House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE
Wednesday 9 March 2005
PROFESSOR DAVID EASTWOOD, PROFESSOR ALASDAIR SMITH,
PROFESSOR STEVE SMITH and PROFESSOR MICHAEL STERLING
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
on Wednesday 9 March 2005
Dr Ian Gibson, in the Chair
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Mr Robert Key
Mr Tony McWalter
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor David Eastwood, Vice Chancellor, University of East Anglia, Professor Alasdair Smith, Vice Chancellor, University of Sussex, Professor Steve Smith, Vice Chancellor, University of Exeter, and Professor Michael Sterling, Vice Chancellor, University of Birmingham, Chair, Russell Group, examined.
Chairman: Thank you very much for coming to help us in our inquiry. The reason we are not so many this morning is because some of my colleagues have got problems in their constituencies with a General Election looming and so on and so I had to let them off. On Monday night we had a seven hour session talking about human embryology and we were trying to iron out in a bigger committee how to handle that and that is a really big issue.
Dr Iddon: Could I just declare two interests before we start? I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Member of the Association of University Teachers.
Q401 Chairman: HEFCE has announced a number of measures to help protect struggling departments of regional or national importance. How do you square this with a policy of non‑intervention in the individual university's autonomy and so on? They are trying to impose something on you. Do you think there is a contradiction? I am talking about RDAs and all that kind of stuff. Is it interfering with your autonomy in any way?
Professor Alasdair Smith: I am not sure what specific HEFCE interventions you are talking about.
Q402 Chairman: I am talking about the kind of decisions they make about financing which might impose on you the closure of certain departments and so on. Is that being accelerated or ameliorated or whatever by these kinds of decisions?
Professor Alasdair Smith: I think there are two factors that have put some departments under pressure. One of them is the issue of HEFCE's funding formula as between subjects and as between different levels of research performance, but the main influence arises from student demand which is not a HEFCE policy issue.
Q403 Chairman: I am thinking more of HEFCE saying they need these particular departments in your universities. What do you say to them when that happens, that they should run away and be good boys and girls, or has it not happened yet?
Professor Steve Smith: We have found HEFCE to be an enormously supportive broker. They have worked with us and other universities in the region to come up with a solution which actually increases the number of funded places for chemistry in the south‑west. Our analysis is that by working collaboratively through HEFCE we have been able to come to a solution which we think strengthens chemistry provision in the long term, and I welcome that role of HEFCE as a broker rather than a manager or a planner.
Q404 Chairman: Has it propped up ailing science departments in any way?
Professor Steve Smith: I think what it has done is to balance two factors. One is the need for individual institutions to make strategic judgments about where to invest with regional and national needs. The outcome of what they have done in our case has been to strengthen science provision in the region by allowing us to spend the same amount of money on science but on fewer subjects and putting extra resource into Bristol and Bath which enables them to make their chemistry provision more sustainable.
Q405 Chairman: Do you wish they had intervened much sooner and kept chemistry at Exeter? Let us suppose they had done this a year ago and they had propped you up by whatever mechanism, even extra money, what would you say to that?
Professor Steve Smith: That is a very delicate question. Of course, any vice chancellor would like the Funding Council to write them a cheque, but then every other vice chancellor has a right and that is the issue. We think the solution they have come up with, which is to preserve the provision of chemistry in the region, is actually the best for the south‑west in the long run. We think that is probably the best solution we could have had.
Q406 Chairman: Did the other vice chancellors welcome interaction of that kind? It may not have happened yet, of course, but would you welcome it? Are you talking to them about the possibility?
Professor Sterling: I think there is a role for HEFCE as a broker when subjects are in difficulty because they obviously can operate confidentially and vice chancellors can approach them and say they are having difficulty with a particular subject and HEFCE can put them in touch with somebody else that might be willing to take those students. I see it rather as a top‑down intervention rather than a brokering role. Where I have a slightly different view from HEFCE is in relation to the unitary resource where the evidence that you received from Sir Howard was that there was not a connection between the spend per student in a subject area and the demand for that subject. I think he said that it would not generate a single additional student. I do not agree with that. I believe that there is a coupling because if a course is well staffed, if it has attractive laboratories and a highly interactive environment for the students, that encourages applicants to come forward for that subject area and so effectively that generates the extra student demand, whereas if the student sees poor laboratories when they come round they are unlikely to choose to do that subject.
Professor Eastwood: My experience has been of helpful discussions with the Chief Executive of the Funding Council when I have been facing difficult decisions over the future of some provision at the university. I think there are two issues here. Steve referred to the regional issue in the case of larger subjects such as chemistry. There is also a national issue in the case of some minority subjects and I think HEFCE and the vice chancellors are very sensitive to the issue of being the provider of last resort. I think there are different kinds of issues depending on the subject area we are talking about. For most vice chancellors the facilitating role that colleagues have referred to, which HEFCE can play, is important. We would resist for all sorts of reasons a strict planning role.
Professor Alasdair Smith: I agree with my colleagues that HEFCE is a helpful body when we face particular pressure. Perhaps I can respond to something else that you said, Chairman, or respond in a slightly more general way. I think we have to be very wary of the notion of setting up safety nets for subjects which are in national difficulty. The evidence ‑ and it is in the new UK Patterns of Higher Education Institutions document which I think has been submitted now ‑ is that the system as a whole responds rather slowly to changes in security and demand and the danger of having HEFCE taking on the role of helping subjects that are in difficulty is that it will make the systems still slower to respond and it will encourage too many struggling departments to be kept going when a bit of rationalisation is actually in the national interest.
Q407 Chairman: You have talked about the national and international interests and so on, but who makes that decision? Is it the university, the Government, the region or The Times Higher who makes that decision?
Professor Alasdair Smith: In the end the decisions are made by universities responding to various pressures and incentives, particularly the pressures and incentives that come from student demand and from the provision of research funding.
Q408 Chairman: I am talking about strategic national funding. One could say what do the students know about that? Somebody has to make the decision that Chinese is what every young person in this country should speak. I could make a case for that. With billions going into science and China growing and so on it would be helpful if we spoke Chinese rather than forcing them to speak English.
Professor Alasdair Smith: I think there is quite a lot of evidence that the student market is pretty sophisticated in working out from information about different salary levels what is happening to demand. The student market works as well as any system of national manpower planning would do. Of course there is a role for strategic national decisions at the level of funding, particularly for research.
Q409 Chairman: Is this made at a government department level?
Professor Alasdair Smith: That is right.
Professor Sterling: I think the professions have a strong role to play here. As you know, I am an engineer and the engineering profession saw a downturn in the number of engineering applications coming forward pretty well across the board in all subject areas about five or six years ago. So the profession, together with the universities and the lead bodies in engineering, set out on a course to influence the media to produce more material about engineering. You must have noticed on television more programmes about civil engineering and mechanical engineering. It is my contention ‑ and I cannot prove it ‑ that the rise in engineering applications now is directly related to those initiatives that we took five or six years ago and that is particularly so because it is mechanical and civil engineering that have seen the biggest increases in recent times.
Q410 Chairman: Who made that decision, Michael, was it the Royal Academy of Engineering?
Professor Sterling: Yes, them together with all the professional institutions.
Q411 Chairman: So it was the profession generally.
Professor Sterling: The profession was very concerned about the downturn and the inability of a university to fill places with high quality students and so we set out deliberately to engage the media in that process. It is my contention that that has had a very positive effect. I am sure the same could be done in other disciplines as well. In physics their bursary scheme of £1,000 a year is already attracting increased student interest. Positive intervention can influence the market for strategic purposes.
Professor Steve Smith: I would very much agree with Michael and Alasdair. I cannot see a role for any one body in deciding this. I think there is a very delicate set of discussions to be had, especially about what the nation actually needs and I think the evidence base there is not clear. A lot of people make assertions about what the nation needs, but I am not sure either that we know or that any one body is actually the relevant body to make that decision.
Professor Eastwood: The only other point I would make is that sometimes what is badged strategic cuts goes in different directions. Currently we have had a debate focusing on chemistry and on the provision of undergraduate places, but there is a parallel debate to be had about the research base in a subject such as chemistry and being internationally competitive. I think there is a broad consensus that if we are to be, and to remain, internationally competitive size matters, critical mass matters and therefore the policy, which is in effect a settled policy of the concentration of research resources, is the right one. Once you commit to that kind of policy in an expensive research‑led discipline then it will have consequences for the provision of undergraduate teaching.
Q412 Chairman: What about the incentives that Government could give? When you are planning you must think Government ought to be looking for support in certain areas and so on and yet you have got autonomy and so on, but you influence Government. What should happen in that area? What should Government be doing? Should there be another letter from the Minister?
Professor Sterling: I think there is something very positive that Government can do and it need not cost very much money either and that is to introduce the concept of national scholarships in areas that the Government sees as of strategic national importance. There need not be very many of them and they need not cost very much money. It is more the message that is given to perspective applicants rather than the actual sum of money that they would get that is important. That will be even more important as we move post-2006 with the increased tuition fees. That message will be well received by students because they are thinking more about the value of the course that they are going to do. I am not talking about hundreds of millions of pounds of intervention. This is a message that Government cares about these particular subject areas.
Professor Alasdair Smith: I completely agree with what Michael says, that is the sensible way to intervene because the problem in these subjects is a problem of student demand, so tackling the issue of incentivising student demand is the right way to take it forward.
Professor Steve Smith: I agree with that.
Professor Eastwood: The other point I would make is that where I think Government can and should intervene is with what is happening in secondary schools. There are other things in other areas of the education sector that Government could do very positively which would change the demand situation.
Q413 Chairman: How would you describe what we have done in secondary schools since 1997?
Professor Eastwood: Do you mean in general?
Q414 Chairman: In incentivising young people to do sciences.
Professor Eastwood: The record is a mixed one. My colleagues in my school of education tell me there is quite good evidence that in some areas the supply of teachers for science subjects is improving, most notably in the biological sciences. There is a genuine problem for colleagues in the secondary section of science teaching because they are preparing some young people who are going to go on to study science at university and others are trying to create a higher form of scientific literacy for people who are not going to be scientists, and I think there are some real curriculum challenges there and some of the inflexibilities in the national curriculum have not been helpful. Most colleagues in schools would say if there was more investment in labs, in the ability to do science hands-on, to be enthused about doing science, that would move things forward. I think there is more that can be done and I say that without a reference to Tomlinson!
