Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Dec 2006 : Column 289WH—continued

This neglect and undervaluation of teaching is now being noticed, not least by fee-paying students and their parents. History students in Bristol drew attention recently when they protested at the drastic cut in teaching. One said:

We can expect to hear more of that sort of sentiment as teaching is consistently devalued in the preoccupation with research ratings. Good teaching goes unrewarded, and research, even if it is of doubtful value, is over-rewarded. Some academic staff now do little or no teaching and are an increasingly remote presence, and students receive less attention.

My plea is that those issues are properly picked up and tackled as the RAE has its last outing before being replaced with something else. The RAE is undoubtedly a costly and bureaucratic burden, but that is not the only reason for wanting to review it. One distinguished professor and departmental head said that

One good reason for not trusting citation indices is that articles with certain key words in their title attract more citations. Desperate researchers will soon learn to play that game.

In the disciplines that I know and care about, I want the perversities of the current arrangements to be rectified. I want the work of public intellectuals to be encouraged, the civic purpose of the university to be affirmed, policy-relevant research to be celebrated and valued, and the bias against teaching to be attended to.

I shall end by raising one final perversity. A recent guest on “Desert Island Discs” was the eminent philosopher Mary Midgley, who recalled that it had taken her 30 years to publish her first book. She said that she had spent that time in intellectual maturation and reflection. If she were a young scholar now, she would have to publish or perish, whether or not she had anything ready to say, and in a form that would count for the purposes of the RAE. In fact, she would probably be discouraged from writing a book. That may be the function of the RAE, but it should not be the purpose of a university.

13 Dec 2006 : Column 290WH

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I am ferociously independent here in the Chair, and I shall listen to the new Minister’s response to that speech with great interest. I do not envy him his task.

11.14 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) on securing the debate and I am grateful for his welcome. If I were a footballer, I dare say that I would be a utility player. As he rightly said, today I am filling in for my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning.

I hope that my hon. Friend has a spring in his step, having heard the news of the abolition of the RAE after 2008. I am sure that you have, too, Sir Nicholas. University research is a progressive force that must change constantly and move forward. For the past 20 years, the RAE has been the most important engine of that change. Since 1986, we have moved from a position of relative ignorance about the use of hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to a point where we can confidently say that the research that taxpayers fund is truly world class.

Between the last two RAEs in 1996 and 2001, the number of university departments achieving the top five or five-starred ratings rose by 65 per cent. to more than 800. Those excellent departments now employ more than half of all researchers in the higher education system. The RAE has changed and improved after every exercise, but I take on board my hon. Friend’s comments. In the next exercise in 2008, for example, the financial cliff edges—the difference between, for example, a four and a five-starred rating—will be eliminated by the introduction of quality profiles of the sort recommended in Sir Gareth Roberts’ 2003 review of the RAE. There will also be fewer peer review panels in 2008 and greater recognition of previously undervalued activities, such as applied research.

Increasingly in recent years, the RAE has attracted criticism from the higher education sector, partly as a result of its success. It looms large in the lives of universities and researchers and is said sometimes to overshadow other important activities in a university’s life cycle. The criticism is perhaps also a sign of the RAE's maturity—an indication that it has achieved all that it can and that it is time for something new. I shall say a little more about that in a moment.

I shall recap some of the key criticisms of the RAE. First, it is said to be expensive. The Higher Education Funding Council estimates the total cost to be more than £50 million. That is a significant sum, albeit 1 per cent. or less of the total value of the research budget, the allocation of which is informed by the RAE. Most of that cost is borne by universities in staff and administrative time. Secondly, the RAE is said to be bureaucratic. We heard about that during the debate and, again, to an extent, the allegation is true. Eighty-two peer review panels supported by 800 pages of guidance and many times more pages of university
13 Dec 2006 : Column 291WH
submissions will make the quality judgments that underpin the next RAE. Thirdly, the RAE is said to be divisive. Of the £1 billion or so of quality-related research funding that goes to the 131 English higher education institutions each year, more than one third goes to only four of them.

Not all institutions produce excellent research, but we must acknowledge that research excellence is not the only game in town. Some universities have successfully pursued alternative missions and sources of funding through promoting access, through excellence in teaching or, increasingly, through interaction with business and the community. That diversity is greatly welcome.

Although the RAE has served the country well, the Government and the higher education sector alike have continued to seek a simpler system. The challenge is to achieve that while upholding the principles of the dual support system for research. Some funding for specific projects comes through the research councils and the rest comes from the funding councils to encourage and reward research excellence.

