Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  Q20  Dr Harris: A great deal of taxpayers' money, as the Chairman says, is being spent by the Government on the higher education system, and the Government has, under its 10-year strategy, clear policies to increase our scientific capacity. Do you therefore think it is reasonable that the Government should be expected to manage the demand as best it can in order to achieve the aims of increasing science capacity and getting a return on its investment, or is it a hands-off approach as far as the demand is concerned?

  Bill Rammell: No, of course we should try to manage demand, but I think through a whole range of initiatives that is what we are trying to do. However, that falls short of saying that you can legislate for the number of people who are going to take a particular subject. My son at the moment is going through his A Level choices for next year, and all other things being equal I would like him to look at science subjects. He is choosing not to do that. As a parent, I cannot force him to do that, let along as a Government Minister.

  Q21  Dr Harris: Do you remember ever voting in Parliament for higher education to be a free market in terms of demand and supply? Is this a policy that has emerged? Is it not the policy, or was there some vote I missed? I do not have a 100% voting record but I do not remember a question saying, "let us leave it to students to decide and we will not try and direct it".

  Bill Rammell: I do not think that is what I am saying. Firstly, in higher education in this country we have had independent institutions for all the time that I have actively been involved in politics.

  Q22  Dr Harris: They are not independently funded, are they? They are just independently run.

  Bill Rammell: They are independently run, and we have levers and mechanisms to try and influence, and indeed to influence what is happening. I am not saying that we completely leave it to the institutions; that is why we are encouraging, on the supply side, HEFCE to be engaging in those early discussions. It is why, for example, we encourage the transfer of research teaching to non-research intensive institutions, it is why we encourage the Promising Researcher Fellowship Scheme so that those researchers in non-research intensive institutions can go and work in research-intensive institutions. We are doing things.

  Q23  Dr Harris: But the man sitting next to you says, "It is both inevitable and desirable that universities should close more pure science departments as they updated 19th century subject categories and as demand for the new hybrid disciplines grew." Putting those two bits, that it is inevitable and desirable as demand grows, suggests that if demand changes, then this will happen; and that is inevitable and desirable. Is that your policy as well?

  Bill Rammell: No. I have just heard Howard say that he does want to intervene in certain ways to ensure the continuation of STEM subject provision.

  Q24  Dr Harris: Perhaps I should ask Sir Howard to respond to that because that quote comes from you in the Financial Times in an article by Miranda Green on 29 June—and I do not think you demurred from that statement, but would you now qualify that and say that it is not; that if demand for new hybrid disciplines grows with those consequences, it might not be a good thing, and there might be something that can be done?

  Sir Howard Newby: What we are talking about here is, again, the way science itself is developing and the role of traditional disciplines. For the sake of this argument, within that, what we should not do is somehow artificially constrain the way in which science, both teaching and research, is organised in our universities by putting in aspic certain kinds of organisational structures such as departments of this and departments of that. It is really a matter for universities to determine how they can best organise, in this case their scientific activity, both teaching and research. I do not think HEFCE really should intervene in that process, except where, we all agree, we are concerned that over the short to medium term there are real problems of sustaining provision in areas which we would wish to keep going.

  Q25  Dr Harris: The next question is one about these other subjects. Looking at your interview with the Education Select Committee, there was a discussion of forensic science. Is it your view that the Forensic Science Service wants people to study forensic chemistry?

  Sir Howard Newby: My view is that at the moment in all probability there are more graduates in forensic chemistry being produced than can be absorbed by the Home Office Forensic Science Service.

  Q26  Dr Harris: That was not quite the point I was making.

  Sir Howard Newby: I know it was not, but that was the point I was making to the Select Committee. Therefore, the issue is two-fold. Are we about to produce a glut of forensic chemistry graduates who cannot find suitable employment—and by "suitable" I mean those that exercise competences which were earned through their degrees. I do not know, is the honest answer to that, because I do not know what other employment opportunities might be available to them. I have my suspicions, but I do not know what other employment opportunities are available to them. If there is a glut, should HEFCE intervene in some way to restore that position? I do not think so because I do not think we should be in the business of constantly second-guessing individual decisions taken by students or by institutions over the provision or the demand for particular subjects.

  Q27  Dr Harris: It is worse than that because the forensic science people told us in evidence—and we will send you the report—that they want chemistry graduates; that these forensic chemistry graduates are no use to them. Here we have chemistry departments closing and demand for these cuddly-sounding TV-related subjects. It is not even a question of a glut; they are no increased good to the needs of the country.

  Sir Howard Newby: I am sorry, I would disagree with that. I think that is an exaggeration, with respect. I have always accepted that there is a need to encourage more high-quality students to study chemistry, and we have to deliver chemistry provision in a high-quality way. I do not believe it is the role of the Funding Council to tell students what subjects they can and cannot study; nor is it the role of the Funding Council to tell universities what kinds of provision they can or cannot make in response to a market demand.

  Q28  Chairman: With the greatest respect, surely yourselves, both as a funding arm of the Government, and the Government, have a job to stimulate demand.