Q415 Chairman: You will notice a lot of money has been put into science this week without any discussion of those issues whatsoever that I have seen. I may be wrong about that. Is that how you see it too? The billions going into Biotech and so on, does that excite you?
Professor Sterling: It does. I believe that this Government has been very helpful to science and technology in terms of the additional research monies that have been going in. Obviously you have to pick winners in broad areas, which I think is what is being done at the moment. I welcome the additional money that has come into science and technology.
Q416 Dr Iddon: Do you think the media has been helpful or unhelpful with respect to SET subjects?
Professor Sterling: I think it depends on which particular media one is looking at.
Q417 Chairman: Let us start with John Humphrys, shall we?
Professor Sterling: I was thinking more of the TV media as they have been very helpful in my view. They have engaged with the agenda, particularly in engineering and increasingly in science and in explaining what a scientific or an engineering career is about. Perhaps the printed media are more about looking for a story and, therefore, closures and problems are more exciting than the underlying reality.
Q418 Dr Iddon: I was thinking in particular of the way that they have dealt with the environmental lobby.
Professor Sterling: The arguments around climate change and so on are very complicated. I sit on the Prime Minister's Science and Technology Advisory Council and that is one of the issues on energy particularly that we have been wrestling with. It is about trying to understand precisely what is going on and what should be done. It is very difficult for media to encapsulate those complex arguments for a lay readership and so I sympathise with the difficulty, but you tend to get a sensationalism in terms of what is going to happen to global matters, such as whether we are going to warm or cool as a planet, and those become the dominant targets rather than the underlying scientific argument.
Q419 Dr Iddon: Student demand has been blamed for SET departmental closures a lot, but the fact is that Exeter was doing well, Swansea was doing well and other university chemistry departments and physics departments were doing quite well and yet they have been closed. What factors are determining these closures as well as student demand?
Professor Steve Smith: I think we have to be very careful about the student demand question. The fact that has interested me most is that six institutions approached us about taking the chemistry students that we have at Exeter and each of them offered to take more students than we had. That means that there was clear capacity in those institutions. In our case chemistry met its quota, but that intake was 42 students last year with the same cost base and at the same price band as biology which took in 96. Biology made a small profit on teaching and chemistry lost £188,000. The number of students and the qualifications they have is a very delicate issue. Our quota was an adjustment between the number of students with the right grade that we could get and the places available. Our quota in chemistry had gone down 21 per cent in five years because the quality students were not there. My view on it all is that to be successful, for example, chemistry needs to be both five or five star and have good student demand and if any one of those is called into question I think it makes it very vulnerable. I imagine that the picture around the country is of five or five star chemistry departments that actually lose money despite getting students. I think there are two important things here. One is the issue of the research resource and the second is the ability to recruit at the right level, and I think there is a very serious issue about the number of students that wish to study chemistry.
Q420 Dr Iddon: Is that agreed across the table?
Professor Alasdair Smith: Yes.
Professor Sterling: Yes.
Professor Eastwood: I think most of us have had experience of revising down our quotas for a number of particularly the physical sciences. There is an interesting case study out there at the moment which is what is happening to applications in computer science, which are more or less in freefall nationally. It is something that is in some ways puzzling and so we do not yet have a firm analysis as to why this is happening, but what are universities going to do with large investments in computer science departments, computer science being very important to supporting other science, particularly given the rise of computational biology and so forth? There are real challenges there. In my own institution we have to reposition what we do in computer science in order both to support the research base and, we hope, to stem the decline in recruitment.
Q421 Dr Iddon: Why is it that some universities like York, no matter what the RAE exercise has delivered to the individual departments at York, can keep all its departments open, including chemistry?
Professor Steve Smith: The key figure about York is to look at the percentage of staff it has in a four ranking and below. Just off the top of my head, I think 85 per cent of their staff are in five or five star. If you look at all of the closures in the last two years in the physical sciences, in every single case there are institutions that have around 40 per cent or more of their staff in fours and below. There is a picture out there of institutions trying to act strategically to make choices about which subjects to support. I think York is a very strong institution across the board and, therefore, if you have got some activity, wherever it is, in a strong institution you can cross‑subsidise, but once you have got very expensive sciences, which are four ranking, the costs of cross‑subsidy would be such as to hold back investment in other areas of success.
Q422 Dr Iddon: Our information is that at Exeter the Engineering Department was losing more money than chemistry.
Professor Steve Smith: Correct.
Q423 Dr Iddon: But you have managed to maintain that department. How can that be? What decisions led you to close chemistry and keep engineering open even though engineering was making a greater loss?
Professor Steve Smith: Firstly, we have to delve a little bit behind the phrase "keep engineering open". In the School of Engineering, Computer Science and Maths we have lost 36 members of staff; in chemistry we have lost 24, so we have made major surgery in engineering as well. Engineering was a part of a school that had some five ranking activity, so there was been inbuilt cross‑subsidy. Engineering was also seeing a new problem in getting students and research grant income increasing. In chemistry student numbers were in decline, it had lost £2.5 million in five years and it was also losing research grant income, there was a 36 per cent decline in chemistry and research income in three years. We made the decision to invest in biosciences by taking the deficit in chemistry and reinvesting that money back in the new school. In engineering we were able to make the cuts required to balance the books by cutting out activity across the range of activity in the school. So it was actually a detailed management decision about how to configure those two science areas best for the markets that they were facing.
Q424 Dr Iddon: The Royal Society of Chemistry believes that we are merely "fire fighting" at the moment to meet short‑term financial targets and that we are not looking at the long‑term view in universities. What would happen if there was quite a significant swing back in favour of chemistry, physics and mathematics? Would you have the capacity to open those departments again and, if so, how would you do it?
Professor Sterling: I think there is a misconception that chemistry only exists within a chemistry department. In fact, the subject boundaries are quite permeable. Biosciences might have a lot of chemists in it, even medicine might and chemical engineering. What tends to happen is that if there is a decline in interest in one subject area you might dissolve the departmental boundary, but those chemists end up in other areas and that process can be reversed. It is expensive if you are starting from nothing because there might be no laboratories and they are expensive to equip. Unless you are coming out of science completely the process is reversible but, admittedly, at a cost.
Q425 Dr Iddon: My old university, Salford, had one of the best chemistry collections in terms of textbooks and journals, complete runs of journals, chemical abstracts, things like that. Are you able to maintain that just in case for the future or are your libraries abandoning those collections which are extremely valuable?
Professor Eastwood: Given the rise of e.publishing those issues are less difficult than they used to be. It is possible to get into a field and to buy a research resource in the way that you could not have done so 15 years ago. Perhaps I could give a local example of what Michael is talking about. In the brief hiatus between your chairman being at my university and me being at my university physics was closed at UEA and transferred to Bath. There are now more physicists on the staff at UEA than there were when we had the School of Physics. Colleagues in the science faculty at UEA are looking at ways in which we can grow our natural sciences degree in order to research the physics provision and at the same time try to create some kind of regional provision both of foundation science and of physics in a region where physics is under‑provided. I do not think what Michael is talking about is simply hypothetical. Given the different alignment of disciplines and given multi‑disciplinarity in a lot of institutions, subjects which might disappear in the sense of being badged into a department can continue a half life and from that half life there can be some regeneration.
Professor Alasdair Smith: Perhaps I can answer your question from a different angle. Sussex, like York, is an institution that has not closed any departments and I think it is important to emphasise that the system as a whole has coped with declining numbers in a variety of ways and closures are not the only way we cope with it. We have coped with the effect of declining student numbers by reducing the size of mathematics very considerably, physics, chemistry and engineering, and if there were a turnaround nationally then we would have very substantial capacity for expanding those departments back up. From what Steve said earlier about the response of other universities to the closure at Exeter and their capacity to gain additional numbers, I think you would find throughout the system that there is substantial capacity to expand pretty rapidly if the student numbers turned around.
Q426 Chairman: Do you predict that other departments will probably close in universities over the next few years because of this kind of climate that you are operating in?
Professor Sterling: As I understand it there are more than 40 chemistry departments nationally so that is quite a long way from a crisis.
Q427 Chairman: Did I use the word crisis?
Professor Sterling: Not at all, no. The media do though. We have got quite considerable scope for there to be some rationalisation in relation to falling student demand. I very much hope that student demand will turn around because of the media attention to the problem. As the Royal Society of Chemistry and so on address the student in school then it will create additional demand. If there are the good jobs there, particularly as we move post‑2006, that will be reflected in student interest in doing those subjects. I am a little more optimistic than everybody else.
Q428 Chairman: Do you think after 2008 the RAE might disappear? Do you think there is a hiatus of mood developing that it has done its dirty work?
Professor Sterling: I think 2008 is still some way off. There are other mechanisms that are worth exploring in relation to the RAE post‑2008. The issue is how you distribute a large amount of research money, and the RAE is the mechanism that has evolved over a number of years now but there are other mechanisms that could be proxy for it. I think there are active discussions beginning about what would come after RAE 2008 and I welcome those discussions.
Professor Eastwood: The smart money is on RAE 2008 being the last RAE in this kind of form. There is a discussion to be had before we decide what shape a subsequent RAE should take and that is what is QR4 when you have got funding from the Research Councils and other Government departments and that debate is beginning and I think that will sharpen the thinking about what QR should be used for. When we have done that, as Michael says, we can then address what will be the appropriate mechanism for distributing QR in an FEC environment.
Professor Steve Smith: Could I just pick you up on one point? You talked about other departments closing. I think it is very important we note that the effect of the funding formula for fours, fives and five stars is not standing still, it is actually getting worse. This week we have seen the publication of the new HEFCE documentation of grant allocation. You will remember that this academic year if you were a four you got one unit of funding, if you were a five you got 2.7 and if you were a five star you got 3.3, but because they have limited the fours to real terms new growth and increased the funding from five to five stars that ratio has gone from one to three and then to 3.7, so it is actually making the situation slightly worse comparatively for four ranking departments. So institutions that have a lot of four ranking activity will see the pressure on them as money in effect is pulled from them and given to institutions with more five ranking activity.
