Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Annex B


  This response has been prepared by the Research Board and the Psychology Education Board of the British Psychological Society. The British Psychological Society is the professional body and Learned Society for psychologists in the UK. It represents nearly 40,000 members working in all branches of psychology research and practice. A briefing note on the role and remit of the Society is attached for your reference.

  As a general point, while accepting there are serious problems in some disciplines, based on the current figures from UCAS, it would be misleading to talk of a flight from science in Universities. The figures show that between 1996 and 2003, the numbers of students admitted to science degree courses, as defined by the JACS codes, increased by 13.7%. Whilst there is a drop in the numbers for physical sciences, this is more than made up for by the increase in biological and computer sciences. We think that science, as well as other "shortage" subjects, face problems that reflect perverse outcomes of the separation of funding for teaching and research, and the resultant lack of integration of educational provision. There are incentives for departments to compete rather than cooperate in recruiting students, and there are incentives to pursue research as an alternative to teaching. These incentives may be amenable to structural interventions at the level of HEFCE and individual institutions. Beyond these factors there are societal changes (both in attitudes and in employment opportunities) that are likely to impinge on students' decisions about which subjects to pursue. In general, a sensible strategy is likely to respond to the flow of these changes rather than attempt to resist them.

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

  We believe that UK research continues to suffer from insufficient long-term, and insufficiently broadly based support.

  We do not object, in principle, to the policy of assessing the quality of research. However, the funding formula applied following the RAE has resulted in very intensive recruitment and the movement between institutions of research leaders and research role models. This must significantly deplete the research capacity of the many smaller and less powerful departments. By fostering this movement of highly experienced and active researchers into a smaller number of departments and institutions, the funding formula separates teaching and research so that the latter can take place in fewer locations. It also results in discriminatory funding such that excellent researchers in departments with lower ratings receive less financial support for their research than researchers of equal stature in departments with higher ratings. In practice, those lower status departments have much higher teaching loads and student numbers, making it less and less possible to conduct high quality research. Since there is quite a lot of movement of staff immediately before and between RAEs (eg hiring of new staff to match changing student numbers), this means that the funding mechanism privileges some individuals on bases that are largely independent of the quality of their own research. It seems likely that less mobile individuals (such as people with dependent relatives) and people whose research is not mainstream are disadvantaged by this system.

  Even if it were possible to justify the refusal to fund "national" level research in departments rated 3 or below, the continuing increase in the funding differential between 4 and 5 rated departments seems to us unjustifiable, as the former certainly include international quality research. If the aim was to bring about improvements it could easily be argued that the most effective targeting of additional resources would be to the 4 rated departments.

  The operation of the funding formula flies in the face of work that has been done in UK universities over the last 40 years to ensure that teaching is research-led. In disciplines such as psychology, development of research skills is a fundamental part of learning, and a prerequisite for professional training. Obtaining a PhD in psychology requires advanced research skills. A PhD is also a de facto requirement for becoming a lecturer in psychology in most departments. However, this seems unsustainable if large numbers of departments will no longer have the funding (or opportunity) for staff to conduct research. Ultimately, therefore, although the funding mechanism is supposed to strengthen UK research we think there is little evidence that it will improve the best research (which is already excellent), and a very strong possibility that it will damage both overall research capacity and teaching.

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

  The RAE-linked funding formula will continue to produce substantial effects on the quality of HE provision in this country—the impact of which will be felt by students, academic staff and ultimately society. Removing/reducing research funding from departments rated as below 4 in the 2001 RAE will continue to propagate the following effects.

Effects on the student experience

    —  An impoverished research culture will remove resources that would traditionally have been available from research income but also used to enrich teaching within an institution. Within a science context this would include additional practical facilities as well as research students to help in practical classes as demonstrators and also as seminar leaders.

    —  Reduced exposure to, and participation in, research activity at undergraduate level. In the past such activities could facilitate intellectual development of undergraduate students enabling them to understand the provisional nature of much knowledge. It could enable them to form their own judgements from evidence and challenge the judgements of others thus training them to synthesise and apply knowledge in various contexts. In other words they could learn, in the broadest sense, to be researcher oriented—an entirely appropriate outcome in an advanced knowledge economy. A HE sector in which substantial parts fail to provide a research-enriched environment will fail to facilitate such intellectual development of its students will be failing the needs of society.

    —  Difficulty in the provision of practical work for undergraduate students, especially the student-driven research project (often centred on staff research interests), which we anticipate will make the subject less attractive to students. This will perpetuate the problem of recruiting for the sciences and result in a concomitant reduction in suitably qualified outgoing graduates to teach science in schools and drive the knowledge economy.

    —  Reduced opportunities for ethnically and socially diverse student populations (as well as mature students) who typically attend "newer", less research-intensive institutions that have been most affected by the new funding formula.

