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Science (UK Universities)

11 am

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate on a big and important subject—probably too big for a half-hour debate. I am aware that many of the issues that are relevant to this discussion, particularly in respect of the pressures on some university science departments, are being dealt with elsewhere in the House, notably by the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis).

I wanted to introduce this debate for several reasons, some of which are personal. Although my constituency is not a university centre, it does have two of the biggest science laboratories in Britain. The National Physical Laboratory is Government owned and supported by the Department of Trade and Industry. Among other things, it has responsibility for the atomic clocks and, therefore, Greenwich mean time, and it houses hundreds of highly qualified physicists. The Laboratory of the Government Chemist has been privatised in recent years but retains its core function of standard-setting for chemistry. It also employs many highly qualified chemists. As a result, the Twickenham-Teddington area is populated by a substantial number of high-quality, highly qualified scientists.

I meet those scientists on the doorstep. They convey their anxiety about the state of science in the universities, on which they depend for their graduates and in which many of them alternate in taking university appointments. There is particular anxiety about the closure of chemistry departments in London, including those at Queen Mary's and King's college.

I have a long-standing interest in science education at school level. I secured an Adjournment debate two years ago following the introduction of the Adrian Smith report on maths teaching, and I maintain a close interest in it. Although the Government have undoubtedly taken some action, I am still concerned that some of the underlying problems, which are linked to the problems of the university science sector, remain.

On a personal level, I am of that generation of people who found it easiest to get into university by doing maths, physics and chemistry. I spent two years in chemistry laboratories before deciding that economics was a somewhat more amenable, perhaps easier subject. However, I have since then repaid my debt to science by having a son who is a very good post-doctoral scientist. He briefs me on the strengths of British centres of scientific excellence—for example, Imperial college, where he works—but also on some of the frustrations of academic scientific life.

I mentioned my background because it has some relevance to this debate. When I studied science in the 1960s, there was a great deal of interest in the role of science, prompted mainly by the Harold Wilson Government. There was the Trend report on the future of science, out of which emerged the conventional wisdom that Britain was very good at science but not very good at applying it to wealth creation. That general idea has existed for the past 30 to 40 years, but increasingly people are questioning the underlying proposition, for two opposite reasons. One is that
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Britain has become better at translating science into wealth creation. There is a great deal of evidence that many good science-based industries are developing in the UK. On the other side, there are questions about whether we can continue to be so complacent about the excellence of British science. There are genuine worries on that score, but before I detail some of them, I should like to start with a positive observation.

British universities certainly have a great deal to be proud of in the science field. This country has 1 per cent. of the world's population but 10 per cent. of all cited papers and 11 per cent. of cited papers that attract the greatest degree of scientific attention, and 12 per cent. of the university science prizes. An indicator has been developed to compare the performance of science faculties across Europe—obviously, there are arguments about methodology—and British universities topped the list, having six of the 10 top university departments in Europe.

On several measures, Britain does very well. I recently saw a reference in New Scientist to the fact that Britain now may stand ahead of the United States on some measures of the standard comparators for the life sciences. There is a very good story to tell in some areas.

Equally, there are some serious worries, on which I shall focus. As the Minister knows, much of the anxiety centres on the large-scale closure of university science departments. There have been 79 in the past six years and, in the past 18 months, there have been suggested closures of five chemistry departments, although I believe that the one at Sussex university has been reprieved. The Royal Society of Chemistry has argued that, on the basis of current policies on research funding allocation and teaching funding allocation, it would expect another 20 to close in the next 10 years. The 60 chemistry departments that we now have would be reduced by a further 20. That is on the basis of current trends—it may or may not happen.

Those comments were sufficient to produce the reasonable consensus that was summarised by the Science and Technology Committee, which expressed in moderate language what is a growing worry in the science community. It stated:

that is, science, technology, engineering and mathematics departments—

That conclusion has been reinforced by businesses. Companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca have publicly expressed their worry about the decline, particularly in chemistry. The CBI has likened the position of university science to a car crashing in slow motion. That may be an over-dramatisation, but businesses as well as academics have a view on the matter.

