Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  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 one-hour perambulation.

  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 treated—not surprised but shocked—and 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 suspect—although I have not looked at this and I think this is something that ought to be researched—that 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 and parcel?

  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 memorandum—and I must apologise that there was, as you will undoubtedly have noticed, a heading missing from table one of my memorandum—that 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, sadly—and 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 shocking—13% 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 reflected—and I suspect it must have been—in 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 increased—in 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 lecturers.

  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 you—I have done the best I can for you, Chairman, in the very short time that I have—that 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 through.

  Q134  Dr Iddon: Where are these extra staff, are they in the five star departments, which are able to expand?

  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 discussing—numbers 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, Bahram?

  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 account—and when I say must I should say should—and 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 does—and this is probably what is really driving a university like Exeter—it 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 imagine—and I have not been privy to what went on in Exeter—that one of the things that they would be looking at—and I would probably be more comfortable if I got off individual examples—what 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.

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