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31 Oct 2006 : Column 51WH—continued

I have one final point on funding. Many universities are sick and tired of chasing the multitude of small pots of funding initiatives laid out by the HEFC and
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others. I was at Reading university only last Friday, and it just so happened that the vice-chancellor had had word of a funding initiative to widen participation for part-time students. That initiative was extremely laudable, but Reading’s share of the pot was £985. One is left wondering whether the impact that £985 can make was worth all the effort of setting up the scheme.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Both the hon. Gentleman and I are involved in the campaign to try to save the physics department at Reading university. He talked about funding, but does he accept that in 2005 Reading university was successful, with the Open university and Leicester university, in a joint bid to the HEFC for a £2.4 million award to create a centre of excellence?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that represented a substantial investment of Government money in the teaching of physics and science? Would it not be a criminal waste of taxpayers’ money if the physics department closed and that facility was no longer available in respect of physics teaching at Reading university?

Mr. Wilson: I always welcome the interest of the hon. Gentleman in my constituency. I know that the vice-chancellor of Reading university, who has been in post for a long time, is looking forward to meeting him. The key point is that both student numbers and research grants need to come together to fund physics departments. The issue is not just about one or the other; both need to work in concert.

I turn back to funding. Funding schemes are often too complicated and long-winded and end up so diluted by the time they get to the university that they are not much help. There are too many schemes, all achieving too little. Let me provide an example of the dilution of funding meant to help solve recruitment to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, subjects. It should be said that the funding to help recruitment in chemistry is much needed. However, one of the strands for the recent Royal Society of Chemistry programme—“Chemistry for our future”—has funded a regional co-ordinator simply to co-ordinate all the networks in the south-east aimed at increasing the uptake of chemistry degrees.

Through another strand, Reading and the university of Southampton have been successful in attracting funding for a half-time post to introduce methods designed to accelerate and enhance the way in which new students taking chemistry settle into higher education after secondary school. That is particularly important as universities try to widen participation in chemistry, but it does not do enough to cover those parts of the south and east, especially Kent and Essex, which are under-represented in terms of providing students to do chemistry. Reading and Southampton will need to bid to Aimhigher South East for Kent, and a different Aimhigher for Essex. That is not an untypical example of the complexity of funding streams for improving STEM recruitment.

This country needs to make some decisions about whether we wish to retain the traditionally strong science base in the UK. Can the Minister share with us, for example, how many physicists the UK wants or needs? How many institutions are required to provide
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them? Do the Government, the HEFC and Universities UK take any view about what is needed to retain our position in scientific research? How many university physics departments with how many students is acceptable? Or can the number of departments be allowed to wither to, say, 20 to 30, as some leading academics believe is the intention?

Those are big questions of great substance, andI am not sure whether the Minister or anybody in Government have the answers. If those questions have not been considered, why not? If they have been considered, let us have the answers, and let us have an honest public debate. Nobody at Reading university wants the physics department to close, as that would have knock-on effects for other departments with a strong physics base such as meteorology, chemistry and others. And before the Minister says it, I certainly do not want him to micro-manage Reading university, as it is extremely well run.

It is without doubt true that the changes in Government policy and in HEFC funding have severely damaged the short to medium-term sustainability of science departments such as the physics department at Reading university. I ask the Minister to consider the changes in funding that his Department and the Government are proposing and to ask his officials to talk with me and Reading university to determine whether they will help to make physics at Reading sustainable. I hope that he will assist me in doing everything possible to ensure that physics at Reading and STEM subjects at other universities get a fair chance to survive. However, if he will not listen to me—a single voice from the Education and Skills Committee—perhaps he will consider the report of the Science and Technology Committee, which stated that

12.42 pm

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing the debate, but that is the last thing on which I will congratulate him because what I just heard—I do not often reply to an Adjournment debate in this way—was, frankly, a travesty of the Government’s record of investment in our higher education system over the past nine and a half years, particularly our investment in the scientific research and development base. I want to emphasise the Government’s strong commitment to supporting the study of science and to address some of the issues that he raised in such a misleading way.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the planned closure of Reading university’s physics department is a matter for the university. I understand that the final decision will be taken on 20 November. No Government can or should dictate what subjects are taught in which institutions. I listened carefully to what he said; it was instructive. As well as berating me, he might want to berate his colleagues on the Conservative Front Bench who have not called for
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national intervention in the issues surrounding the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths.

The Government have an overall strategic responsibility, and we must ensure a strong supply of scientists. They are critical to our future economic and societal well-being.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The Minister knows that I am a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology that produced the report on the closure of science departments around the country. Would he like to list the departments that have closed and those that are considering closing? Is he happy about the situation or the Government’s response to the report?

