Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
MP AND SIR
2 NOVEMBER 2005
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 Juneand 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 employmentand
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 evidenceand
we will send you the reportthat 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 fascinatingthat
was the subject I debated with officials in advance of this Select
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
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
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 inflationhistorically 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
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.