Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)
MP AND PROFESSOR
28 NOVEMBER 2007
Q20 Chairman: When will they come
into the public domain?
Professor Eastwood: All our board
papers are published so it will be clear in January where we are
on the outcome of the consultation.
Q21 Chairman: So in January you will
Bill Rammell: Chairman, can I
very briefly respond to Gordon: (i) the process of engagement
is on-going. Obviously there is a consultation through HEFCE.
I am meeting personally, virtually on a weekly basis, with providers;
(ii) I have the absolute highest regard for the work that people
like the Open University and Birkbeck have done. I regard the
Open University as the finest creation of a previous Labour Government.
However, some of the claims that have been put forward are simply
wrong. At the start of this debate I was told that the Open University
was going to lose £30 million. It is simply not true. I would
urge people to focus on the detail of the proposal and engage
in the conversation. I make the point again, what we have to do
through HEFCE is demonstrate that this policy is correct but then
help institutions to move from where they are today to actually
meeting that need of people who are not yet at the first base
of getting a degree.
Chairman: I am going to leave that there
because we have a lot of business to get through and if I could
ask us all to try and be as brief as we can with our questions
and perhaps encourage our guests to be as brief in their answers.
Over to you, Des.
Q22 Dr Turner: I cannot resist one
very quick one before I ask a series of questions. Very rightly
and very gratifyingly, you put a great deal of emphasis in your
opening remarks, Bill, on science and research, but it does not
figure in the Department's title; can you tell us why? Is there
any truth in the apocryphal story about the focus group?
Bill Rammell: I have never heard
the story about the focus group. There is all sorts of debate
and I have to say that I do not think the agonising debates that
go on in Whitehall about titles for departments is the most productive
use of time. I think that Innovation, Universities and Skills
encapsulates the whole of the science area, the need for research,
the need for innovation and further and higher education, and
I think we get that message across. At the end of the day it is
not going to be a title that changes practices and culture, it
is going to be what we actually do.
Q23 Dr Turner: I know but people
do look at titles. Anyway we have been discussing, in terms of
getting views, Government policy as enacted through funding, but
of course, in practice, teaching for funding is allocated by block
grant and institutions have a great deal of autonomy in how they
actually use their block grant, so there is going to be a conflict
there. How can you be sure that institutions are actually going
to do exactly what you want and indeed should they have to given
that the Government pays at least lip service to academic autonomy?
Bill Rammell: I would say we do
a bit more than pay lip service. In fact, for the Fabian Society
last night I was giving a major lecture on the importance of the
concept of academic freedom which I think helps our institutions
to develop. There is a balance to be struck. We spend £10
or £11 billion a year on higher education directly through
the Department. That is a substantial sum of money and I think
taxpayers would not thank us if we did not set out the broad framework
and the steers of the things that we value that money being spent
on. There is all the difference in the world between having that
view and then actually intervening to micro manage institutions.
We do not do that and I think we would be wrong to do that because
we would not actually get the best outcome. It is also the caseand
David will correct methat in global terms only 40% of funding
to the universities actually comes from the Government on average,
so there are other funding avenues that they can pursue. It is
about getting that balance right between the national imperative
but actually wanting strong autonomous institutions to deliver
on the ground.
Q24 Dr Turner: Does it follow then
that when you change the funding system as you are advertising,
you will not be doing it through targeted grants or ring-fenced
Bill Rammell: There are some targeted
grants. Funding for foundation degrees, funding for strategic
development funds for hot-spots in the country where there is
no higher education institution and we think, for educational
reasons and the regeneration of that area, that there is a need
for funding, then of course you specifically earmark funding for
that purpose, but there is still a very, very strong degree of
autonomy of institutions analysing what they are good at, what
they are less good at, and playing to their strengths.