Q429 Mr Key: Professor Sterling, coming back to what you said about RAE, what other mechanisms are being talked about?
Professor Sterling: One of them is a revision to something that used to be called DR, directly research related funding, which was allocating a portion of the QR money originally in response to the amount of research grant income that a university receives. So one bids to Research Councils under OST separately, individually, competitively and if you are successful in that process all of that money was added up and used as the driver for allocating a stream of the research money for HEFCE, so it was still dual support but it was allocated on the basis of research grant and contract money awarded through the OST stream.
Q430 Mr Key: Do you have any other examples you could share with us?
Professor Sterling: The other one that was talked about in the debate about whether 2008 should go ahead is whether the QR money should transfer to OST, which is a big issue for many of us. I am sure there are multiple other possibilities.
Q431 Mr Key: You said earlier that when it came to science funding it was important to pick winners, but who should pick those winners?
Professor Sterling: For example, biotechnology has been a growth area. It is an area where we are strong in the UK. We might well be able to develop that and compete head on with the USA. I think there are quite clear areas where we can compete and I think Lord Sainsbury has been active in identifying what those are.
Q432 Mr Key: Professor Smith, I thought what you said about the Exeter situation was very profound, that it was quite clear that there was a significant surplus of chemistry places in institutions around the south‑west. Is it true, therefore, that the real problem you have got here is that we are not attracting the best students into science overall? It is as simple as that. How do we start attracting better students into science?
Professor Steve Smith: I think you have put your finger on what I hope will be one of the very positive outcomes of the debate which really started with the Exeter decision and that is that it does strike me, in complete honesty, that this is not a supply problem, it is a demand problem. Universities do not want to go around shutting expensive facilities. You do not get pleasure from displacing students. You really try not to do this. I think the combination of a situation in which there are fewer well qualified students in many of the sciences than one would need to fill all the cases that are available nationally and the double‑whammy of the research funding model means that institutions have to make choices. I think the debate that is needed is very much about what is the right balance of regional provision and national provision bearing in mind the ability and the need for institutions to make autonomous decisions.
Q433 Mr Key: With the wisdom of hindsight, it has really been crazy creating all these chemistry departments all over the country knowing that we are facing a decline in student numbers to fill them.
Professor Steve Smith: I do not know the data, but I do not think there has been a massive growth in chemistry departments. I think what has happened is that there has been a long‑term decline in demand in science and engineering subjects and that is the problem.
Q434 Mr Key: So this is a problem that needs to be addressed at secondary school level.
Professor Steve Smith: Absolutely.
Q435 Mr Key: And that means, of course, also influencing the anti‑science culture in the country, which comes back to journalism. I think Professor Eastwood spoke of inflexibilities in the national curriculum. What can you identify as inflexibility in the national curriculum that is putting the brake on the number of students coming forward?
Professor Eastwood: Let me turn it around and say that it seems to me that the decline in experimental science in schools is significant. I am a non‑scientist so you should discount what I am now about to say, but a combination of poor facilities, insufficient resource for technicians and intrusive health and safety regulations mean that the excitement of seeing things happen in science is much diminished in schools. A lot of young people in schools are doing science but they do not quite see what the point is. Bringing the excitement back into science teaching is something which is important. I think one of the inflexibilities in the national curriculum is that once in a lifetime choices are made particularly at Key Stage 4 and beyond and there are rigidities, particularly post‑16, in the kind of mix of subjects that students tend to go forward into and they were some of the issues that we were trying to grapple with in Tomlinson in trying to build greater flexibility into the system through the deployment of the recommendations. I think there are things there that can be done. I suppose the issue where we will have to wait and see is whether the push in science education in primary schools is going, as those cohorts go through, to change the pattern of take-up in secondary education.
Q436 Mr Key: I attended a science class in a comprehensive school in my constituency two Fridays ago and I was really excited by it because it was using interactive white boards. The frustration of the science teacher was that it was judged by 15 and 16 year olds to be too difficult to take up science and maths subjects in the face of the enormous range of "easy" options both at A-level and also through university. Why bother to work all those extra hours in labs? Why bother with the intellectual hassle when you can surf through in one of the other subjects? Is this not a real problem, that we are giving a false choice to our young people in this country at the moment thinking that they can get away with easy subjects?
Professor Eastwood: I think if you look at the data on so‑called "easier" subjects you get a very mixed message. If you look at A-level outcomes and indeed if you look at post‑degree outcomes, the subjects that the media often derive as "soft" subjects are harder to get As in and harder to get Firsts in. In my own institution the highest proportion of First Class degrees in the main is in the science disciplines. It depends what you are looking at. Some of those perceptions about harder and easier subjects are misperceptions.
Professor Steve Smith: One of the things that we are very keen to get involved in because we have seen it work, which we would heartily recommend, is the use of student mentors in schools. Fifteen per cent of the Exeter undergraduates in the first year are involved in something called the Students' Associate Scheme whereby they go to schools. Other universities are involved as well. We are now involved in a pilot project to get science undergraduates at Exeter to try and spend time in the classroom every week throughout the year. The evidence is that it is that enthusing of 15- and 16-year olds and maybe earlier by students who have got a real passion for the subject at university that can be very important in turning them on to thinking of it as exciting, and that is something where we certainly will be spending more resource to try and do our bit in the region to improve the access of students into science courses elsewhere.
Q437 Mr Key: In the interests of spreading best practice could I ask you to comment on something that I learnt at this comprehensive school and it was that a very large employer of scientists and engineers nearby, QinetiQ (it used to be DERA), is now offering students identified by the science teachers in the school £20 a week not to get Saturday jobs but to mentor those children in the run up to their A-levels. Is that a good idea?
Professor Sterling: Most certainly, yes.
Chairman: Is £20 enough?
Q438 Mr Key: It seems to be in that school. It is a wonderful school called Upper Avon in Durrington.
Professor Sterling: I think that is marvellous and if others would follow that example it could be very effective.
Q439 Chairman: When you are cutting up the block grant and you have these HEFCE weightings to go on, do you just throw them aside and get on with it anyway or are you guided by them?
Professor Sterling: I think most universities are aware of what the units of resource are by subject area. In the first part it reflects what those units of resource are and the total allocation is done on a student basis and then it looks at the strategic nature of what is coming out of that resource modelling.
Q440 Chairman: So they might not even be realistic in terms of your strategy?
Professor Sterling: What we would do at Birmingham, for example, and have done in the past is to look at chemistry and physics, which have been in deficit, and to say that, as a science and technology leading university, we felt it was important for us to stay in those areas. We have cross‑subsidised but we have done it knowingly so that the rest of the university can see how much money it is costing the community to support those subjects while at the same time arguing nationally that we should be increasing the amounts of money for those subject areas which we feel is too low at the moment. You could argue that we could do that internally, but the problem is that one has to take money away at roughly two to one from the arts and humanity subject areas in order to support science and engineering.
Q441 Chairman: Does that cause resentment in the university community or do you not report it?
Professor Sterling: We certainly report it. It is totally transparent. It depends on the level. We have been able to get consensus in terms of the allocations in supporting the science subjects which have been in some financial difficulty. It is interesting now that chemistry at Birmingham is coming out of the difficulties. We are recruiting well. Our applications this year have gone up 38 per cent on last year, a very big increase and that goes part way to addressing a question that I think you asked earlier witnesses about what happens if vice chancellors all take the same decisions at the same time to come out of chemistry, would that not be against the national interest? It is unlikely that vice chancellors would do that because what happens is there is a delayed effect each year. Some vice chancellors decide that strategically chemistry is not important and therefore close it. Those applicants that would have gone to that university are now dispersed across the rest and as that process continues applications at the remaining universities go up and so the viability of their department gets better and that is tending to happen now. We are on the margin of turning over which is why I am a little bit more optimistic than some of the media are. That big increase in applications is also reflected to a lesser extent in physics as well. As universities close down their activities the remaining departments benefit. I do not think there is a likelihood that all of a sudden vice chancellors would say we are coming out of chemistry simultaneously and create zero chemistry departments because it is progressive over the years and there is a feedback mechanism in the process.
Q442 Chairman: When they came up with the teaching funding formula they told us that they consulted a community. Do you think they got their sums wrong or did they consult and then go ahead anyway?
Professor Sterling: The teaching funding HEFCE ran into some difficulties with because the basis of the analysis was flawed in my view. Perhaps I can take a moment to explain why I think it is flawed. They looked at expenditure in each subject area. I will take two examples, engineering and chemistry, and compare the two. In chemistry it was held that expenditure was going up. Why was it going up? It was going up because the student number was going down and it was difficult for chemistry staff to find alternative jobs outside the academic world. So essentially you had a high cost base remaining in staffing costs and a declining number of students and therefore your unit cost was going up. If you contrast that with engineering, engineering numbers were going down but staff numbers were also going down because engineering could make the transition into the commercial industrial world much more easily, so your cost base was going down. What appeared to happen is that the unitary resource, the spend, was going down for engineering and HEFCE then drew the conclusion that you do not need to spend as much money on engineering because the unitary resource is lower but you need to support the science one.
Q443 Chairman: There was a flaw in their allocations.
Professor Sterling: In my view there was.
Q444 Chairman: I guess that put you in somewhat of a mess.
Professor Sterling: At that point we have to smooth that out within an institution, we have to transfer resources and that is one of the arguments for cross‑subsidy with an institution, that somehow we do not agree with what is being done and therefore we have to correct that internally.
Q445 Chairman: We have been talking about cross‑subsidy between departments, but let us think about cross-subsidy between teaching and research. Everybody who has done research in university knows that you can fiddle your grant money to help students and so on because there is not any teaching budget there. If that is the phenomenon that occurs, how come some departments which just teach and do very little research survive?
Professor Alasdair Smith: The objective evidence from the studies that have been done on a full economic costing is that both teaching and research are under‑resourced. It is not a matter that one has been cross‑subsidised at the expense of the other, they are both being subsidised out of universities other income sources.