  Sir Howard Newby: I agree that is what we are doing.

  Q29  Chairman: That is one of the key tasks. Here, we have a market within higher education where students are being attracted to so-called "softer subjects" whatever that is, rather than trying to fulfil the clear objectives in the Government's 10-year science and technology strategy, where we have to produce more scientists in particular, more engineers; and yet there seems to be a complacency on the side of HEFCE, and indeed in the Government, that we do not interfere in this market, and that we will wait to see what happens. It seems incredible to me. Is that unfair?

  Bill Rammell: With respect, I think it is unfair because we talked about a number of ways in which I am advocating, and HEFCE is intervening.

  Q30  Chairman: Let me just put one question to you, Bill.

  Bill Rammell: Can I just make this point about forensic science because we really can go down a cul-de-sac. Chemistry applications this year increased by 12%, and forensic science by 5%. There is double the number of students studying chemistry than there are for forensic science. Let us just get it into context.

  Q31  Chairman: Would you accept that the one way likely to stimulate demand is, particularly in terms of 16 to 19-year olds, to have within our school and college set-up high-quality laboratories and high-quality teaching staff? The government to my knowledge has no knowledge whatsoever as to how many science teachers are teaching children in our secondary schools with the appropriate qualifications. Surely that is one area where the Government could do the appropriate research and then set out to fill that void?

  Bill Rammell: It is fascinating—that was the subject I debated with officials in advance of this Select Committee.

  Q32  Chairman: We are glad to oblige!

  Bill Rammell: First, it is exceedingly difficult to do; but, second I think there is an arguable case that we need to do better in that regard. That is an issue that we may need to come back to. In terms of looking at the number of graduates who are coming through the system through teacher training into schools, there has been a substantial increase. I exemplified that earlier. The quality of those, particularly the numbers getting 2:1 and above, is increasing substantially as well. In terms of the laboratory expenditure, if you look at the commitments we are making on schools rebuilding, particularly in the secondary sector, I would defy anybody to say that that is not a fundamental generational shift in the quality of provision.

  Q33  Chairman: But you do need inspirational teachers in front of youngsters, in order to stimulate that demand for them to carry on with it, particularly studying the hard sciences, physics and chemistry, and also mathematics post 16.

  Bill Rammell: Absolutely. That is where, for example, the continuous professional development through the network of science centres is particularly important in ensuring that we have not just got inspirational teachers going in at the beginning, but that we are refreshing them throughout their career.

  Q34  Chairman: When the Committee made its report, one of its recommendations was that the Government should carry out far more research, a comprehensive survey on existing research and supply and demand for STEM skills, including international comparisons; and yet the Government, and to some extent HEFCE, quite dismiss that, saying the position is always changing and the research will tend inevitably to lag behind it. Now we find that within your own department you set up a STEM mapping review. I understand there is also one in the DTI and I do not know how those two work together, but can you say whether in terms of your own mapping review that goes right down into schools or whether it simply starts with universities?

  Bill Rammell: I will answer that, but let me say that in terms of pulling together the research, that is something we asked the Teacher Training Agency to do when the Secretary of State asked it to conduct a review of the golden hellos and bursaries that were necessary to attract graduate students into teaching. We have increased the bursary to £9,000 for key science subjects. On STEM rationalisation, there are two exercises taking place. There is one that is being led by myself and David Sainsbury, from the DTI, looking across universities and further education and the schools sector. It is about trying to bring coherence to the very large number of individual schemes that are grouped under three main categories: teacher supply and support, activities for students, CPD and resources. We have done that mapping exercise and we are now working with stakeholders both within government and on the outside, to look at what works and what does not work, and how delivery can be improved, and make it easier for everyone to access the resources that they need. Overall the aim is to refocus spending to improve the impact. I hope that early in the New Year we will be able to come forward with proposals to implement in 2006-07.

  Q35  Chairman: Will those be presented to Parliament so that we can debate them? How will people be able to interact with that?

  Bill Rammell: I have not given consideration yet to exactly how we take that forward, but I take on board your comment that there ought to be opportunities for scrutiny for what is coming up.

  Q36  Mr Newmark: I would like to ask a couple of questions on regional provision. My first question is to the Minister, and then I would be interested to hear Sir Howard's response. Is there sufficient funding available to support a good research capability in as many university departments as there are now? Should there be more focus on other strengths, for example knowledge transfer or teaching?

  Bill Rammell: If you look at what has happened in terms of funding for research over the last six to seven years, there has been a substantial increase. I think the move to full economic costs in terms of the provision of research will help, in that the full costs of the research will be coming through to the institution and they are not having to cross-subsidise. Also, through the HEIF initiative, the focus on a regional basis of setting up examinations of the potential for knowledge transfer is indeed taking place. I was chairing yesterday the Thames Gateway Further and Higher Education Committee, which pulls together all the key partners across that area, and we had a presentation from Knowledge East, who were talking in practical terms about the number of opportunities to ensure in a very meaningful way that knowledge transfer does take place. I think there are some positives that happen.