    —  Intensification of a 2-tier sector in which even many of the country's most highly qualified students are unable to gain entry to be science undergraduates at the most research-intensive institutions. Places for undergraduates will be reduced at these institutions as staff concentrate on research (to maintain their research-linked funding and status), and the recruitment of overseas (full fee-paying) and post-graduate teaching.

Effects on academic staff

    —  It is the combination of teaching in a research-informed environment, and researching in an organisation where that research can be applied in advanced teaching—that makes a university job attractive. It is the reason why a Ph.D is now the "entry ticket" to an academic post in HE and why new members of academic staff in all universities are expected to undertake training in effective teaching and research project supervision.

    —  Increasing difficulty in attracting good young researchers into academia as the number of positions available to them which will support their research is diminishing.

    —  Removal of the "academic ladder" as platform institutions from which young professions can get a foothold (in both teaching and research) before progressing onto more research intensive institutions.

    —  Ossification into a 2-tier system will damage (if not remove) the chances of talented lone researchers of any age from undertaking their research—even in collaboration with research-intensive institutions, as the shift in emphasis away from research and towards teaching makes too many demands on their time.

    —  Make it practically difficult for academic staff to fulfil the Government's requirement of knowledge transfer to private, public and voluntary sector organisations. (The Lambert Report makes clear that this is a requirement of all universities, albeit in different ways and with different emphases, and not just the preserve of a few.)

    —  Increased pressure (stress) on academics in research-intensive institutions as they strive to ensure excellence in research productivity within an increasingly competitive environment. Examples of such pressure include frequent (sometimes monthly) monitoring of output and repetitive short-term target setting by line managers. Not all research thrives in these conditions—some research projects are long-term in nature and rely on creativity and intellectual freedom.

Effects on psychology in particular

    —  The quality of HE psychology teaching in the UK is overseen by the British Psychological Society (BPS). Only BPS accredited undergraduate degrees are accepted for admittance in postgraduate psychology training. To gain accreditation courses need to provide students with extensive training in research methods and provide opportunities for each student to undertake an empirical research project—all this is vulnerable to the effects of the research funding formula, as the gradual erosion of a strong research culture may inevitably have knock-on effects for the ability of departments to make adequate provision for such empirical project work. The long term impact upon this expanding science discipline (which attracts many females into science) will be that courses will have to close or be "dumbed down" to the point where they are no longer accredited and do not teach science. This will result in a significant net reduction in the numbers of students receiving science training in higher education and therefore a significant reduction in the numbers who could teach science either at school or university level.

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

  With respect to Psychology in particular, we feel that the assumptions underpinning the current fee-banding for psychology do not fully reflect factors that should determine the funding formula.

  Currently, psychology degrees in over 100 Universities aim to meet the Society's criteria for accreditation for the Graduate Basis for Registration, that enable students to progress to advanced training in either research or practitioner areas. These criteria require that at least 30% of each year of a typical undergraduate degree is taken up with laboratory work, including a stand alone research project in the final year. Almost all psychological research now requires the intense use of high specification computers and other specialised equipment to run experiments and analyse data. The specialist equipment ranges from EEG and heart-rate monitoring systems to digital video studio facilities. Almost all psychological research requires human participants, which in turn requires support in terms of suitably controlled laboratory environments, support staff and relevant safety precautions. Thus, the teaching of psychology involves very significant support in terms of equipment, space, personnel and technical expertise. As a scientific discipline, psychology also relies very heavily on large numbers of specialist journals, and these also constitute a significant demand on resources. In sum, in any respect that matters, psychology is an intensive laboratory discipline.

  Psychology is the fastest growing subject in science. However, many departments are stretched to intolerable levels. Those that do have substantial research income have to subsidise their teaching from research resources—the under-funding problem needs to be resolved rather than compounded.

  Funding teaching on historical baselines is retrogressive and harmful to newly developing subjects. While it is always possible to teach something with any unit cost, however small, by setting the funding of psychology below what is needed for a fully effective degree programme, HEFCE is harming the education of the large number of science graduates the discipline is producing.

  The re-banding of Psychology to C seems to reflect a HEFCE presumption that psychology costs less than it had previously thought. However, this reflects several misunderstandings of the situation. First, undergraduate numbers have expanded so quickly in psychology that universities have not been able to transfer the funds to keep pace (to do so would have forced unreasonably rapid closures and problems in other departments). Second, it has meant psychology departments are always underfunded as the funding formulas usually make adjustments in the year following the new increases in student intakes. Third, psychology has a very active research base, and this has undoubtedly helped to sustain teaching, not only by injection of funds but by providing doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who can contribute to teaching on a casual basis. Finally, it is sometimes mooted that the reason for declines in undergraduate enrolment in other science areas is the success of psychology. We doubt there is any evidence (other than correlational) for this claim. If anything, psychology has been the source of strong recruitment into science by people who might otherwise choose subjects in law or the humanities. Psychology requires students to become adept at statistical analysis and scientific method and experimental design, and requires knowledge of measurement in both biological and neurological and behavioural domains using a range of technologies. Thus, the discipline strongly reinforces, rather than undermines the value of science in society.

