Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200
MONDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2005
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 wellwhy
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
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
closedExeter's proposed closure and King'shave 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
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 carefullywhich
is obviously what the Secretary of State's letter is all aboutthe
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 mattersnot a crisis, but serious matters!