Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 208)



  Q200  Dr Iddon: Why do we not put more pressure on vice chancellors to do what we do with school head teachers? If a school is failing, pressure is applied, perhaps another school is brought in to turn that failing school around. Why do you let these important departments all over the country, in whatever subject, and outside SET subjects as well—why did you just let them fail? Why do we not tell the vice chancellors to do their job and change the management and make the departments work? Is that another way of tackling it? If the funding is right, as you seem to be saying, why do we not make the management work instead?

  Sir Howard Newby: I do not think, by any stretch of the imagination, that Exeter University could be described as a failing university. I come back to this point: one of the things we have to tackle is that managements in these universities are making their own decisions, on the basis of their own institutional interests, and they make their investments as they see fit. I accept and have accepted that it is not always the case, with 100 or more separate university institutions making their own individual decisions about these matters, that it necessarily adds up to an overall national interest. That is the balance we have to get right. We do not want to micro manage universities. It is not the role of funding councils to second-guess internal management decisions of universities. On the other hand, we have to recognise that there is a national interest, which needs to be secured and protected.

  Q201  Dr Iddon: If all 4-rated departments in chemistry, for example, were allowed to close because of the market, which is what is operating at the moment, and that is the reason they are closing, where do the five-star departments recruit their staff from?

  Sir Howard Newby: With respect, I do not think the two 4-rated departments in England which have closed—Exeter's proposed closure and King's—have closed for those reasons. There is a case in Wales, in Swansea, but that is outside my area, as you well know. Those departments that have closed have closed because they have been below grade 4, and they are small and are attracting declining student numbers.

  Q202  Chairman: Who do you think has got us into this pickle with higher education?

  Sir Howard Newby: Which pickle are you referring to here, Chairman?

  Q203  Chairman: Closure of departments and just general demoralisation and restructuring that is going on in universities and so on.

  Sir Howard Newby: Until very recently we had, did we not, 20 years of chronic under-funding in higher education, both in teaching and in research? As I was hinting earlier, the research side has been very vigorously addressed in the last seven years. The teaching side has been stabilised, but I do not think the kind of investment has been put in on the teaching side from government that has been put in on the research side. With the introduction of variable fees, there is now in prospect some increase of funding coming through on the teaching side as well, but we shall have to see how universities choose to spend that money.

  Q204  Chairman: That is all a bit speculative; you do not really know what is going to happen in local regional universities, do you, in terms of the fees situation? They are all charging the same, basically, anyway.

  Sir Howard Newby: Most of them are going to charge the £3,000 maximum fee, but the currency in which they will deal will be the bursary support, which will vary very considerable. The actual net gain they receive will be very variable, even though the fee they charge will be broadly similar.

  Q205  Chairman: Will HEFCE survive if teaching is where you say it is at the minute? Has HEFCE got responsibility for a lack of determination or what? The rumour mill circulates, as you know, but after another general election will HEFCE be scrutinised and perhaps disappear, and some other way of funding teaching in universities be substituted?

  Sir Howard Newby: We always welcome scrutiny. We can always do better. Whether you are suggesting that universities should be directly funded by government, I, as you might expect, do not think that is the way to go. In fact, most of the countries are going the other way. Do I think that HEFCE has a responsibility to secure the national interest? I very much do. We will, especially with the introduction of variable fees, define what that national interest is more clearly and pursue it quite vigorously. I would look to any government support to assist us in that.

  Q206  Chairman: You do not think there will be crisis after crisis until these decisions are made?

  Sir Howard Newby: "Crisis", Chairman, is a rather over-used word.

  Q207  Chairman: You know what I mean!

  Sir Howard Newby: I do.

  Q208  Chairman: If I was a chemistry student at Exeter and you were, you would be pretty T'd off really.

  Sir Howard Newby: I think the responsibilities to students we have to place at the centre of what we are about, and we certainly do that as a funding council. The key to the future will be to allow the sector to remain dynamic and to change. That will mean closures occasionally and will mean new avenues opening up. We do not want to remove that from the sector. Equally, we have to ensure that opportunities are available to students, wherever they may live, to pursue science and technology subjects for the benefit not only of themselves but the nation as a whole. We will need to consider very carefully—which is obviously what the Secretary of State's letter is all about—the balance between market forces and university autonomy on the one hand, and a body like the Funding Council intervening in cases of market failure, either locally or nationally on the other.

  Chairman: Howard, John, we have to stop now because there is about to be a vote. We would love to go on, but can I say "thank you" for your measured approach to some serious matters—not a crisis, but serious matters!

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