Q446 Chairman: People have to help the teaching. For example, undergraduates in their final year of doing projects, where does that money come from? There is not a budget necessarily in the department, in the university or in the system and so you have to take it from your research grant in some way. That is a phenomenon that has gone on for a long time. I am asking you about where teaching occurs only. If you have not got that source of money how can you teach undergraduates?
Professor Alasdair Smith: Teaching undergraduates without research funding is not really a resourcing issue, it is an issue of what kind of teaching we want to provide. I think we provide better quality teaching for undergraduates in a research environment, but it is because of the economic environment, it not because of cross‑subsidies.
Q447 Chairman: The young people we met were so excited about going to university, not because of the teaching but because they would get a chance to see research and engage with the upfront stuff and that is very important. What we are worried about and other people are worried about is that you have a teaching only department where they do not get that excitement. Some universities will be hybrids and they will not go there. Even if you teach them at school they will say there is nowhere to go. You will not have enough places. I am exaggerating the situation because it will be different across the country, but it is a phenomenon that could blight what we are trying to do.
Professor Sterling: It is difficult in a finite resource world. I think there is a difference between staff that are working themselves at the cutting edge of research and clearly that is an advantage compared with staff that are not. The intermediate category is that those staff that are teaching are aware of where the leading edge of research is even if they are not doing it. That is what I would call scholarship. It is important for all academic staff to be engaged in scholarship even if they personally themselves are not at the cutting edge of research. It is an intermediate position between a teaching only concept where the staff are merely teaching students without an awareness of research and a research led one.
Q448 Chairman: You could go into a department which accentuated teaching as the function and get your promotion based on that so to heck with cutting edge research and so on. You can do just enough, write a book every ten years or a report or so on, which is an academic exercise and well worthwhile but not what you are trying to do in universities.
Professor Sterling: I would suspect that you and the students are right, that it is more attractive for students to come to a research intensive environment, but we have to recognise that there is only a finite amount of research money to go round.
Q449 Chairman: You have got to be careful with the word environment as that suggests it is the university. They come to the department, the scholar, the teacher, or the subsection of the department, that is what attracts them and that is who they identify with generally. The poor resourcing from alumni shows that they do not identify particularly well with the university in this country.
Professor Sterling: I was meaning environment in the context that you have just said.
Professor Eastwood: The analysis of costs and income based on the tracking methodology suggested that the deficit was greater on research than it was on teaching and that work has been broadly accepted by Government because it underpins the rather good funding settlement for research that is now going through where resource for research is increasing on the assumption that research volumes will not go up. So we will get to a point where we think that the research activities of research intensive universities will come back into balance, but in the recent past that cross‑subsidisation from research into teaching has not happened, it has not been possible and that explains the phenomenon that you describe, that you can run predominantly teaching departments more or less in balance. It is on research that we have been losing a lot of money, which goes back to Steve's point that if the QR is at four levels or lower it is virtually impossible to sustain.
Q450 Chairman: Do you accept the point that there is cross‑subsidy within departments, not globally? I accept the global figure across the whole university sector. I do not deny at all your conclusion. In a department where they have got to make this decision of running their department it is often a cross‑subsidy into teaching that makes it difficult for them to get a good grade and which allows them to be susceptible to being a poor four.
Professor Eastwood: It all depends who you think is paying the salaries.
Q451 Chairman: Who do you think pays?
Professor Eastwood: My point is that at departmental level the salaries are already paid. It might show as a deficit on universities internal accounts but the salaries are being paid and so what is being moved around is discretionary spend.
Q452 Chairman: The salaries are now negotiable. We have been told that some professors get more than others and so on. There is not a universal figure to attract the best. There is huge variation in professors, is there not, and you decide who gets what which messes up the whole financing of your departments?
Professor Eastwood: I think you will find they are deeply strategic decisions.
Q453 Chairman: Absolutely.
Professor Eastwood: Consistent with the strategic direction of the university.
Q454 Dr Harris: Would you say that it is the first priority of higher education to sustain truly world class science research in this country?
Professor Sterling: I think it is vital for this country to be conducting world class research because the knock‑on effects of not doing that would be so serious on the economy.
Q455 Dr Harris: Let me repeat the question. Is it the first priority of the higher education system and its funders to sustain first class research? Obviously it is important and vital and good.
Professor Sterling: There are two elements to that. Higher education in a university is about teaching and research, it is a combination. I think we have made a case in our Russell Group submission that to try and separate out a research institute that is only doing world class research is very unwise and the combination of the two creates a major strength that takes the teaching of students into the context of the world class research and that combination is important. In aggregate it is important to have strong universities that are active in science and technology. I cannot see that a concept where you could have a set of research institutes that were doing the world class research and somehow still have a set of institutes that were teaching only that were producing world class graduates separately works. That model does not seem to make sense to me.
Q456 Dr Harris: That is a helpful answer. I am not sure if it answers the question about whether it could be described as a first priority. Messages are important here.
Professor Sterling: Financially speaking, teaching is the largest income stream for universities. You have to say that that, by the amount of money that is coming in, is more important than research. You would not have a strong teaching environment that was world class if you were not able to offer a research environment to staff. Staff are motivated by research, they want to explore new knowledge and it is their ability to do that and transfer that to the student that creates world class graduates. The two are properly interlinked. Trying to separate out whether it is teaching that is more important than research I do not think leads us to the right conclusion.
Professor Steve Smith: My take on your question is that it is in the UK's strategic interest to have a variety of institutions delivering outstanding research and outstanding teaching to meet the needs of the economy and of the society. It is a very easy question to ask at one level. The problem is that to say yes or no to it is a trap because, frankly, we do not want an economy that just has a small number of research institutes that do not teach. There is massive vocational teaching need. There is a whole set of developments. For me the key is that all universities are now caught up in a process whereby we are being asked to choose our missions much more carefully and to make sure that we are good at whatever it is that we do. I think that is what has led in part to universities rationalising science provision, that attempt to adjust to the strengths of the individual institution.
Q457 Dr Harris: Is there an argument for saying that if you do not fund research as much as you are doing you can catch that up by refunding it and attracting people in, but if you do not fund teaching and you lose the stream of teachers, particularly in secondary schools, then it is much more difficult to catch up later? Perhaps we are in that situation given the problem of recruiting science specialist teachers in secondary schools. There is an argument about sustainability applying greater to teaching than to research.
Professor Steve Smith: That is true, but the slight worry I have about the way you phrased it is that it implies that the problem is a supply problem. I think the problem in science and engineering is a demand problem. It is not about the supply of places, it is about the demand for those places.
Q458 Dr Harris: Perhaps you can clarify it in the context of a shortage of science teachers. Can you just restate that and say for those of us who are not economists and want to deal with teachers rather than graphs of supply and demand what you mean?
Professor Steve Smith: Put very simply, just to take chemistry as an example, there is not a shortage of places for chemistry, there is an excess of places over the number of students that wish to study the subject. The problem is not the institutions cutting back provision as such but the absence of demand that creates that problem.
Q459 Dr Harris: There are two concepts, the supply of graduates and then feeling that they cannot afford the salary of a secondary school teacher with their debt and so forth maybe. If you do not have a supply of chemistry graduates going into teaching then that can create a problem of demand because if you are taught chemistry by someone who has not got chemistry arguably you are less likely to be invigorated enough to want to do it.
Professor Steve Smith: I agree with you.
Professor Eastwood: It is worth making the point that the majority of science graduates go into careers where they cease to be scientists. If we are looking at market effects here, universities are producing more than enough chemists to over‑stock schools with chemistry teachers but they are making different career choices.
Q460 Dr Harris: Why do you think it is that graduates with debts choose to go into a well funded private sector job rather than a less well funded public sector job in teaching, in research or in science? I have answered the question in my question because I think it is a statement of the obvious. Argue with me, please, because there are some in Government who believe that debt inspires people to go into less well paid public sector jobs.
Professor Eastwood: My point is a market point, which is that people will go into teaching partly because of salaries, you are right about that. They will also go into teaching because of the excitement of teaching as a career.
Q461 Dr Harris: Do you accept the point I am making, that the higher the debt the more likely you are to get scientists going into jobs where numeracy is well rewarded in the private sector?
Professor Sterling: It comes down to the remuneration of a career. I think students are fairly sophisticated in the choices that they make. They know the subjects that they are strong at, the ones that they like to do, they have an idea about the career they would like to go into and increasingly they are looking at the rewards of that career and that is influencing their choice as they become undergraduates. I think it is up to any profession that feels it is short of graduates to market itself rather better and effectively to have higher remuneration that would attract students into that. Teaching is moving in that direction, is it not? There have been some initiatives for science to attract science teachers into schools which I think are very positive.
Q462 Dr Harris: Or you could reduce debt in certain areas.
Professor Sterling: Indeed. It is all a financial incentive.
Q463 Dr Harris: What justification, if any, would there be for taking funds away from excellent research departments to support struggling departments, to keep the teaching side going and the supply of graduates who might then become teachers lower down the scale?
Professor Sterling: It is what we have been saying: we do not believe there is a supply problem, particularly in physics and chemistry. There are plenty of graduates being produced, so taking money away and putting it into lower quality provision from high quality provision does not seem to me to be good for the national wellbeing in terms of competitiveness.
Q464 Dr Harris: I want finally to cover this question of the RAE distribution because we have been given some interesting information by Professor Smith, which is fascinating and it is in our briefing. It states: "Chemistry was rated 4 both before and after 2001." - this is at Exeter - "In 2001-02" - as a consequence of this fall - "it got £28.2K per member of staff; after the 2001 RAE the sum it received per staff member fell to £16k in 2004-5, a fall of about 42%", even though there has not been a fall in the quality of research as measured by the RAE. Is that satisfactory?
Professor Steve Smith: The facts are quite straightforward and I think every Vice Chancellor in the country knows that whereas five-ranking subjects maintained their value fours were cut enormously, and indeed the figure in our chemistry stayed at four and lost 42 per cent of its funding. I think that is an absolutely core issue for science provision in universities. There is no way round it. That is not to say that it is the wrong decision because there is an argument about whether the best thing is to have a small number of well-funded departments or to have a large number of not well-funded departments. That is a crucial debate that the UK has to have about how best to fund research in science. Nonetheless, whereas physics was a four and went to a five, it increased its funding by 86 per cent while chemistry, by staying at four, lost 42 per cent and that is the absolutely clear outcome of the funding problem.
