK have welcomed the Government's recognition of the principle that "less research intensive institutions should be supported in developing a research informed teaching environment"[51]; however, we are still concerned that the level of investment proposed falls far short of the investment level that would be needed to deliver a meaningful impact.

  29.  In summary UUK believe that a research culture is integral to teaching at university level. The financial viability question is, therefore, not about the viability of teaching only departments, but instead about the level of resource that would be needed to effectively sustain a research informed environment across the sector.

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

  30.  Universities UK recognise the vital importance of science, engineering and technology (SET) to the UK economy at regional, national and international levels and the key role that universities play in delivering this. Universities also engage through a wider range of activities that impact on quality of life, social inclusion, societal infrastructure and cultural enrichment. We would therefore accept that there is a need to ensure a sound, broadly based capacity in teaching and research across all key areas in order to allow institutions to respond to current and future demands.

  31.  It must be remembered, however, that the role that individual universities will play in sustaining capacity in university science teaching within a region will differ significantly across the UK. It, therefore, may not be necessary to have a chemistry department in every university in the country and it will not always be true that it is wrong for a university to close down a department. In addition if a department is closed within any institution this may not mean that work has completely ceased in that area. Provision in that discipline may be maintained within a department of a related disciple. We therefore doubt that a one-size-fits-all approach to this issue would be helpful—indeed we are concerned that justifiable public and political concern about certain subjects, such as chemistry, may lead to policy makers ignoring problems in other areas, which may be equally significant in the long term.

  32.  Evidence suggests that the concentration of research funding disproportionately affects some regions over others. We note the Association of University Teachers publication The Risk to Research in Higher Education in England[52] that draws attention to the fact that "in some English regions less than half the assessed research has a secure funding future". We also note that there are a wide variety of "vulnerable" subjects (if you take loss of research funds as an indication of vulnerability), and that it may be difficult to judge the relative impact of the loss of capacity in certain subjects as compared to others. Further work in this area is needed, and while Universities UK is currently considering some of the issues raised by our Evidence report with a view to adding to this debate, we believe Government and the Funding Council could also play a role in gathering evidence.

  33.  Any review should also consider the articulation between different areas of Government policy. In particular we are concerned about the the tensions inherent in policy alignment at national and regional level. This issue is explored in a recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Research and the Regions[53] which makes valuable inroads into exploring the regional aspects of research structure in the UK, and we commend it to the committee. The report explores the connectivity between university research activity and economic performance and, on the other hand, the importance of proximity to the transfer of research findings from discovery into application. Significantly it examines the impact of the current research policy environment. A key conclusion of the report is that it is not always clear that the emergent regional framework is consciously linked to pre-existing, and nationally oriented, policies and agents relevant to knowledge growth and exploitation. This effectively means that the goals and objectives of regional policy may pull in a different direction to those at national level, a contradiction that can leave institutions in a position where they may have to make very difficult decisions.

  34.  The Universities UK report Patterns in Higher Education: Fourth Report[54] also provides a useful overall analysis of the geographical differentiation and diversity within the sector. Interestingly the report shows that there is actually little coherence in the concept of the regions in regard to higher education. Geographical boundaries between regions of England are such that natural groupings of institutions are separated, while some areas within several regions are without any local HE provider. As the report suggests, this echoes the findings of the HEPI report on Research and the Regions, which noted that "it remains unclear whether there are regional dimensions to the suite of university research services that could be distinguished from the local (city) scale and the wider (national) scale".

  35.  We have included a copy of the Patterns 4th report with this evidence as this also provides clear information on trends in numbers of enrolments in SET subjects and changes in numbers of institutions making provision for teaching major subjects (at a national level) in these subjects.

The extent to which the Government should intervene to ensure continuing provision of subjects of national or regional importance; and the mechanisms it should use for this purpose

  36.  As we have stated the reasons behind departmental closures can be complex and reliant on a number of factors, which include overall under-funding of teaching and research and a lack of student demand. Whilst it is still to be seen whether any of the short term solutions that have been proposed in recent months would be appropriate, UUK feel that it is far more important to look at the broader policy and funding context in the medium to long term to ensure that this is structured so as to give institutions the sufficient levels of funding and freedom that they need to respond effectively to needs at regional, national and international levels.

  37.  If progress is not made based on robust and relevant evidence that helps identify the true nature of the problems and informs longer term sustainable solutions we could ultimately end up with short term micro management of the research base in a response to current `hot spots' which, aside from its own unintended consequences, would distort institutional strategies and priorities. This would not be desirable.

February 2005

46   Social class and participation (2002), Universities UK. Back

47   Funding Research Diversity: summary report (2003), Evidence Limited. Back

48   Achieving our vision: Universities UK Spending Review Submission for England and Northern Ireland (2004), Universities UK. Back

49   Universities UK's response to "The Future of Higher Education" (2003), Universities UK. Back

50   Advice from the Forum to Ministers can be found at Back

51   Secretary of State's grant letter to HEFCE on funding 2005-06 to 2007-08. Back

52   The risk to research in higher education (June 2003), Association of University Teachers Back

53   Adams and Smith Research and the Regions: an overview of the distribution of research in UK regions, regional research capacity and links between strategic research partners (2004), Higher Education Policy Institute. Back

54   Patterns of higher education institutions in the UK: Fourth Report (2004), Universities UK & Standing Conference of Principles. Back

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