  Sir Howard Newby: We have been giving quite detailed consideration at the Funding Council to what we can do to invest in, support and incentivise those universities that are very good at knowledge transfer, including those that do not have a track record of research excellence in the way in which that is measured through Research Assessment Exercise. We are very aware that there are a considerable number of universities in England which have an important role to play regionally and nationally in taking the existing knowledge base and then making it available to users in the private sector and the public sector to their benefit. My board, at its last meeting, considered in outline terms what we might do to incentivise excellence in knowledge transfer across the sector, and I expect that we will be bringing proposals back to HEFCE early in the New Year. I am sure we will be very happy to share our thoughts at that point with the Committee. We do recognise that this is an important issue.

  Q37  Mr Newmark: The first part of my question was whether you think there is sufficient funding across the board.

  Sir Howard Newby: I have to say "no" because there is never sufficient funding for science, as we all know. I would make two points. Science in particular, but research more generally, is these days a global game. The competition we are facing is not national; it is international, and probably has been for the last twenty years. Our policy, as I have said on many occasions, is to ensure as far as we can that the very best research by international standards is properly supported; and then we work our way down until the money runs out. I wish we could work our way a little further down than we are currently able to, because there is still a lot of excellent research that could be supported if the resources were available. As we enter into a spending review, you probably would expect us to say that, but it is something that I genuinely believe.

  Bill Rammell: Can I add to that? I endorse the point that there will never be enough resources to do everything we want, but if you look at what has happened to science spending over the last eight years, where we have gone from £2.5 billion to £4.7 billion today, moving at the end of this spending period to £5.3 billion, and over the current three-year spending framework we are increasing by 5.7% above inflation—historically that is a significant increase. Is it as much as ideally we would want? Arguably that is not the case, but in terms of the trend it is a positive move in the right direction.

  Q38  Dr Iddon: Sir Howard, I have raised before on this Committee the change of ratio for science from 2 to 1.7. I am getting the feeling now that perhaps HEFCE has accepted that that might have been a wrong move, and that there are now discussions to change it again. However that will only be in 2008, which is quite a way down the road unfortunately for science departments. Can you say whether there has been an admission that that move from 2.0 to 1.7 was perhaps wrong in the first place?

  Sir Howard Newby: No, it was not wrong. However, I accept the general point, as I have said to this Committee before, that I do not need to be convinced that science teaching is under-funded in universities. All teaching is under-funded in our universities in some respects. Let me explain what is happening. First, to remind the Committee, the change in that ratio was in proportional terms, not in absolute terms. We still put in more money per student for teaching science subjects after we looked at the funding model. In absolute terms the money went up. What happened was that the increase in expenditure in the classroom-based subjects had gone up more than the increase in expenditure in the laboratory-based subjects. That is largely due to the much greater use of IT in classroom-based subjects than was the case when we had previously looked at it. I should also say that we do not sit down in Bristol and make these numbers up; those ratios were based on the expenditure returns of the universities themselves. I have said to this Committee before, and Dr Iddon has referred to this; that we nevertheless intend fully to move the basis of our teaching funding over to an examination of real costs. We are now undertaking that, and the data will be available for us to do that in 2008. In the meantime, however, we have recognised the need to support both medical and laboratory-based subjects before 2008 for the following reason, if you will allow me to say a few words about this, because it gets rather technical and we can send a note. We are very aware that with the introduction of fees capped at £3,000, the fee income which universities will start to receive from next year forms a lower proportion of the overall costs of teaching medical and science-based students than the proportion for teaching classroom-based subjects. If we did nothing to recognise that, as fees are phased in, we would be inadvertently giving universities an incentive to scale down their provision in laboratory-based subjects and transfer it into classroom-based subjects because, if you have the HEFCE grant plus the fee, that adds up to a much higher proportion of the cost of teaching classroom-based subjects than lab-based subjects. As the fees come in, we are going to adjust the amounts of money going into the laboratory-based subjects and medicine, but we are not doing it through changing the price weightings, which will have to wait until 2008, because then we will have the evidence. We will do it in other ways.

  Q39  Dr Iddon: Do you think it is right that universities should charge on the grounds of the space that they occupy, because one of the things I have found crippled science is that laboratory provision occupies a considerable amount of space. What you describe as classroom-based subjects can be taught in a much smaller area of space. I put it to you that the thing that has crippled science departments is the charging to most universities now for space, including laboratory, engineering and workshop space, in the engineering sciences. Will that change?

  Sir Howard Newby: That is a matter for vice chancellors. All I can say is that as a former vice chancellor of a very science-based university, namely Southampton, we certainly did charge for space because we wanted space to be utilised efficiently. But there is then quite a delicate issue about how you weight the charging for space between high-maintenance and low-maintenance space in a way which covers costs but does not, as you put it, cripple the engineering and science-based subjects. I would expect any well-run university not to do that. It would be unfortunate, if rather inadvertently, through a rather unsophisticated application of a space-funding model that science departments found themselves unable to operate effectively.

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