Q465 Chairman: You do not think there is a temptation to take sciences, which on average are more expensive, are they not, and say, "That is the easiest thing to do. We have got some areas. We have got a case. Give it to the scientists first. Forget the arts departments"?
Professor Steve Smith: Yes, but as you know, the arts departments and social science departments themselves are competing in an international environment. They are enormously important to the UK economy and society and I think it is very difficult to take QR money earned by the research performance of groups and redistribute it in the long term. It is your point about sustainability. It is all about creating sustainable research strength in the UK and within institutions and thus the debate has to be about where the onus of that funding should go.
Q466 Dr Harris: The problem is that fours have suffered a lot. It is not that they do not have enough money for the fours. Do you think four-rated set departments are financially viable?
Professor Steve Smith: My view, and this was covered before you arrived, is that any department that is a four has trouble. It is particularly problematic if it is in an institution where there are a lot of fours.
Q467 Dr Harris: I do not want you to repeat what you have said already. I think you were saying that if we are going to have this effect it ought not to be a consequence of the RAE in the wash-up but ought to be properly debated and put forward as a policy by the funders rather than just saying, "It is a consequence downstream. It is not our responsibility". Do you say there should be a strategy?
Professor Steve Smith: To be blunt, I think the government has been absolutely clear on the strategy. The White Paper on higher education could not have been clearer. It actually said that it thought the country needed more concentration of research resource and the funding formula is not the kind of technical thing that produces this result. It is the result of a very clear set of decisions about where funding for research should be concentrated.
Q468 Dr Harris: Are you saying the White Paper said that four departments might well close, so be it? I am asking should it not be explicit, and I thought you were saying it should be explicit.
Professor Steve Smith: It did not say four-rated departments should close. It said that universities should concentrate on their strengths and it said there should be more concentration on research resource, and I think that leads to the inevitable consequence of departments closing.
Professor Alasdair Smith: Especially following a research assessment exercise in which a much higher proportion of departments than in the past were created five and five-star, so there had to be some shift of funding in order simply to keep the current level of research concentration.
Professor Sterling: One of the issues for universities in the RAE is not knowing in advance how much unit of resource is associated with the various grades. We all understand perfectly well why it is done the way it is, because there is a finite amount of money that is then carved up when you know that the answer from the RAE is how many five and five-star departments you have. Were it the other way round then it would make strategic planning within the universities rather easier. If you knew that a four was going to have that amount of money you could plan more effectively but one understands why it is the way it is, because otherwise government would have to come up with additional money if the research ended up being graded rather higher. We understand the mechanisms.
Q469 Mr McWalter: Why do we not go back to the University Grants Committee? After all, that did have a quite clear concept of what the UK strategic interest was and it allocated places and students applied knowing that if they applied, say, to do physics, they were more likely to get into university than if they did some other subjects. At the moment what we have is this absurd situation where most of your funding through HEFCE is on teaching and that is backsides on seats and that money is allocated increasingly to courses that are in demand but actually the country does not need 57 forensic science courses; the country does not even need one, but because that is sexy and trendy students apply to do it and universities meet that demand, taking those people away from the courses that might have been of real benefit to the country.
Professor Alasdair Smith: But this comes back to the issue of supply and demand. There is no point in having a University Grants Committee creating lots of additional places in physics or chemistry if there are not students to fill them. There is no gain to the national interest by having additional empty spaces.
Q470 Mr McWalter: But there is no incentive for a student to do a hard degree like physics rather than an easy degree like business studies (no languages) (no maths), because languages and maths lower the demand for that kind of course. The universities are pandering to an agenda which is increasingly market-driven and is increasingly lowering the quality of the student experience at university.
Professor Alasdair Smith: I would dispute the proposition that arts degrees are of lower quality than science degrees.
Q471 Mr McWalter: I did not say that. I said that business studies without maths or languages are of lower quality than a business studies degree with both those components, and universities have got a very big interest in doing the former kind of course rather than the latter because that gets you more students.
Professor Sterling: Can I pick up the point about UGC because I have been a Vice Chancellor now for almost 15 years so UGC did exist when I was first appointed. It was a different world in those days with 50 or so universities. The whole grants committee went on visits round each of those institutions and therefore arguably knew each of the institutions better than it is possible to do with 140-odd institutions funded by HEFCE alone. It is not possible for HEFCE as a board to go round and know each of the colleagues of higher education as well as expanding the university sector. Their detailed knowledge of the sector is necessarily more limited than that of UGC. Whether one could do it for a smaller set of universities is another matter. UGC were operating in a different world.
Chairman: It is late. We could go on for a long time. Can I thank you all very much for coming and answering our questions and giving us of your experience.
Memorandum submitted by the Government
Examination of Witness
Witness: Dr Kim Howells, a Member of the House, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, Department for Education and Skills, examined.
In the absence of the Chairman Dr Brian Iddon was called to the Chair
Q472 Dr Iddon: Can I welcome you, Minister, to what we see as quite an important inquiry and thank you for coming and listening to some of the evidence that the Vice Chancellors were giving. The Chairman apologises for not being here in the Chair for this session. He has another engagement. Can I start by asking you about the measures that HEFCE has recently announced in an attempt to protect struggling SET departments of regional or national importance, presumably as a result of the letter that the previous Secretary of State at the Department for Education and Skills sent out to universities? How do you square that letter and the recent HEFCE advice with the policy of non-intervention in individual universities? There seems to be a tension there somewhere.
Dr Howells: As the committee will know we are prevented by law from instructing HEFCE to do anything. The Secretary of State once a year writes a letter which sets out what it is that the government thinks is required from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and of course it is a means of protecting the academic independence of the university sector and of individual universities. It was an extraordinary thing that Charles Clarke, who was then the Secretary of State, did. The controversy was generated around the fact that Exeter had announced the closure of its chemistry department and a number of other courses. I found it a bit strange first of all that there was a big row about this because other chemistry departments and physics departments had closed but Exeter seemed a very special case. I am not quite sure why that is.
Q473 Dr Iddon: We had a bit of a row about Swansea as well.
Dr Howells: Yes, we had a row about Swansea but it was nothing compared with this row which, as a Welshman, I felt a little bit irked about, but there we are. Charles Clarke did something which was very interesting. He wrote to Sir Howard Newby and asked him if he could give us his help and advice on how we could manage to protect a number of strategic subjects. I remember it was not only science; it also included subjects like modern languages. It was quite interesting that in the weeks that followed there was lots of angry chatter about what constituted a strategic subject and I had friends of mine who are quite distinguished academics saying to me, "How come English is not a strategic subject? How come art is not a strategic subject or drama? The country earns lots of money from these sectors and we ought to be very sensitive to their needs". I think it is a very difficult subject, first of all. The Secretary of State wrote a very clear letter and asked HEFCE to take a look at it and give us their advice and help. They set up a sub-committee which has been looking at the subject and apparently we are to get an interim report about April and final advice in June that is going to tell us what they think is required to be done, but I do not know any details about their deliberations up to now. I do not really want to know them either.
Q474 Dr Iddon: So we do not know at this stage what constitutes a department of strategic or regional importance?
Dr Howells: No. I have got an idea about what they are and I could certainly tell the committee that. I can remember when news of Exeter came through I was sitting next to a Vice Chancellor in my office from another university who said to me, "What is all the fuss about? There are 21 five-rated chemistry departments in this country. That is over-provision", which is what Professor Steve Smith has just said, by the way.
Q475 Dr Iddon: Do you think HEFCE's new powers, if they are regarded as new powers, will be adequate to prevent closures of departments of strategic or national importance?
Dr Howells: I really do not know because I have had no indication of what HEFCE is thinking about this. I think it is going to be tremendously hard for the ship to change direction at this stage because universities, quite properly, are very jealous of their autonomy, their independence, and they do not like being told, nor should they like being told by government or anybody else, what they should or should not teach. Professor Steve Smith was adamant about that. He said, "Look; there is not under-provision. There is over-provision. What there is is slack on the demand side". We are very worried about that but that is perhaps another question we could deal with on this committee.
Q476 Dr Iddon: The government has an excellent policy for the development of science and innovation during a decade and a significant announcement was made this week on that. Are there any incentives that we could make to underpin that strategy, bearing in mind that SET departments are closing at quite a rate at the moment? In other words, does that latter fact affect the government's strategy in any way?
Dr Howells: I think a number of the distinguished academics who were on this bench a few moments ago indicated that the great underlying problem - and it is not unique to this country - is the number of young people who are choosing not to take science subjects. It is something that worries me a great deal. Wherever I have gone in the country, and I have made a point of going to at least one university or college every week since last September, I hear all kinds of different reasons why young people are not opting for science and maths and they range from allegations that the teaching of science up to GCSE is boring, that it is compulsory and therefore the first opportunity students have to drop subjects they drop science and maths. Others say it is because they are hard. I do not know about that. I spoke to one young student in a sixth form college in Scarborough, for example, where there was a rather low number of students round the table who had decided to take stem subjects. They were, as you and I, Dr Iddon, would have called it, first-year sixth-formers. I asked them who amongst them were studying mathematics or science. Four or five put their hands up. When I asked one young boy, "Why are you studying mathematics?", he said, "I started studying Spanish but it was too difficult", so I do not buy this. I think we underrate the thinking that young people have on this. I think there are plenty of young people around who are perfectly capable of doing so-called difficult subjects, and I dispute that term as well, but they are choosing not to do them. We have to take that very seriously. I do not think you can force people, nor will you ever be able to force people, into those subject areas. We have to look at the way they are taught; we have to look at the national curriculum. One of my colleagues from the department is in this room at the moment and she has been doing a survey of the huge number of initiatives that are out there to try to get young people interested in science and mathematics and engineering and technology, and so far she has filled three volumes with these initiatives. I suspect we are spending as a nation, not just as a department, many millions of pounds on initiatives for which we have very little evidence that they are working. They do not seem to be working.