What are the sources of the problem? I shall touch on four issues which are, to some extent, interconnected: first, the overall funding position; secondly, the
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availability of students to do science in universities; thirdly, the formula that is used for allocating funding for science teaching; and, fourthly, the basis of allocation of science research in universities. Those four things are interrelated. For example, a university department may have a brilliant set of teachers and researchers, but it would find it difficult to continue to function if there were no students. Indeed, Alasdair Smith, the vice-chancellor of Sussex university, described that scenario as one that had led him to take a pessimistic view.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that another factor is that businesses and universities have not learned how to live with each other, talk to each other and develop together? There are small signs of interaction—the odd professor here, the odd studentship there—but there is no concerted activity in this country to bring them together as suggested in the Lambert report.

Dr. Cable : I have seen the Lambert report, which highlights that long-standing underlying weakness. As I said in my introductory remarks, I sense that much progress has been made in that direction, but it is starting from a very low base.

Let me briefly run through the four headings and pose some questions to the Minister. First, on overall funding, this is not the place for me to try to score points about the funding of science. There are other forums in which we can debate that much more satisfactorily. I note that the Chancellor has considerably increased the overall envelope of science funding—I acknowledge that. It was referred to at considerable length in the Budget, within the framework of long-term science policy.

I do not question the overall level of science funding, which is substantial and growing rapidly, but its emphasis. Perhaps the Government assume a little too easily that it is helpful for them to fund practical research and development that the private sector may well be willing and able to do itself, rather than basic science, which is, after all, a core function of Government. There is an issue about whether there is too much emphasis on supporting private sector R and D, whether through tax credits or direct support, rather than basic science, but I am not raising here the question of the overall spending envelope. I want to spend more time on the other two questions.

The most worrying and fundamental issue is that there seems to be a long-term problem about students coming forward to study the basic sciences: physics and chemistry, and mathematics, which is closely linked. The statistics are worrying. The 15-year trend since the early 1990s shows a decline in the number of students taking those subjects at A-level of about 35 per cent. in physics, 22 per cent. in maths and 12 per cent. in chemistry at a time when further and higher education has been expanding rapidly. That has been a decline at a time of general expansion of higher education, which is worrying. I appreciate that the short-term picture may give more grounds for optimism and I shall give some of the more detailed figures that have emerged this year covering the period when the Government have been in power.
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There has been a decline in the number of people taking A-level physics from 28,800 in 1997 to 24,094 in 2005. That decline has been continuous throughout that period. Physics is the really bad story. Chemistry is more mixed. There has been a decline from 36,430 to 33,164 but over the last two years there has been a considerable improvement. In biological science the position is more or less flat. In mathematics there has been a catastrophic decline from 56,000 in 1997 to 46,000 last year, but the last two years have seen a considerable improvement from a worryingly low level.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is particularly worrying that the decline has been even more precipitous in the maintained sector? The students who are doing maths, physics and chemistry are increasingly in the independent sector, and 40 per cent. of A grades in physics and maths A-level come from children in the independent sector. Is that not even more worrying?

Dr. Cable : I was going to make exactly that point. It is ironic that the private sector, which used to be regarded as the preserve of effete generalists, is increasingly one of the few sectors of education where people do double maths, which is a necessary foundation for advanced physics. That is worrying because people in the maintained sector who have limited means are simply not getting access to teaching in those important disciplines.

Various reasons have been advanced for the problem of science education and attracting students. First, students are being attracted more to vocational disciplines. There is a big growth in demand for law, medicine, architecture and so on and those choices are rational. The research into rates of return on education suggests that students in those disciplines make a higher return than students who do basic science, so the choice is rational from their point of view.

The Royal Society of Chemistry also makes the point that people may just be looking for easy subjects and makes an invidious comparison, contrasting the decline in the number of chemistry students with the rapid increase in media studies students. I shall not make pejorative remarks about media studies because it is too fashionable to do so, but there is a jarring contrast between the two experiences.

The basic problem relates to skills; the figures unearthed by Adrian Smith in his report two years ago still have great force and are worrying. He noted then that there was a shortage of 3,400 in the number of maths teachers. Do the Government know whether that figure is now better or worse? Adrian Smith noted, for example, that one third of all science teachers had a third-class honours degree or less and that many had no maths beyond GCSE but were trying to teach advanced-level science without having the basic skill levels. The age profile was also adverse, with a high proportion being over 50.

I have only a couple of minutes left so I shall try to draw the threads together. Will the Minister update us on what has happened since the Adrian Smith report and say whether the Government are going to act on some of his more radical recommendations—such as giving greater weight to maths GCSEs and A-levels and
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university admission, and allowing undergraduates to teach maths in schools, using their training at that early level?