Bill Rammell: Yes, I am. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the then chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council and I gave detailed evidence to his Committee when it was conducting its inquiry. We commissioned HEFC to review the status and the position of STEM subjects. It concluded that there is not a crisis in this country, and I agree with that. I will address some of the specific points later.

We need highly skilled scientists. They are essential to the future competitive health and well-being of this country.

Bob Spink: Will the Minister give way?

Bill Rammell: Very briefly, and then I will try to make some progress.

Bob Spink: I will be brief and will try to be constructive. The Minister will agree that the Government are planning to increase by 24,000 the number of physics and chemistry students by 2014, but what is the point of doing that if he allows departments that teach science in universities to close?

Bill Rammell: I will address the hon. Gentleman’s comments later. I do not think that there is any evidence anywhere in the advanced world that central Government Departments dictating to universities which subjects they should deliver is the way to a sustainable future. A significant debate is taking place in the European Union about why our higher education institutions are not competitive compared with those of the United States. In fact, we are in pole position. We have a much better record, and it is based largely on university autonomy and an ability to play to strengths. It puts our universities in a much stronger position competitively than some other universities elsewhere in the European Union. That consensus is widely accepted.

However, the Government are concerned about the overall strategic position, which is why, in stark contrast to the comments of the hon. Member for Reading, East, we have increased funding for higher education by more than 20 per cent. in real terms since we took office. He spoke about bolts out of the blue that have hit universities—for example, the pay settlement. I remind him that the universities collectively negotiated the pay settlements. I do not see how they could have come as a bolt out of the blue.

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Nevertheless, we spend more than £10 billion a year on higher education—or rather, that is the sum that we allocate to universities to be spent. After a generation of reductions in the units of resource, the vast majority of which took place under Conservative Governments, we are maintaining funding per student in real terms during a period when the number of students in the system has increased by well over 200,000. I ask the hon. Gentleman to compare and contrast that withthe last five years of the previous Conservative Administration, when funding per student fell by almost 20 per cent. in real terms.

I am prepared to take constructive criticism on the Government’s record—we can, and need, to do more—but I will not take lectures from the Conservative party about support and funding for our universities. Any vice-chancellor in this country will favourably compare the funding regime that exists today with the one that existed in the run-up to 1997.

Let me pick up on some of the specific points. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) raised some important questions. He has been pressing me strongly on these issues for a considerable time. I know that correspondence has gone directly from the university to him about the sustainability of some of the increases in investment and the fact that they will follow through. There is a responsibility on university authorities to explain that clearly. We are shortly to meet a delegation that he is bringing to the Department, and I understand that he has generously opened the meeting to the hon. Member for Reading, East.

I was interested as well in the hon. Gentleman’s website, on which he says that the decline in numbers is driven by the Government’s desire to put easier subjects on what he describes as the school menu. I do not know where that comes from. There is no central Government directive on which subjects students should study. One of the problems that we face as a country and as a society is how we can enthuse and interest many more young people in the study and teaching of science. Yes, there are things that the Government can do, should do and, indeed, are doing, but we are discussing wider societal forces. We must collectively contribute to how science is depicted in our media and in our culture.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about what he described as the scourge of league tables driving a decline in the study of science teaching. Unless my understanding is mistaken, I do not recall Conservative Front Benchers calling for the abolition of school league tables, and I am not sure about the purpose of that point.

Mr. Wilson: The point was not one that I or my Front Benchers were making, but something that was reported to me by a number of academics who are concerned about it. I thought I should report their concerns rather than just my own as part of the debate.

Bill Rammell: I do not accept that the proper publication of information about a school’s performance leads to a reduction in the study of science subjects. As the hon. Gentleman has raised the
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point, I will give him the opportunity to make it clear whether he is calling for the abolition of school league tables. If he is not—I do not believe that he is—I do not see the point of reporting those comments in the way that he has.

Let me talk about the extra 200,000 students who are in our system today as compared with nine and a half years ago. Some 130,000 of those are studying science-related degrees. Recently, the Royal Society criticised the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s figures on science and maths graduates. I am always happy to talk to the Royal Society, but if we had wanted to present the best possible figures on the overall number of science students, we would have said that the increase was nearer to 190,000 since 1997. We used the figure of 130,000 to take account of the changes in methodology.

The issue is what counts as science and the market share of some of the more traditional subjects. Science does not stand still and the fact that newer subjects, such as computer and biological sciences, have become more popular is not on its own something to be concerned about. There is no evidence that graduates in such subjects fail to get good, well-paid jobs or to contribute significantly to our overall science base.