Q477 Dr Iddon: What about incentives? One of our Vice Chancellors flagged up the idea of scholarships just to send a signal out that this is a subject of strategic importance and perhaps the government might give a few scholarships to study that subject at various universities.
Dr Howells: I think it is an idea worth looking at. There are lots of golden hellos around at the moment, of course, and lots of carrots for people to go into those areas, especially if they are going to teach in those areas. I think the problem is a deeper one than that. I think it is a multi-faceted problem. People also have to have a much clearer idea about what they are going to do with their science degrees. I have heard lots of talk, for example, of engineers being snapped up by law firms and accountancy firms and all sorts of people like that because they like the way engineers think and the way they have been taught. The obvious answer to that is, "Tell engineering companies to pay them a bit more to make it a more attractive source of employment", but then, of course, they will argue that it will reduce their competitiveness. I do not think it is a simple issue at all.
Q478 Dr Harris: The policy options here are not clear so you may well need some research to back that up before you spend money on bursaries or whatever. Do you think there is enough research out there or do you think, for example, that the ESRC could be made interested to do some research into why students are not choosing to do this and what would encourage students to stay in science or become teachers? Is there scope for that sort of work to be done rather than underpinning policy?
Dr Howells: There is an enormous amount of research out there and there are huge numbers of initiatives also out there, many of which are evidence-based, although not all. I wonder where some of them have come from. Perhaps I can try to answer your question by saying what are the best examples I have seen of initiatives to get people interested in science and especially to get them into universities where research is conducted and where science has got a great reputation. I will give you an example. Recently I was at Sheffield University where they have got very close relationships with a number of local schools which have not had records of sending young people to university in the past. What they do there is get third and fourth year medical students to teach groups of these schoolchildren for a day or two days. They teach them how to take blood, how to take blood pressure, how to do the kinds of things that second and third year medical students do at university. It has had a dramatic effect. They have also earmarked at Sheffield I think 22 places for those young people who have had that experience. It has had a remarkable effect on young people wanting to go into those kinds of subjects. If I could mention another one, I went to Bridgwater Further Education College, and at Bridgwater Further Education College they have a very close link with Bristol University. They have got record numbers of students studying chemistry at Bridgwater Further Education College who want to go on to university to study chemistry. Somebody is getting it right.
Q479 Dr Harris: I am sure that is right. I thought you said that it was not entirely clear why students, in the absence of these schemes certainly, are not choosing science. I was just wondering, if you do not know would it not be a good idea to do some research, and I am seeking to find out, if you do not know and it is a good idea to therefore do some research, who should be doing that research. Should it be the Chief Scientific Officer or should it be a research project by the ESRC, for example?
Dr Howells: That research is going on already and it is being conducted by many people, including the Chief Scientific Officer. It has been being conducted for a very long time and it is being conducted nationally and within regions. I do not think we are short of research. Quite frankly, I do not think we can kick this into touch with another review or consultation. This is a problem that is an immediate one.
Q480 Dr Harris: Can I ask you to ask your department to send us a list of research into the specific question of why students are not choosing to do science at university?
Dr Howells: Yes, we will do that. Whether you will get a good answer is another matter.
Q481 Mr McWalter: Does it matter that the number of students studying sciences at university has declined?
Dr Howells: Yes, I think it does matter. All the developed nations now, and we are talking about knowledge-driven economies, are talking about the centrality of science and advanced research. Universities themselves are increasingly concerned with this. We heard, for example, the new Vice Chancellor of the combined Manchester University talking about building up a war chest of £100 million or £400 million in order to attract two or three or four Nobel Prize winners to the teams to come and teach at the university. British universities do not benchmark themselves against European universities any more; they benchmark themselves against American universities. The most prestigious areas of research and study are in science.
Q482 Mr McWalter: Okay, so it would be a good idea but you do not really have any ideas about what you might do to change things?
Dr Howells: We have got plenty of ideas about how to change things but the problem is not a simple one. I heard your question earlier on although I did not quite follow the logic of what you were saying.
Q483 Mr McWalter: Perhaps I can amplify it. In my previous life I was approached by a university which wanted to do a political economy course and they asked me as an external adviser to advise them on that particular set of arrangements. I made some suggestions and they were very clear that they did not want any reading that involved anything like demanding numeracy from the students. In other words, they were targeting a political economy course but removing quantitative studies because they said that would drive students away, it would lead to lower numbers on the course and hence they were determined not to have that as a component, so I wrote a prospectus without it. It seemed to me that that was an inferior course to one which actually engaged with some of the classical economic works which would have required some degree of quantitative skills. That is going on throughout the whole of the system. People are downgrading courses in order to get the maximum number of students, the minimum number of failures, because that is also very important, to keep the people once you have got them, in order to keep the university bottom line viable. That is what is going on in universities and that is why people do not want a course that involves looking in detail at the Gaussian equation for normal distribution in statistics or whatever because that is forbidding, that is difficult, people find it a switch-off. You have to understand that people do not want to do that and that is why we are losing scientists.
Dr Howells: Mr McWalter, I take what you say and I am not going to ask you to name this university because it would not be an ethical thing to do, but can I say this? I am an avid reader (although I do not believe half of them) of the world comparisons of universities, and at the moment and for quite a while now the lists have been dominated by American and British universities. If we are engaged in this kind of dumbing down of university courses, as you allege we are, why is it that a peer review of research going on in universities in the world keeps coming back to Britain as a centre of great excellence? I really do not understand this. I heard something this morning about research conducted at UCL into diabetes, that they may have found a cure for a certain kind of diabetes. That is going to resonate around the world. That is British university research. Quite frankly, as I go round the country I constantly come across examples of wonderful scientific research, so I do not accept for one moment that somehow research departments or intake into universities is inferior to what it was at some stage or other in the golden past. I do not accept the golden past and I never have done.
Q484 Mr McWalter: The golden past has generated a lot of the work that you are talking about and it comes from a way of organising higher education, and I mentioned earlier the University Grants Committee which gave strong incentives to people to do degrees in chemistry, say, rather than degrees in forensic science. We now have 57 courses in forensic science. None of them equips people to be a forensic scientist and they are taking people away from the more generic careers which would have given them a range of capacities and skills and directed them instead, according to a student's rather narrow perception at 18, to wanting to be a bit like Amanda Burton. At some stage surely the government has got to step in and say that we do not need people to do that so much as we need people to do this. If the government has got some mechanisms for doing that, some sense of direction in the system, that has got to be good for the UK economy, and actually has got to be good for those students as well. We produce more forensic scientists now in a year than work in forensic science in the country in total. What is going on to have that kind of demand being responded to?
Dr Howells: We cannot tell universities what to teach, nor should we. We have talked this morning, and I came in at ten o'clock and listened to the Vice Chancellors. The Vice Chancellors told a tale of people being unwilling to go into, if you like, pure science departments. There was a decline in the numbers that wanted to do that and that decline is borne out in the statistics. What do we do about this? We cannot force people to study those subjects; it is impossible. There are some theories about reducing the tuition fee for those areas, which would mean, of course, that the taxpayer would then have to subsidise the universities to keep up those unit costs. Maybe we ought to debate that. Personally, I do not think it would work. I think the problem is much more deep-rooted and, if you like, the area that those roots are reaching down into is a kind of growing reluctance to study those pure science subjects. It is not everywhere. I do not think a lot of this is to do with the structure of the system. I think it is to do with the quality of teaching. It may well be that the curriculum is too tightly drawn to enable teachers to make science exciting for young people. Mr Key has gone now but he said something very interesting at the start of his questions, where he said he had been at a school recently where the excitement was palpable in a science class that he went to. I am trying to give you examples of schools and colleges where A-levels, for example, are being taught where people are clamouring to get into those departments because they see it as a very exciting prospect for themselves. I think we have got big problems in career advice and all of those things contribute to the choices that people make when it comes to deciding what subjects they want to study. I think we waste an enormous amount of talent, I would agree with you very much in that respect, but it is not a simple problem.
Q485 Mr McWalter: Lord Sainsbury said to this committee just last week that the government were not doing nearly enough to make potential students aware of the significance of the choices that they were exercising when they were choosing courses, and certainly that seems to apply to science-based subjects, so is there not something fairly immediate we should be doing, given that Lord Sainsbury himself thinks that it needs urgent attention, to address that issue?
Dr Howells: Yes. Lord Sainsbury and I are working very closely on this and one of the exercises that we have been doing is trying to find out exactly what agencies and government and everybody else have been trying to do to persuade young people to study what you referred to as those more difficult subjects. The interim evidence, if you like, is that there are literally thousands of initiatives out there, some of which have succeeded, some of which self-evidently are not succeeding. What we have to do is to try to find a much more constructive and focused way forward. You have not asked me this, but if you did ask me -----
Q486 Mr McWalter: I will ask you it now.
Dr Howells: I think I would give the responsibility to the universities and colleges. I would say to them, "Come on. Inspire the young people in your region to want to study science and explain to them what it is going to mean at the end of it".
Q487 Dr Iddon: what do you say to those people who argue that it is essential to have good research in a department in order to have excellent teaching in the same department?
Dr Howells: I would have thought first of all that any lecturer worth his or her salt would be interested in what is going on in contemporary research, and I forget which of the Vice Chancellors spoke about scholarships, but there is no excuse for poor teaching and there is no excuse for teachers who are not aware of contemporary research. Whether they are part of it or whether they read about it they ought to be assiduous about following contemporary research. I know there are university departments where they get very little research money but they have great excellence in teaching. I forget who asked the question on the committee earlier this morning about whether it is possible to run a university department without conducting fundamental research. Clearly there are departments that operate like that and seem to do a very good job of it. I was a little bit disappointed; we had four excellent witnesses this morning but there was nobody there from the 92 HEIs where there is a different approach to many of these things. They teach an awful lot of people in this country and the very first visit I made after coming to this job was to the University of the West of England where they have got a research exercise going on which receives a little bit but a crucial bit of funding, where they have collaborated with Bristol University and Bath University to produce some very impressive results. Nobody seems to have talked about collaboration this morning. The White Rose Group in Yorkshire of Leeds, York and Sheffield, three very fine universities, are collaborating on research so that they can take on the most powerful universities in the world in terms of their ability to focus on certain areas of research. That is an important way forward too, I think.