The third issue is the funding formula for university science teaching. One of the most damaging decisions to have been made in recent years was that by the Higher Education Funding Council when funding for science teaching, which used to be at the level of 2.1 per cent. of the baseline, was arbitrarily cut to 1.7 per cent. Putting it crudely, the non-science faculties seem to have ganged up on the scientists and switched a large amount of funding out of university science departments, which effectively had a cut of 20 per cent. They used a circular and damaging argument. They noted that science faculties were doing much less laboratory work and concluded that they needed less money. However, they were doing less laboratory work because they had less funding. That decision was very damaging. Is that a matter on which the Government have any say? After all, they are the main funding body for universities. The decision seems to have been taken by a Government quango and the feedback I have received is that if that decision could be reversed, it would do more than anything to improve the position of science departments in universities.

I am conscious of the time and my final comment relates to the funding formula for university research—the research assessment exercise. Traditionally, it has been based on peer review and the logic of that is clear. Universities are independent and it is right that university academics should have a peer review process, but it has thrown up all sorts of damaging anomalies. Universities are sacking teaching staff to boost their research rating—Brunel university was cited recently as an example—and actively poaching research staff from other universities. Several senior vice-chancellors, Mr. VandeLinde at Warwick and the vice-chancellor of Bristol, have seriously criticised the system as being highly distorting, producing a perverse market and doing great damage to university research.

I understand that the 2008 review will be conducted more subtly and the Government announced in the Budget that they will introduce a parallel shadow system based on metrics—fund-raising for university departments. If there is such a fundamental flaw in the system, why must we wait until 2013 for an improved system, if that is what the Government's recommendation proves to be, to have any effect?

11.18 am

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this debate and raising this important subject. He has taken a deep and long-standing interest in the matter and has a significant constituency interest.

I shall start by setting out the context. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he set out the context relating to science in our universities. We currently have a strong science base and we are second only to the United States in terms of world-class research. We comprise 1 per cent. of the world's population, yet we do 5 per cent. of the world's science and produce 9 per cent. of all papers and 12 per cent. of scientific citations. That is a substantial and positive record.
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From the time when the Government came to power in 1997 to the end of the current spending period, we will have more than doubled spending on UK science and research. That is a substantial and sustained commitment and better than what went before. However, I hasten to add that we have no grounds for complacency. That is why, two years ago, we published our "Science & innovation investment framework 2004–2014". It is a strategy for the decade and aims to make Britain the most attractive location in the world for science, research, development and innovation.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the research assessment exercise. Our science base is built on the excellent research carried out in our universities. University research has always been a progressive, constantly developing force and for the past 20 years the key driver of that change has been the research assessment exercise—the RAE. It has moved us to a point at which we can say with confidence that taxpayer-funded research in this country is world-class. Let me explain what I mean. Between the last two RAEs, in 1996 and 2001, the number of university departments achieving the top 5 or 5* rating rose by a very significant 65 per cent. to more than 800. Those excellent departments now employ more than half of all the researchers in the higher education system.

Like the research that it evaluates, the RAE has changed and improved every time that it has been conducted, and it will continue to change in the current round. For the next exercise, in 2008, the cliff-edge effect—the difference in financial consequences between a research rating of 4 and a rating of 5—which has rightly concerned many people, will be addressed by the introduction of an institutional quality profile. There will be fewer peer review panels than in the last exercise, in 2001, and greater recognition of applied and interdisciplinary research. Those changes have been widely welcomed in the sector.

The hon. Gentleman referred to our announcement at the time of the Budget of a new stage in the development of research assessment. We are seeking to move after 2008 to a metrics-based system of assessment that continues to recognise and drive quality, but which at the same time reduces the burden that the RAE places on universities' time and staff resources. We have already established a working party, which I am pleased to report is making significant progress.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we have to wait. We have made it clear within the review that we are conscious that significant preparations are already under way for 2008. It is therefore the Government's presumption that the 2008 RAE should go ahead, incorporating a shadow metrics exercise. However, if an alternative system is agreed and widely supported and a clear majority of UK universities favour an earlier move to a simpler system, the Government will be willing to consider that. We need to withhold our judgment for now. There does not appear to be a groundswell of support for such a move at the moment, but if there is we will be prepared to consider the issue.
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I come now to the importance of strategic and vulnerable subjects, on which the hon. Gentleman rightly commented. That issue has been the focus of recent publicity. It needs to be borne in mind that one strength of our university system is university autonomy. The idea that we can plan at micro level, from the centre in Whitehall, the exact numbers of science places throughout the country is wrong. That would not serve our best interests. However, we have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to monitor whether there may be areas in which current provision seems out of step with the national need, to consider whether action may be needed and, if so, to advise on what might be done. That said, it is important to recognise, as the Roberts review did, that there is not a crisis in science in our universities. When we talk about the number of undergraduates studying science, it is important to remember that, across the board, there are 120,000 more students doing science subjects today than there were in 1997.

