Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
MONDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2005
Q120 Chairman: Bahram, thank you
very much for coming. I think you heard the last session and you
heard the stimulation that young people get in our system and
I know you have played a part in it. You know the nature of our
inquiry; you have appeared before in front of us. Welcome. A number
of reasons have been given for the closure of the university departments.
What do you think is the root cause and why?
Mr Bekhradnia: Chairman, before
I attempt to answer that difficult question
Q121 Chairman: I do not want a long
Mr Bekhradnia: You are simply
going to get me saying, Chairman, how pleased I am to be here
and how relieved and delighted I am to see you in such good health.
Q122 Chairman: Thank you very much;
you have seen nothing yet!
Mr Bekhradnia: Many of your friends
were shocked at the way you were treatednot surprised but
shockedand are delighted that you are back with us.
Q123 Chairman: Thank you very much.
Mr Bekhradnia: I think it would
be wrong and possibly naïve to point to a single reason for
closure of different departments. Universities have been closing
departments for a very long time; it is a dynamic situation, departments
close and departments open. There has been a lot of attention
given to departmental closures recently and it is true, I suspectalthough
I have not looked at this and I think this is something that ought
to be researchedthat they have been rather more numerous
recently and focused on some of the subjects that are of concern
particularly to your Committee. I did not have time to look at
this in detail but I believe that even the University of East
Anglia, did it not lose its physics department?
Q124 Chairman: It closed its physics
department and caused a shock.
Mr Bekhradnia: It was shocking
at the time and life has gone on. Cambridge, I believe, did not
close its architecture department, but I do not know whether,
if it had done, that would have been a shocking thing to you and
your Committee. So the first thing is to say that departments
close, universities dynamically respond to the world outside.
Q125 Chairman: So it is just part
Mr Bekhradnia: No, not just that;
not just that, Chairman, this is the point I am trying to make.
That these things happen and have always happened, but there probably
is something going on at the moment that is different, and in
my memorandumand I must apologise that there was, as you
will undoubtedly have noticed, a heading missing from table one
of my memorandumthat table related to the number of A Level
students, which would have been obvious from the text but of course
not everybody reads the text, I know. One of the core issues that
must be of concern to universities as they decide on what departments
to maintain and which to build up and which to run down is the
demand for those subjects, and, sadlyand this is an area
that I do urge you to have some time spent by somebody, perhaps
one of your researchers, to try to get to the bottom of it. The
HESA data are very difficult because they keep changing the definitions,
so it is actually difficult to work out what is going on there.
Q126 Chairman: Suppose suddenly there
was a great influx of demand for science courses, would that result
in failure to close departments?
Mr Bekhradnia: I suspect yes.
Certainly one of the things that is driving universities to close
their departments or to rationalise anyway the provision, is the
demand for those. You have seen the A Level demand is going down
and that must eventually, if it has not done already, lead to
Q127 Chairman: Why is the demand
going down? Why is the demand so low for university science courses?
Mr Bekhradnia: I was trying to
tell you that. If you look at A Levels, if you look at GCSEs
Q128 Chairman: Come on, you must
have investigated it?
Mr Bekhradnia: No, no. No one
knows, I suspect, Chairman. What is going on in the schools? Why
are children deciding not to study science? I do not know. But
the table that I sent you on A Levels is quite shocking13%
reduction in A Levels in physics, 13% in mathematics and 7% in
chemistry. A reduction at the time when the number of A Level
entries has increased by 10% overall. That is bound to be reflected,
if it has not already been reflectedand I suspect it must
have beenin demand at university level. So then the university
is left with issues about what to maintain in the face of reducing
demand when demand elsewhere is increasing. The other interesting
thing, which you, I am sure will already know about, which I had
not known about until I studied the figures, is what has been
happening to staff numbers over this period, when I would imagine
that student numbers have been reducing sharply? They have been
maintained or they have increasedin these subjects I am
talking about, chemistry, physics and mathematics, and modern
languages as well.