Q488 Dr Iddon: So are we, either by accident or design, moving towards alternative models of arranging our university/higher education systems in this country?
Dr Howells: I think we are. I am certainly on tenterhooks waiting for HEFCE's response to Charles Clarke's letter because we have got to find a way through this, I think. When I speak to Vice Chancellors on or off the record, they usually say to me, "Look: unless somebody can come up with a better method than the RAE" - and the next one is in 2008 - "it is the best we have got at the moment". Remember, the sector designs these judgements; government does not do it. The sector is extremely jealous of its own autonomy in these things and if the sector feels that it has got a problem it has got to come up with a solution. I can make the right noises, like any other politician, about what I think we need, and I certainly think we need to strengthen our science base and keep extending it; I think we have got a very strong science base, probably only bettered by the Americans (and those are certain American universities, not all American universities) but there is plenty of room for improvement. I am very distressed that we always seem to be talking down the achievements of British universities because nobody else in the world does. The ratio of European students who want to come to our universities compared to our students wanting to go to European ones I think Barry Sheerman said was three to one. That is not only because we speak English but it is also because our universities have a world reputation for excellence.
Q489 Dr Iddon: Do you agree that a regional presence for subjects of strategic importance is the way forward and, if we are likely to lose those in any of the regions, and East Anglia and the West Country seem to be at the greatest risk at the moment, would we consider developing a hub and spoke model between other universities like Bristol for chemistry and the other higher education institutes in that region?
Dr Howells: Yes. This is a fascinating subject, and now we have got regional development agencies and they have got some money I notice that there is a different kind of reaction across the country. The North West Regional Development Agency, for example, seems to be very interested in working with Manchester and Liverpool Universities especially, but also with others, such as the University of Central Lancashire and Lancaster and so on. They seem to be very focused in understanding that universities are amongst the most potent economic drivers of any region. Not only are they in themselves enormously important industries; they put a lot of money into the economy in terms of salaries, but if they have got a good relationship with a region they can make all the difference. I think we are beginning to understand that lesson very well in this country now, but the response of RDAs is still a bit patchy in terms of their willingness to collaborate with the universities in making the most of their expertise and especially of their research strengths. There are simple things as well, Dr Iddon, like, how do you keep your graduates, and especially how do you keep your science and engineering and technology graduates? I can remember that until very recently in my own constituency, Pontypridd, where we have got the University of Glamorgan, which is a very fine institution that grew out of the Treforest School of Mines, it was regarded as a kind of car parking problem by the local authority for years and years. It was a nuisance to the people who lived around there. It is only recently that they have begun to realise, "Hang on. This is something we really ought to value and we ought to try to keep the graduates and the postgraduates", because if we can keep those people the chances are they are going to start their own businesses, they are going to raise the level of skills in an area and it makes that area wealthier.
Q490 Mr McWalter: Just talking about research funding and its distribution, you have just mentioned the need to extend the science base but the UK deans of science have reported 80 closures of science departments with scores of four or less. Is that a good thing, to clear out the rubbish, get rid of the under-performing departments, or have some valuable departments been lost and, if so, what are you going to do about it?
Dr Howells: I am sure some valuable departments have been lost. I was very worried about Exeter's decision and I know that Lord Sainsbury, as he probably told this committee, was very worried about Exeter's decision. Steve Smith, the Vice Chancellor, is one of the outstanding academics and academic administrators that we have got in this country, and I sat at the back of this room this morning and listened to his evidence and it is very difficult to argue against. The university sector has decided in its wisdom that this is the kind of model that they want. They have closed departments other than mathematics and science and engineering. I think they stopped the teaching of Italian at the same time at Exeter and that is a worrying tendency as well, but I can understand why Steve Smith did it. The problem is that I do not think there is a single voice or opinion in the higher education sector about how best to move forward in this respect. They vary from people saying there is over-provision of science and mathematics departments to those who say that we are losing a vital regional asset and we will never make it up.
Q491 Mr McWalter: As, for instance, mathematics at Hull, another example of a place where there is a big impact. Would you not consider changes to the research assessment exercise in time for 2008 to lower the funding differential between departments rated at five or above compared to those at four or lower because after all that would immediately go a long way to resolve this desire that you have correctly identified to broaden the science base?
Dr Howells: Mr McWalter, if I were to tell you that there are Vice Chancellors who have said to me, "Forget giving research money to any but the top four or five research-based universities in this country", I am sure you would not be surprised.
Q492 Mr McWalter: We often think the government is on their side.
Dr Howells: I think if you look at the list of five-rated departments that are around now, there are a lot of them, in chemistry, physics, maths and engineering. I doubt if there is any country on the face of this earth that has got more per head of population than we have got in this country. I do not think we are standing by idly and watching our capacity disappear but I do worry a great deal about the fact that regionally we might be losing some of that capacity.
Q493 Mr McWalter: By saying, "Oh, gosh, we have got all these fives; are we not well off?", you are then having a policy that shoves the fours into the wall. What you have just said gives no succour at all to those of us who think that some departments rated at four and 3A are actually departments that are often doing new stuff, fledgling departments, younger staff, people with a very considerable amount of dynamism to contribute to the subject but have not yet reached the stage where they are household figures or are featuring in international conferences. What you have just said gives us no succour at all in terms of what you are going to do about them. It sounds like you are saying we have got enough already.
Dr Howells: No, I do not think I am saying we have got enough already. There is one aspect of what you have just said that I agree with entirely and to me it is the central quandary of the research assessment exercise model, and it is this. How do we ensure that for a university that is ambitious, that might be a lot younger than the Russell Group of universities, there is enough money around for a little bit of research like the research conducted at the University of the West of England that I mentioned? How can they start to break into the big time? How can they make the established research universities feel as if they are breathing down their necks? There are universities that have done this. Warwick is one.
Q494 Mr McWalter: Are these questions rhetorical? You know the answer. It is to give those departments rated four and 3A much more money than they currently get.
Dr Howells: The universities themselves do not believe that. The universities themselves, who, after all, have designed this model, believe that the money should be concentrated in those centres of excellence. We have got other pots of money which to some extent help these other universities, these research departments, and HEFCE and the universities themselves have modified the way in which the RAE will work in 2008. I noticed that there was a little flurry with the Vice Chancellors before they left about not knowing how the funding was going to be distributed after the RAE is completed. Remember, a lot of people said that the reason why Exeter and other universities have closed their departments is that they are trying to read the entrails of what is likely to happen in the next RAE and they are cutting their losses now. If that is true then that is extremely disappointing because I do not think any of us knows what the RAE is going to come up with. If the central question you are asking me is whether we should take money away from those five-rated departments and spread it a bit more thinly, well, that is the basic philosophical argument.
Q495 Mr McWalter: Increase the quantum if you really believe that.
Dr Howells: We are increasing the quantum but in a way that it has never been increased by any other government previously. It has a huge amount more money going into research. I know that if I were a Vice Chancellor, and they would never make me a Vice Chancellor, I would be getting my retaliation in first before this RAE and I would be ensuring that everybody believed that I was starved of cash. The universities have never had more cash than they have got now.
Q496 Dr Harris: You said there were 21 five and five-star universities in chemistry and that this was over-provision, and I am not going to argue with 21 -----
Dr Howells: Nineteen I have counted.
Q497 Dr Harris: But the point you were making was that that was over-provision.
Dr Howells: No, I did not say that. I said the Vice Chancellors have said to me that there is over-provision and before you came into this committee this morning I heard Steve Smith say that there are too many departments and not enough demand. They are not my words. I am reporting to this committee what people have said on the public record.
Q498 Dr Harris: And your view is that that is true in the narrow sense and that that is --- I am not sure what you are saying. We need to increase demand?
Dr Howells: Yes.
Q499 Dr Harris: But if we cannot then you recognise that that is still effectively over-provision which is not good value for taxpayers?
Dr Howells: I cannot see how you can sustain university departments if nobody wants to study in them. That would be idiotic. It comes to the point that Mr McWalter was making, which is a very valid one, that, for whatever reason, all kinds of cultural reasons, young people want to study other subjects; they do not want to study these subjects. That is the major problem we have got: inspiring those people to want to read chemistry and physics.
Q500 Dr Harris: And you said earlier that that was the problem. You did not know why but there was plenty of research being done.
Dr Howells: I have got theories as to why.
Q501 Dr Harris: There was plenty of research being done although none of it was listed in the evidence that you submitted to us and you are going to send us the information about what research is being done into what is a key question. You said in answer to Mr McWalter that universities are making a conscious decision to respond to the financial realities in the way they are doing, and it may be that an individual university does make a conscious decision; no-one is suggesting that they are comatose in their governing bodies, but presumably you are not arguing that the university system as a whole is making a conscious decision to close departments to a viable level, that it is a consequence of what is coming out.
Dr Howells: As you know, Dr Harris, universities are incorporated bodies. They are run as businesses. We cannot tell universities, nor can HEFCE or anybody else, what they should or should not teach. They have to make those decisions and they guard that right jealously. If a university decides in its wisdom that it is going to open a new department or close a department, and universities have always done that throughout their history, then you have to ask yourself, do we direct them to keep a department open or do we close them? That is what HEFCE is looking at at the moment.
Q502 Dr Harris: That is a separate question, is it not? It could be organised by the powers that be, and I am not saying it is necessarily the government or the government alone, but if it is clear why universities are closing and if it is felt that a lot of university departments are closing and that is not a good thing for the economy then a system should be arranged so that it is not each individual university as an island making this decision but that there is at least some strategy behind what is going to happen in individual areas. That is what society is. It is individuals making a decision within the context of thinking about the impact it has overall. Do you accept that there is a role for government to play as part of that wider structure or is it each man for himself?
Dr Howells: No, I do not think it is each man or each woman for themselves. Government plays it role by putting record amounts of money into science and engineering and technology departments of universities, more money than they have ever had previously. The problem, and I think you have heard it enough this morning, Dr Harris, is the decisions that are made by those universities as to how they allocate that money within their own provision, and that is something that we cannot tell them to do. We can make encouraging noises, we can provide the money for university departments, and especially for science departments, but we cannot make universities keep a department open simply because we want them to. It does not work like that in society.