Earlier this year the Government announced their intention to move, after the 2008 research assessment exercise, to a metrics-based system for research assessment and funding. Initial proposals were published on 13 June for consultation. They suggested that an assessment model based on research-income metrics might be adopted relatively quickly for science disciplines, as has been pointed out in the debate. For other disciplines, the proposals acknowledged that it would be harder to find a robust replacement for the peer-review-led process of the RAE. The consultation closed on 13 October, with nearly 300 responses received from universities, researchers, subject interest groups and other organisations and individuals with an interest.

Some clear messages emerged from the consultation. There was a desire for reform that would reduce the bureaucratic burden of the current arrangements, increase transparency and recognise all types of research. However, the majority of respondents had some key concerns about basing an assessment system on the 13 June proposals, noting: first, assessment on income metrics alone could not recognise research quality; secondly, although metrics were more readily applicable to some disciplines than others, the separation of assessment arrangements would be undesirable, so subject variations should be recognised within a single assessment framework; and thirdly, the move to new arrangements should not be sudden, and it should not destabilise institutions.

The Government have accepted those points. We agree that the sector must be confident that a new assessment process will promote quality, so I hope that that demonstrates how friends in the Department have the same bee in their bonnet as my hon. Friend. We are also grateful for suggestions about the use of quality indicators and the role of expert advisers in assessment. We value respondents’ appraisal of the applicability and fitness for purpose of metrics in different subjects. We recognise, too, the sector’s desire to ensure that its investment in RAE 2008 is reflected in a reasonable lifespan for the results. Taking account of those concerns, we announced on 6 December, as part of the pre-Budget report, revised proposals for a new assessment process. We remain committed to replacing the RAE with a research assessment process that uses metrics as its basis when they are sufficiently robust and fit for purpose.
13 Dec 2006 : Column 292WH
It reflects our belief that metrics offer the best opportunity for developing an objective and transparent assessment system that reduces the burden of the RAE and recognises all forms of research excellence.

The development of robust metric indicators should capture a greater range of excellent research activity and assist institutions in monitoring and managing their own activity. We agree, however, that income metrics cannot stand alone as indicators of quality. We therefore propose a new assessment process based on a series of indicators, containing income and research degree metrics, and a quality indicator, too. We recognise that the robustness of the quality indicator will be pivotal in creating confidence in the new process.

Bibliometrics—statistics relating to publications—are our choice as the source of a quality indicator, and many who responded to our consultation saw their potential. However, the development and use of bibliometrics varies greatly between disciplines. Our initial proposals made a crude distinction between science subjects and others, and as consultation responses noted, they neither reflected the complexity of metrics’ applicability, nor did justice to the majority of disciplines, social sciences in particular. Differences lie within disciplines as well as between them, and even where bibliometrics are well established, further work is necessary to provide a robust indicator for assessment purposes.

Our ultimate goal, none the less, is a metrics-based assessment process with a bibliometric quality indicator that is applicable to all disciplines, but sensitive to differences between them. We have decided to introduce metrics-based assessment swiftly for subjects where the funding council is confident of quickly identifying a bibliometric indicator. Those disciplines fall under the broad headings of science, engineering—my background, although not in research—technology and medicine that are collectively known as SET.

For other disciplines, the quality indicator will continue in the interim to involve expert review of research outputs, so some of the issues that my hon. Friend highlighted will remain problematic at least for the interim period. Output review will continue until bibliometrics in those disciplines are sufficiently well established to replace it. We are hopeful that the use of metrics in SET assessment will act as a catalyst for the development of bibliometrics in other disciplines.

For the time being, however, there will be differences in assessment for different disciplines. However, those differences will exist within the single overarching framework of indicators, and we are confident that assessment will operate in such a way as to ensure that all disciplines, and interdisciplinary work, are rigorously and fairly assessed.

Another part of the overarching framework will be the involvement of expert advisers. Although there will be no expert involvement at the level of the current RAE panel, there will be a continuing role for expert advice in deciding the weighting of the indicators for all disciplines, and in reviewing research outputs in disciplines where bibliometrics are not used. Expert advice in that context will include advice from disciplinary experts and expert users of research.

The first assessment for SET subjects under the new system will take place in 2009, and it will begin to inform funding from the 2010-11 academic year. It will
13 Dec 2006 : Column 293WH
completely replace the RAE 2008 element in funding for SET subjects by 2014-15. For other subjects, assessment under the new lighter-touch arrangements will be in academic year 2013, and it will inform funding from 2014-15.

The detailed design of the process requires further work, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked the Higher Education Funding Council to lead that work and involve the sector closely. Our aim, as I have said, is for a process that continues to reward research excellence, but that significantly reduces the administrative burden on higher education institutions and their researchers.