Professor Eastwood: Can I add
two things. Firstly, I do think that the block grant principle
for teaching enables institutions to operate a high-quality teaching
environment and to invest flexibly and appropriately. Having said
that, we do a number of things which are strictly targeted. For
example last year when we decided to invest a further £70
million in the high-cost science subjects, we did that for a three-year
period because that is the funding time horizon we can work with,
but if any institution were to discontinue provision in those
areas then they would return the funding. I think that is a significant
incentive. Secondly, with the additional student numbers that
we invest in the system, again we invest those strategically as
Bill says. Some of those are in areas such as foundation degrees
to engender new kinds of provision. Some of those are in universities
which can demonstrate that they can recruit in some of the strategic
and vulnerable subject areas and we invest additional student
numbers there so within the block grant envelope there are a number
of things that are quite strategic and a number of steers which
are quite powerful.
Q25 Dr Turner: Since 2005 the Government
has carried out two reviews of teaching funding "to ensure
that it remains fit for purpose in a changing higher education
environment". Are you satisfied that you have got the answers
now? Can you tell us in outline how these reviews have informed
your decisions, and are you satisfied or will there be yet another
Bill Rammell: I think the process
of looking at the system, reviewing it periodically and making
sure that it is where you want it to be in terms of meeting the
needs of society is an on-going process. I am not going to say
to you that there will not be further reviews. There is for example
next year a review of the teaching weightings between different
Q26 Dr Turner: Can I just ask why
that was not incorporated in the present review because it is
a subject which has been raised by our predecessor Committee on
a number of occasions?
Professor Eastwood: The answer
to that is that through the transparent approach to costing we
will have new and, we believe, robust data on costs and relative
costs and we will have that in 2008, so it was an evidence-based
Bill Rammell: I think the other
thing on the subject of weightings however is that given that
there is going to be a certain sum of money in the pot, however
much you are increasing that by, if you are saying one set of
subjects needs a higher weighting then ipso facto you are
saying another set of subjects needs less funding. We always hear
the arguments about those subjects that need more spent and we
need people to say credibly where the reductions in funding should
Q27 Chairman: Medieval history?
Bill Rammell: That is your view
is it, Chairman?
Dr Turner: Our favourite is media studies.
That is just an aside.
Q28 Chairman: That is not a view
of the Committee.
Bill Rammell: Media studies actually
have very good outcomes in term of employability and if we are
going to enter into a debate about which subjects
Q29 Chairman: Minister, do not go
down that route!
Bill Rammell: All right.
Q30 Dr Turner: You have already referred
to TRAC(T) with the object of arriving at some sort of evidence
base for a sustainable system. Can you tell us what you think
a sustainable teaching system will look like?
Professor Eastwood: I think a
sustainable teaching system will be premised on universities themselves
having a clear understanding of where their costs lie. That will
then translate back into the way in which we structure our teaching
funding algorithm. It will then also feed back into the advice
that we give to ministers and the advice ministers take into subsequent
spending reviews, so that is how I envisage it working. We have
on a number of fronts been working to ensure that what we achieve
is a sustainable sector. We are making real progress there in
terms of the capital base of the sector and by about 2012 on current
projections we will arrive in capital terms at a sector that looks
broadly sustainable. And as far as teaching is concerned, we have
not yet seen the full financial benefit of the change towards
the new fee regime. We will get that in 2009 and I think at that
point, which is why it is wise to have a review in 2009, we will
have an evidence base to judge both the way in which the funding
regime has impacted and secondly whether or not there remains
a significant deficit.
Q31 Dr Turner: In 2008 hopefully
you will know the full economic costs of teaching and of teaching
in different subjects. You have already referred to that and this
is clearly going to have a major impact on total funding and on
the distribution of funding. Have you started to measure that
impact? Can you be sure that there will be not be any kind of
feedback between having looked at the impact and felt, "That
is going to be tough, perhaps we should alter the figures"?