At the same time, we have acknowledged that we need to maintain national capacity in STEM subjects. I acknowledge that there have been several years of decline in those, but the figures for the past couple of years are encouraging. Last year we saw a significant increase in the figures for maths and chemistry, and that has been sustained this year. I want to see it increase further. It is in marked contrast to what went on previously, in major part because of some of the changes that we have made in the system.

We have also—rightly in my view—made tough decisions to allow higher education providers to raise more money to support science and other subjects through variable fees. If the hon. Gentleman is calling for increased resources for universities, I will charitably remind him that the Conservative party opposed the introduction of variable fees, and it is that mechanism that will bring an additional net £1.35 billion into our universities.

Mr. Wilson: If the Minister looks at my comments in detail, he will see that I am concerned about the way in which the spending is being directed with regard to the weighting for teaching, rather than the overall amount of funding going into science and education or into the higher education system. Perhaps he could address that.

Bill Rammell: I will address it, although the point that I am trying to make is that the funding record, through both public and private resource, of the Government towards our universities is demonstrably better than the previous funding record. However, there is an issue about the funding weighting, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that HEFC is considering that. However, it is not as simple as it might seem at first sight. If funding is redistributed towards a particular set of subjects, the money in the funding envelope will inevitably have to decrease, which raises challenges in itself. As I said, the matter is being considered.

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We need to get some of the debate about the closure of science departments into context. Physics is still taught as a major subject at some 50 UK higher education institutions, and chemistry is taught at 70. Universities are playing to their strengths in a competitive market. For example, Exeter university closed its chemistry department to strengthen physics while Newcastle university reduced its physics provision to strengthen chemistry. All the closures are reported and we hear much less about the areas that receive extra resources.

The freedom of universities to decide the courses they teach and their pursuit of excellence help to make our higher education system the success that it is, but few universities can compete at a level that ensures that they are excellent in every subject. The increasingly global nature of higher education and the forces of competition will push them towards specialising in the areas where they are excellent.

Although market forces are and will continue to be crucial in determining the success of the sector, the Government’s policy is not simply to let the market rip. In accepting the advice from HEFC about how we might strengthen and secure higher education subjects and courses of strategic importance such as science, we stressed to universities that in return for not intervening in departmental closures we expected them to work in partnership with each other and HEFC to manage shifts in provision effectively and to ensure no loss of capacity overall. To take the example of Exeter university again, when it closed its chemistry department, which received a lot of publicity at the time, extra places were made available at other universities within the south-west so that the overall numbers did not decrease.

We also need to do more to provide the right kind of provision within our universities to ensure as much access as possible. Developments such as foundation degrees, which are designed alongside employers’ needs, are a helpful part of the way forward. We are also doing much more to try to stimulate demand for science subjects in our universities. Whatever we do at university level, it is the demands of young people, and the subjects that they study, get involved in and get enthused for in our schools that are the critical influencing factors. We are devoting more resources: extending the opportunity for young people to study triple science at GCSE, piloting 250 after-school science clubs, and improving careers information. We
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need to get it across to young people that the graduate earnings premium for a STEM subject in this country is about 25 per cent. more than for a non-STEM subject. That can shape young people’s decisions.

We certainly need to do more to support the professional development of science teachers and lecturers.

Mr. Wilson: I want the Minister to deal with the points that I raised about whether he takes a view on how many physicists or departments we need in this country. Has any research been done on that?

Bill Rammell: I am happy to follow that up in writing. We have certainly set out specific targets for the number of additional entrants for A-level qualifications that we wish to see by 2014. That will be a significant step change. I think that we can make progress on that target, and if we can achieve it we will see the numbers flowing through to universities.

We also need to ensure that we continue with a supply of highly qualified school teachers and lecturers. That is of absolute importance. To incentivise and recruit a wider pool of excellent and good science teachers, we have increased the teacher training bursary and the “golden hello” payment for new science teachers. I made the point when I gave evidence to the Science and Technology Committee that the increased number of those who are going into teacher training to study science subjects and the increasing number of those who take that route with an upper second-class or first-class honours degree gives me confidence. Over time, we are seeing the quality increase.

Finally, on research, the hon. Gentleman referred to the research funding base. We have just completed a consultation exercise on moving from the research assessment exercise to a metrics-based system. He talked about the cliff edge, and from the next RAE in 2008 we will replace the rating system with quality profiles that will give better recognition to pockets of excellence within otherwise good departments. That will go a long way to counter the cliff-edge effect of the award of a four rather than a five rating to one department.

We have a strong record. We have invested significantly in our science and research base through our universities, but we all need to do much more to enthuse and inspire young people to take up the science subjects.

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