Sir Nicholas, I hope that that has satisfied your own concerns. I once again congratulate my hon. Friend on raising his concerns for the House.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Time is up. We ended in the nick of time.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

13 Dec 2006 : Column 294WH

Human Trafficking

2.30 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I welcome Members to this debate. I can see from the Chair that quite a lot of Members want to participate. It is an issue of considerable importance. The debate was secured by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). Totnes, for those who do not know, is in the great county of Devon.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I thank the Speaker for choosing this subject for debate. He has done Parliament a great service in many ways, and the debate could not be more timely.

The war on terror is portrayed as enemy No. 1 in the west—the enemy cannot be seen, the enemy is within, society is threatened—but another war is going on, a more insidious one that is potentially more corrosive. I refer to the trafficking of human beings, including the trafficking of children for sex, begging, domestic servitude and other forms of child labour. Young children are lured away, usually from desperately poor families, and made dependent on crooks and criminals.

Until recently, child trafficking was seen not as a problem facing this country but as something that happened elsewhere. That changed with the launch last February of Operation Pentameter, which discovered 72 trafficked females in different parts of Britain, 12 of whom were minors. The discovery brought into stark relief the fact that Britain too is a host country into which young children are being trafficked to be bought and sold like meat in a butcher shop. As the deputy chief constable in charge of Operation Pentameter said,

We have no idea just how virulent child trafficking is, but we know that from time to time it raises its ugly head. Last Saturday, The Times reported that a Czech woman had been caught shipping children into Britain, using female couriers who posed as their relatives. Once here, the children were handed over to gangmasters. Despite lurid tabloid exposés and television documentaries chronicling stories of girls and gangs observed by undercover reporters, such criminal activity will inevitably continue unless confronted by stronger forces. Without a permanent Operation Pentameter detailing every police force in Britain to look out for and apprehend those involved in trafficking, and without a stronger remit from the Government for our law enforcement agencies, prosecutions and convictions will be spasmodic and erratic. Without a designated unit in every one of our 53 police forces to combat trafficking and help victims, the scale and extent of this illicit trade will never be known, and it will never be halted.

It is not just the police who need to be focused on trafficking. Could not some of the 9,000 health and safety officials working with every local authority in the country add to their concerns about obesity some other health aspects of our increasingly affluent population? One wonders what information health and safety officials could discover in their localities. Could they not help the police, social workers and the immigration service to root out the problem? It is no good for the Government
13 Dec 2006 : Column 295WH
to say that they are on side and deeply concerned or what a terrible business it all is if the Home Secretary fails to send the police a directive. Should not the Health Secretary also send some guidance to the health and safety officials? What about the probation services, or the thousands of housing officials throughout the country? More people work for the Government and local government than ever before. Surely among them they can discover trafficked persons and criminal gangs and act speedily. How is it that underage girls continue to enter this country? What is happening to our immigration service that it continues to admit children into Britain to be forced into prostitution?

In the United States, children travelling with people other than immediate family members are interviewed separately by the immigration service at points of entry. That is not done in Britain. If it were, we could intercept many potentially trafficked children. Will the Minister explain why it is not done, and whether it will be? It would create an entirely different climate where children accompanied by people other than their mother or father would be taken separately into a room, interviewed by an immigration official and asked the questions that need to be asked.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I used to have a business that related to another business in Florida, and I often took young, attractive female staff over there on business. My hon. Friend is quite right. They would be taken into a separate room and interviewed for half an hour to check that the story was correct. That simple measure would cut down the number of people trafficked into this country.

Mr. Steen: It is illuminating to hear what my hon. Friend did before he became a Member of Parliament. I thank him for that elucidation of how the Americans do it; it is an important point. I do not understand why we do not do it here. Will the Minister seriously consider it?

Even though we have not yet signed up to the minimum standards of victim protection laid down in the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, we are still obliged to consider children’s best interests, not just from a moral point of view but as an international legal requirement under article 3 of the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child, which was ratified by every country in the world except for the United States and Somalia. Yet when we discover trafficked children at ports of entry, we are still inclined to put them back on the next plane to the country from which they came. The snag in doing so is that such children are usually re-trafficked or their families are placed at risk.

Immigration officials must be instructed not only to discover victims of trafficking but to challenge fake parents or guardians, who inevitably have tickets to return to the country from which they came within 24 hours of arrival. It is another simple thing. When children are accompanied by a parent or guardian, all immigration officers should check the date on the return ticket. If it is within 24 or 48 hours, questions must be asked.

Next Section Index Home Page