Q129 Chairman: We have just heard
that there are going to be redundancies at Exeter of chemistry
Mr Bekhradnia: Yes, I know. There
could be more redundancies in the future. But over the last decade
or so numbers have been more or less held at a time when numbers
have been going down.
Q130 Chairman: In what subjects?
Mr Bekhradnia: I am talking about
chemistry, physics, mathematics and modern languages.
Q131 Chairman: Across the country.
Would you like to quote that, the numbers since 1997 and now?
Mr Bekhradnia: Yes, between 1998-99
to 2002-03, 3% reduction in chemistry, 9% increase in physics,
mathematics more or less stable and modern languages up by 13%.
Q132 Chairman: But are these courses
combined with other courses, like physics with music or something?
Mr Bekhradnia: These are not courses;
these are staff that are attributed to a particular cost centre.
So I do urge youI have done the best I can for you, Chairman,
in the very short time that I havethat this is something
that does need to be looked at.
Q133 Chairman: Do not worry about
the effectiveness of the time; what you say is very important.
Mr Bekhradnia: No, but if you
are going to come to conclusions they will be incredibly influential,
as they should be coming from this Committee, and there is a terrible
danger of prescribing the wrong solutions if we misunderstand
and misdiagnose the problem. I am very concerned about that all
Q134 Dr Iddon: Where are these extra
staff, are they in the five star departments, which are able to
Mr Bekhradnia: I do not know,
but I would imagine they almost certainly are because what happens
when you gain a high score under the RAE? You get more money.
What do you do with more money? Universities generally recruit
staff with more money, that is the sort of thing they do. So I
would have thought that they are disproportionate.
Q135 Chairman: I am sure departments
everywhere are listening to you and there will be letters in The
Times, The Guardian and even The Daily Mail
perhaps tomorrow about that.
Mr Bekhradnia: The figures may
be wrong, but they are HESA figures and so they jolly well ought
not to be wrong.
Q136 Chairman: Let me ask you about
then about research and teaching funding formulae in universities,
how much do you think that that has contributed to the problems
we are discussingnumbers and so on and courses? Do you
know their ratio generally?
Mr Bekhradnia: I think it probably
has two effects and they are quite different. The effect that
I think you are probably most concerned about is the financial
effect. Obviously if you get a low score you get less money, if
you get less money, that is one of the influences
Q137 Chairman: Who sets the scores,
Mr Bekhradnia: The Research Assessment
Panel sets the score, but it is HEFCE that sets the value that
is to be attached to those scores. So, yes, it leads to less money
and that is one factor that universities must take into accountand
when I say must I should say shouldand I
am sure that they do take into account in deciding what departments
to maintain or what to run down. As I said in my memorandum, there
are quite a few departments with zero income from the RAE, so
it is not decisive; it does not have to be a decisive element.
But it does reduce money and a university like Exeter will take
that into account in deciding whether to keep its physics department
open. The other thing, though, it doesand this is probably
what is really driving a university like Exeterit affects
its profile, its prestige. If it wants to be a certain type of
university it may feel that it cannot be that type of university
if it is carrying departments that do not have a high score. So
I would imagineand I have not been privy to what went on
in Exeterthat one of the things that they would be looking
atand I would probably be more comfortable if I got off
individual exampleswhat a university would be looking at
is the mission of that university, the sort of university that
it wants to be and to concentrate on its strengths.
Q138 Chairman: Bahram, why do they
make that decision after the students are in place rather than
earlier in the year before they start recruiting students?
Mr Bekhradnia: If you have not
already interviewed them, I am sure you will, and you must ask
that question of them. I was listening to the previous session,
and you may also want to ask them about the arrangements for the
transfer of students, and if it really is true that they were
offering them to carry on with their degrees but without any staff
and without any laboratories, I find that surprising, and those
are things that you will want to ask the university concerned.
Q139 Chairman: They are sitting right
behind you and they will talk to you later. Watch his back!
Mr Bekhradnia: I have not looked
in detail at individual universities but I can talk about the
system as a whole.