Mr. Boris Johnson : Could the changes that HEFCE recommends include allowing it to restrain a university from closing a science department if it wanted to do so?

Bill Rammell : I do not think that we need that kind of central command and control. However, we have made it clear that where there is a vulnerability, where an institution is considering the position of a science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—subject, there should be early intervention in the form of discussions with the institution. Indeed, that has been happening. The hon. Member for Twickenham commented on the situation at Sussex university. It is because of early intervention through HEFCE that we will not see a loss in terms of overall student places. As a result of co-operation with neighbouring institutions, the numbers will be upheld.

It is important to place the issue in the national context. The hon. Gentleman commented on the recent changes. Overall in the last couple of years, there has been the beginning of a turnaround. There was an increase of 10 per cent. or more in the number of students accepted last year to study subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry, and there have been further increases in the application round this year. That is significant. We are not complacent, but it does give us grounds for cautious optimism.

Another key factor is what the Government are doing to stimulate demand from students. In the longer term, that must be the area in which we make progress. Again, we set out in the Budget significant commitments to science teaching. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a commitment of £32 million-worth of new measures over just the next two years. We are committed to increasing the number of pupils achieving level 6 in science at key stage 3 and good science grades at GCSE, raising the number of science A-level entries and increasing the percentage of teachers with a physics, chemistry or maths specialism.

The hon. Gentleman commented on the quality of graduates going into science teaching. One figure that
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gives me a degree of encouragement relates to the proportions of people going into the teaching of physics, chemistry and maths. The number of people doing that with a 2:1 or a first-class degree has risen significantly in recent years.

With regard to meeting our overall commitments, we have made it clear that we want to provide pupils with more opportunities to study three separate sciences at GCSE. We are piloting 250 after-school science clubs to offer an engaging and stretching programme of activities to key stage 3 pupils with an interest and potential in science. We are providing more continuous professional development opportunities for science teachers and technicians.

Our science and engineering ambassadors initiative has a significant role to play, as have the curriculum reforms that we are introducing from this September. At key stage 4, we will maintain the breadth and depth of the curriculum, but it will have greater relevance to today's world, so that young people learn more about the use of contemporary scientific and technological developments and their benefits, drawbacks and risks. I am talking about the practical application of science in society, rather than just learning by rote. To encourage increasing numbers of young people to engage in these subjects, that must be a way forward.

Since 1997, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of new science teachers, but the Government are the first to acknowledge that we need to do more. That is why we have made significant increases in the teacher training bursaries and the golden hellos, which evidence suggests are having an impact and helping us to recruit greater numbers of science graduates. We need to get the message across to young people about the significant advantages of undertaking a course of study in a STEM subject.

Dr. Cable : I agree with the Minister's philosophy of not trying to micro-manage universities, but will he
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address the specific issue of the funding formula for teaching, which seriously disadvantages science departments? Are the Government addressing that?

Bill Rammell : May I just finish my point? I will then address the point made by the hon. Gentleman. I was talking about the financial benefits of taking a STEM subject. The graduate earnings premium is 30 per cent. for a STEM subject compared with 23 per cent. for a non-STEM subject. Taking a STEM subject will significantly enhance the earning capacity of a graduate over their working life. We need to get that message across to young people in this country.

On the hon. Gentleman's question, we have made it clear that the Government and the Higher Education Funding Council want to distribute grant to take account of variations in the actual relative costs of teaching different subjects. That is why the collection of cost information in accordance with full economic cost principles should be an important step forward. That will happen in 2008. An important related point is that if laboratory-based science is relatively underfunded, something else must be relatively overfunded. It is not enough just to argue that it would be helpful for science to receive more funding in the formula. Anyone with credibility who proposes changes to the formula also has to find sustainable and convincing evidence that other subjects are relatively overfunded.

We are pursuing a number of other initiatives. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) raised the issue of knowledge transfer. The higher education innovation fund, whose funding envelope we have successively increased, is helping and supporting the spread of scientific ideas for practical business purposes in this country—

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.

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