Professor Eastwood: I think there
is a difference in understanding costing for research and costing
for teaching. With full economic cost for research
Q32 Dr Turner: I am talking about
Professor Eastwood: I realise
that. For full economic cost of research what we had was the costing
of a research project, the direct and the on-costs of that. When
we look at the costs of teaching, there are a number of assumptions
that you have to build into the model. They have to do with the
number of contact hours, the size of teaching groups, the frequency
of lab sessions and so forth. What TRAC(T) will give us is a better
way of understanding current costs and a better way of costing
enhancement of the teaching provision, for example more contact
time. It would be wrong for me to suggest that TRAC(T) of itself
will give us straightforward the answer "what should the
cost of teaching be?" but what I think it does do is it gives
us a sensible evidence base to have that debate quite widely about
what constitutes appropriate funding, what subjects we should
Chairman: We will come on to funding
of research and I will bring in Gordon Marsden.
Q33 Mr Marsden: David, we are aware
obviously that the process of determining what I think is called
the single overarching framework as the replacement to traditional
RAE is still continuing, but can I ask you initially, are you
happy that we have got the split right between the STEM subjects
which are going to be dealt with on the basis of quantitative
indications of research quality and outputs and the light-touch
peer-review based assessment for everybody else? Are there any
subject areas which are in a grey area between the two?
Professor Eastwood: I think broadly
we have got it right but you are quite right, there are some subject
Q34 Mr Marsden: Would you like to
Professor Eastwood: The non-medical
health related disciplines is one quite important area and I think
we will get greater clarity on that as a result of this consultation.
Q35 Mr Marsden: When do you expect
the consultation to finish?
Professor Eastwood: The consultation
finishes in the middle of February. We launched it last week.
Q36 Mr Marsden: Will you then be
in a position to announce the funding formula?
Professor Eastwood: After the
consultation we will take stock of the outcomes of the consultation.
Then what we have said we need to do is to run a pilot of the
new methodology because it does involve gathering data in different
ways. When we have done thatwhich will take us into the
autumn of 2008that is the point where we will be able to
come to some final decisions about the evaluation structure and
begin to look at the funding implications.
Q37 Mr Marsden: That may be all well
and good and well understood but there is going to be a significant
period of uncertainty for universities and institutions as to
how the new funding formula is going to be based then, is there
Professor Eastwood: We will conclude
the Research Assessment Exercise of 2008 in the December of 2008
so the funding allocations of that will be announced in February
2009. The agreement with Government is that the new regime, what
we are currently calling the REFthe Reference Excellence
Framework, so we will be able to blame the REF in future!will
start to inform funding from 2010. I think the sector does understand
that and in terms of the funding changes that the new system might
drive, until we know what the outcomes of our RAE 2008 will be,
we do not know how significant the changes will be that the REF
Q38 Mr Marsden: Can I bring you back
briefly to what might be seen outside as the continuation of RAE
by other means, the non-metric element, because one of the things
that is curious about the controversy that followed the announcement
of going down the matrix route and the subsequent response of
Government and indeed of HEFCE is that in that process some of
the fundamental criticisms that were voiced previously of the
RAE seem to have got lost. I refer specifically to the arguments
that it ossifies research funding in a small number of institutionsto
those that have more will be givenbut more particularly
that some of the issues previously about people buying in research
on the basis of their books to boost their university do not seem
to be being addressed in any shape or form in the light-touch
peer review that you are now taking forward.
Professor Eastwood: What we have
said about the light-touch peer review is that we will be doing
the work first for the science-based evaluation. When we have
completed that we will then move to reworking the light-touch
RAE and we will consult on that, so it would be wrong at this
stage to anticipate what the outcomes might be. We are expecting
to learn some relevant things for light-touch RAE from the bibliometrics-based
approach that we are applying to the science-based subjects.
Q39 Mr Marsden: Do you then accept
that some of the criticisms that were made of the old RAE along
the lines that I describe remain valid criticisms to be answered?
Professor Eastwood: We will seek
to answer them when we devise the non-STEM light-touch RAE.
Mr Marsden: We will await that with interest.
Chairman: You sounded like a politician