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

  There will always be some universities that rate more highly on research excellence than others. These are likely to include departments that lead the world in science innovation often utilising large scale resources. The problem arises when this is taken to the extreme and many HE institutions (or departments) are excluded from participation in any research culture at all. The cost of maintaining a research culture in less-research intensive institutions has been over exaggerated (particularly given that many of the infrastructure elements are required for teaching too) and the value of maintaining a research culture has been seriously underestimated. Only now are the true impacts to society beginning to be understood (closure of departments, shortage of well qualified science teachers and disengagement of our young people with science education).

  We argue that it is not essential for every member of academic staff in every department to be an active researcher to foster a successful culture of research so beneficial to both staff and student (as outlined above). "Pockets" of research of national excellence are valuable in their own right and should be supported. Systematic withdrawal of resources for this strand is short-sighted and devalues the quality of undergraduate education for both staff and students.

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

  It may be that in some areas of research regional capacity is irrelevant. Perhaps only one or two centres in the UK could study stem cells. In many other subjects research expertise and skills are very important within a local or regional context. This is likely to be true of electronic engineering or microbiology but it is especially true in psychology. Regional and local NHS can much more easily attract good clinical psychologists if they perceive opportunities for research locally, particularly in the form of a research orientated university department. Similarly, local authorities that need to conduct research on behaviour benefit from the local presence of psychologists with research skills.

  We also reiterate the point that concentration of research funding will mean that smaller departments (eg those at regional universities) may become less able to recruit excellent research staff. In turn, this means that students in those regions, many of whom have to attend their local university for financial reasons alone, will be denied access to a vibrant research-led teaching environment. We do not believe this outcome is educationally desirable and doubt very much that it will be beneficial for science as a whole. If "real" science becomes the preserve of a limited number of institutions and departments, large numbers of students at other places will feel that the value of the science they study is low, and that the pursuit of science is beyond their capacities. Research into "stereotype threat" shows all too clearly how situations structured in this way can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. The consequence is masses of unrealised potential, and perhaps unrealised potential of the masses.

6.  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

  In much of psychology good work is recognised through standard systems of peer review (eg in journal publications and research grant funding). The infrastructure and facilities required for teaching, particularly to achieve the Graduate Basis for Registration with the BPS, should be comparable across institutions. The GBR criteria were originally developed in a context where teaching and research were symbiotic, and thus recognised the value of both activities for the other. The current funding arrangements attempt to disaggregate the teaching and research functions to a degree that is counter-productive in terms of teaching key-skills. This needs to be recognised and addressed in future.

  All professional postgraduate training courses in psychology in the UK have the Graduate Basis for Registration as a compulsory entrance requirement. GBR is typically obtained through the completion of an undergraduate degree in psychology that has been accredited by the British Psychological Society. The requirements for such accreditation are very stringent, as outlined previously. The provision of accredited training courses at undergraduate level are of particular importance due to the current shortages in professional areas such as clinical, educational and forensic psychology.

  For example, currently there is a shortage of clinical and applied psychologists to work within the National Health Service (BPS, 2004; DH/HO/BPS, 2005). As clinical guidelines (ie NICE: National Centre for Clinical Effectiveness) recommend the effectiveness of psychological therapies for a wide range of conditions, and service users request greater access to psychological therapies, it is unlikely that even current estimates of 15% more psychologists will meet demand. Moreover, as with other areas of clinical academic practice, it is difficult to recruit and retain clinical psychologists onto the post-graduate training courses which are based in HEIs. The pressure particularly on clinical psychology research have been documented by Thomas, Turpin & Meyer (2002), who argued for greater support of clinical psychology research in the HEI sector.

  Moreover, there are well in excess of 800 psychological staff in the prison and probation services. This figure includes psychological assistants, but the overwhelming majority of the latter have psychology degrees and progress to the psychologist grades.

  The re-banding of psychology by HEFCE also reflects a decision to shift resources designated to area of science to another. But this is partly a process of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Financially undermining a very strong science discipline seems to us unlikely to be a sensible basis for strengthening science as a whole. As we mentioned earlier, universities often use psychology as a means of attracting students into other science subjects (eg through joint degrees and options courses in psychology).

  University education is already more attractive to female than male students, and within science, Psychology recruits female students very strongly. Therefore it represents a portal through which talented young women enter science. We believe the wrong message is sent by downgrading the funding status of our discipline. This reinforces the message that "real" (ie expensive) science is not for women. We believe that a constructive strategy for building in areas of strategic importance is to respond to the motivations and interests of the potential students in those areas. For example, a shortage of chemists could be addressed by offering both financial (eg fees waivers) and intellectual incentives (eg joint degrees with other subjects that talented students may be interested in) for students to pursue degrees in chemistry, The advantages of such a strategy include both increased recruitment in the university sector but also increased numbers of people who could subsequently teach science well at school level, which would then feed back into the university system.

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