Q503 Dr Harris: How accurately do you think that HEFCE's teaching subject weightings reflect the cost of providing the science, engineering and technology subjects at undergraduate level? Do you think the change that was made was correct or do you recognise what was said in the earlier evidence session, that that evidence is flawed?
Dr Howells: This is quite interesting, because when there was a move by HEFCE to try to be more prescriptive about the base price per student per subject, the universities railed against it and said, "No. We will decide how we are going to spend our money and we do not want you to be prescriptive in terms of deciding what the ratio should be".
Q504 Dr Harris: But given that they now do decide what the ratio is -----
Dr Howells: No, they do not decide.
Q505 Dr Harris: Now HEFCE does decide what the ratio is, and I take your point that universities want to have that power themselves, I am asking you about that recent change. Was it rational or not?
Dr Howells: With respect, Dr Harris, they do not do it as prescriptively as a lot of people would like. For example, in the funding formula laboratory based sciences, engineering and technology subjects are in price group B and attract 1.7 times the base price, that is, £5,923 compared with £3,484 for lecture-based courses, but there were some people, when the Royal Society for Chemistry came to see me, for example, who said that it ought to be higher than that for chemistry.
Q506 Mr McWalter: It was lowered to that.
Dr Howells: And it was lowered to that, but the Vice Chancellors themselves did not want the funding formula to be that prescriptive. They wanted some leeway and flexibility in the system.
Q507 Dr Harris: I am asking your opinion. Do you think that the recent change in the weightings was rational and correct or not?
Dr Howells: Yes. It was a peer review. It was discussed extensively inside and outside the universities and they came to this decision and that is a decision for the universities to come to. I agree with it.
Q508 Dr Iddon: But did not the 1.7 figure come out as a result of the biologists having a bit of a row with the people at the hard science end, that they could not come to an agreement?
Dr Howells: Yes, there are arguments, Dr Iddon, and I do not know how you resolve those arguments. We cannot on the one hand hold up the flag for academic freedom and on the other hand say, "No, sorry, mate. We are going to tell you what those arrangements ought to be precisely".
Q509 Dr Harris: The government says it has put science at the heart of its economic agenda. What evidence is there that there is a link between the growth in the number of science graduates now and a healthy economy? Should we be seeking for economic purposes to push this demand, obviously not just keeping university departments open; you have made that clear?
Dr Howells: We talk a great deal to employers about what it is that they want and what demand looks like from employers for undergraduates and for the particular skills that come out of universities. There seems to be a pretty good balance at the moment. There are some sectors that claim that they have got difficulties in recruitment but, in a sense, with any booming economy like the one that we have got you are going to have recruitment difficulties right across the sector. The most obvious recruitment difficulty we have had recently has been plumbers and we are training a lot of them at the moment. In terms of graduates coming out of universities we have not identified specific immediate needs, but people tell us that not very far down the track there will be shortages and I think those are the ones we have to worry about.
Q510 Dr Harris: If there are shortages then how is secondary school education with relatively low wages compared to industry and, indeed, the City, which wants numerate people, going to compete better when because of your policies, which must have justification, a consequence is that these science graduates are going to have more debt?
Dr Howells: I do not know if you are making a political point here or not but we have got absolutely no declining PGCE students in science subjects, for example. In the year 2000 there were 2,220 PGCE science recruits; this year there are 2,690. It is not a massive increase but I do not think we would expect one. I think they are doing pretty well actually.
Q511 Dr Harris: Let us look forward to an era when science students are doing a three year course and instead of being asked to find £1,000 are going to be asked, for reasons that have been given, to find £3,000 a year in debt, top-up debt because they just pay it back later, so there will be more debt, at least £9,000 plus living costs for a three year course let alone a four year course.
Dr Howells: Dr Iddon, I do not see any point in rearguing the 2004 Higher Education Act, it is an Act. We have seen an almost nine per cent increase in under-graduates.
Q512 Dr Harris: Just let me ask the question. You may not see any value in it but it may be that this Committee sees value in it because it is a key issue. You have accepted that the supply of teachers is key, the Vice Chancellors have accepted that and other people we have had. I want to ask you, as a Government, not to change your mind over that policy ----
Dr Howells: And we will not be.
Q513 Dr Harris: But do you have a Plan B if the policy, and I do not think it is unreasonable, means that there is less attraction to doing PGCE and going into a less well paid public sector job because your debt, by design by the Government, is on average going to be higher? What is your plan to deal with the market pressures the Vice Chancellors talked about of finding it more difficult to recruit into teaching, lecturing and research?
Dr Howells: Your question is full of suppositions and I do not accept any of them. I do not see any evidence whatsoever that there is reluctance amongst young people to go to university, in fact it is increasing. Nobody knows what is going to happen ---- You can shake your head but nobody knows what is going to happen.
Q514 Dr Harris: You do not know. You come up with a policy and you do not know.
Dr Howells: Do you want me to answer your question or not?
Q515 Dr Harris: I would like you to answer what research you have got to suggest that people are more likely to go into teaching with higher levels of debt.
Dr Howells: I think that people will take out loans from 2006 on knowing that they do not have to repay one penny of those loans until they are earning sufficient money in order to be able to repay them. I think we have done an enormous amount for teachers in order to encourage people into the sector to teach all subjects, including science and mathematics, and we have done it very successfully. I do not believe that anybody is going to be put off as a consequence of the new funding arrangements post-2006; indeed I think it is going to attract people. You cannot tell me any different and I cannot prove that to you because we will have to wait for history to prove us right on that. If we look at the problem and we make a supposition and say there is a catastrophic failure in people to come through the university system to become science teachers then we will have to address that issue very seriously.
Q516 Mr McWalter: Obviously this business of students exercising the main demand does mean that there are problems about whether employers, for instance, have got a sufficient input into the process, and in particular university departments might well end up producing graduates who are not the graduates that employers want at all. Do you think you have got that input broadly right or do you think that maybe you should be going further down the track of consulting employers so that students get a clearer perception of the value their skills would have if they graduated in subject X for the employers' market?
Dr Howells: This is a very important issue. I think we are getting there. We are doing it through Sector Skills Councils. I will give you an example. In the Sector Skills Council that deals with the creative industries, especially the media, we know there are sectors within that skills area like, for example, computer-aided animation, which is very science driven and we are the world leader in it which is why Hollywood comes to Britain to make its movies constantly, that is driven by university educated people. At the University of Bournemouth and other places we have some world centres of excellence in that subject. It is a very science based subject but one that marries science with creativity in a wonderful way. We know that the new Sectors Skills Council for that area would like to see more clarity in terms of how employers might judge the universities and colleges that are producing graduates in that area right across the media. Media Studies is a reviled subject but the problem is the halfwits who revile it forget that this country earns a lot more money out of general media and creativity than they can ever imagine and it is one of our biggest earners of foreign currency and if we do not nurture those roots we have got problems. They are working with us and we are working with the universities and with the Regional Development Agencies and everyone else to try to identify how best we can influence each other and how best we can get the kind of graduates that industry needs out of our institutions of higher education. There is one more thing, if I may. We have got the Langland review of the professions at the moment and Professor Langland is looking very, very closely at the ways in which the professions are served and the way in which they inform the universities and colleges of the kinds of courses that they think they require and the kind of graduates they would like to see come out of the universities.
Q517 Mr McWalter: There is a lot of good work going on there, I agree, but the fact is that not much of that gets into the head of the 18-year old who is making his or her application to go to university. You referred earlier to the real problems in the Careers Service about the information that people have to be able to give to students. Somehow or other there is a big gap between the sort of valuable work we are talking about and what a student does when they apply to university and I find it difficult to know how you are going to bridge that gap but, unless it is done so, students are making demands for courses which are not serving either themselves or the economy and that would seem to be something that Government should be taking an interest in.
Dr Howells: We are taking a great interest in it and a lot of the work that Lord Sainsbury and I are doing is directed precisely at this. We have got organisations out there, and a lot of money is going into them, like Connexions and Aim Higher, which are trying to stimulate much more of an informed discussion within schools. We know that a lot of students are directly accessing website based information that universities put up there for them to read. I notice when I go round the country they do not ask me about tuition fees, they ask me, "What kind of job am I likely to get at the end of a university degree? What about the university, is it any good? Is it going to do this or that for me?" They want to know very practical questions and I think they have got a better chance now of accessing that information than any of us have ever had in history.
Q518 Dr Iddon: Minister, the Government has an excellent ten year strategy for science and innovation but what this Committee is concerned about is that the universities might not be producing an adequate number of high quality graduates to drive that strategy forward. If that is your concern also, if you share that concern, what would you be advising the universities to do to improve the supply of the right quality graduates?
Dr Howells: The first thing is I think they are supplying the right quality of graduates and we have got some wonderful university courses. There are pressures on the system as a consequence of the way in which the RAE works and the way in which the various funding regimes work which it is for the universities themselves to come to decisions about. We have got the task of providing the wherewithal for them to conduct world class research and I think we are doing that, but I am not a believer in Government sticking its fingers into every pie there is. We ought to have, and are having, a public debate about strategy in terms of what our universities teach and where we move from here, but ---
Q519 Mr McWalter: Some fingers in the pie would be quite nice.
Dr Howells: The biggest finger in the pie we have got is we are the ones who have got our hands around the pound notes that we hand over to the VCs, via HEFCE of course, and, believe me, that is quite a handful. I would not be in favour of Government making massive strategic decisions about what ought to be taught and what should not be taught. The genius of our universities and of academic life is they come up with things that we would never dream of as politicians. That is the way it has always been. It ought to have an organic relationship with the rest of society which is not prescribed. Fundamental research sometimes literally comes out of the blue and we should not try to prescribe that, I think.
Dr Iddon: Thank you very much, Minister. We detect a passion in you to get it right and hopefully between the universities, this Committee and all the other organisations, HEFCE and the Research Councils, we can get it right for the future and for the benefit of the country. Thank you very much for your time, it is appreciated.