Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)|
MP AND PROFESSOR
28 NOVEMBER 2007
Q40 Dr Gibson: He is a politician!
How much is this RAE going to cost? Is it going to cost more than
the last one in your estimate?
Professor Eastwood: The new system?
Q41 Dr Gibson: Yes.
Professor Eastwood: We have made
a commitment to both lightening the burden on institutions and
to reducing the overall cost.
Q42 Dr Gibson: So why do you still
do the RAE? There was a time when you wanted to sharpen up departments
and get rid of those few slouches that are around. That was the
original idea. Why do we still do it? We have separated the institutions;
we have almost got two tables now in terms of RAE as those who
do heavy Nobel Prize winning research and the others. What else
could you find out? Why do you do it? Why do you spend this money
on it? Why do you spend all your time doing it? What does it gain?
Professor Eastwood: From the point
of view of HEFCE as a research funding body, our commitment is
to fund research excellence where it can be found and we need
a method to inform that funding distribution. We certainly would
not want our funding to ossify the research base, so we do think
that a periodic assessment of research quality does drive dynamism.
One of the things we are also trying to do through the new methodology
is ensure that there is appropriate data both for research users
and for the international marketing of UK HE which is important,
and for institutional management in themselves understanding research
quality and determining where they are going to make their own
Q43 Dr Gibson: Do you not think that
the top-flight universities have got an inherent, inbuilt jump
ahead of all the others, like UEA for example, they are in different
leagues in a sense because they have had the money in the early
days, they have recruited the stars and will continue to do so?
Professor Eastwood: I think I
would agree with quite a lot of that, which is why I think this
is the right time for the system to evolve significantly. What
I do not think I would be confident of would be that the kind
of dynamism that we have driven into the research base post-1986
would continue if there were not these forms of assessment. After
all, the research councils operate a very rigorous system of peer
review around all their grant allocations for precisely this reason.
One needs to have that kind of torsioning in the system in order
to drive quality and in order to ensure that funding is appropriately
Q44 Dr Gibson: Two quick ones, David.
The first point is that you know in the sciences if you want to
do a good research assessment you produce dumb work really. You
do not take great risks that might take five years or whatever.
Watson and Crick would never have got an RAE score either. People
do very safe research in which they are going to get some result
and which will be published in Nature or some journal,
depending on how lucky you are. What do you say to that, that
it inhibits innovation?
Professor Eastwood: Given that
we are out to consultation on the REF at the moment, my answer
is that that is actually a very real question and one of the issues
for the consultation is the window you should use for the bibliometric
evaluation in order to capture what one of our experts calls the
"Sleeping Beauties", the research which is ahead of
its time. I think when we have had the conversation in the context
of this consultation we will have an answer which will be able
to pick up those Sleeping Beauties and which will not discourage
people from that bold kind of research.
Q45 Dr Gibson: Last point; charity
funding. Charities always feel they get a bad deal when putting
money into universities. Do you feel that the costs and so on
are different from the research funding that comes in from research
councils, that there is a differentiation? Are they treated the
same? Is it a level playing field? Are the full costs met by charities
and should they be?
Professor Eastwood: The agreement
that we have at the moment with Treasury is that there is a charity
factor in our QR allocation which means that a research team which
takes research charity income with a combination of charity overhead
and our own research charity funding would be in the same position
as they would be if they had taken research council grant, and
that seems to me to be a sensible accommodation.
Q46 Dr Gibson: The Cancer Research
Campaign does not agree with that; they think they get a bad deal.
Professor Eastwood: I think if
you look at the quality of research which emerges and the value
for money both on value-for-money and on intellectual grounds
it is a good deal.
Q47 Dr Iddon: What do you say to
the criticism that the present system inhibits the newer universities
from becoming centres of excellence?
Professor Eastwood: If you look
for example at the distribution of high quality, if you look at
the distribution of five and five stars, you will see that the
distribution is actually quite broad across the sector. It is
undoubtedly the case that that kind of comprehensive research
quality and capacity is now concentrated in a modest number of
institutions. I think that has been a settled policy of more than
one Government and it seems to me broadly that it is the right
policy given the cost of big science and the importance of competing
internationally. One of the reasons why we think it is right to
continue with some sort of Research Evaluation Framework is precisely
to enable some centres of excellence to flourish right across
the sector and that is broadly what has happened.
Q48 Chairman: Just before I move
on here, in terms of the Sainsbury Report, Lord Sainsbury's view
on research-intensive universities and business-facing universities,
do you see that being a driver for change or can that in fact
be encapsulated with the proposed funding model of the bibliometrics
in conjunction with RAE?
Bill Rammell: I would not draw
the distinction between research-intensive and business-facing
universities. I know there are a number of universities who are
doing tremendously good work engaging with businesses on higher
level skills who are attempting to promote themselves with a business-facing
label and that is fine but business engagement is something maybe
not to the same extent but I think is there and should be there
for all institutions. I do not think we should go down this road
of research intensives blue-skies thinking and a whole set of
other universities who are doing the skills agenda. I think it
has got to be across the board.
Q49 Chairman: So you reject that
definition that Sainsbury made?
Bill Rammell: It is not the terminology
that I would use. I actually want all universities to be business
Q50 Dr Turner: Brian has already
alluded to the problem that there is from the present funding
allocation. There is a cliff face from grade five downwards and
it not only makes it very difficult for newer institutions or
regenerating institutions to bring departments through to a higher
quality but also has led to the death of several departments,
particularly in STEM subjects like chemistry, so what steps will
you take in devising the new formula to avoid those sorts of consequences?
Professor Eastwood: In fact, the
2008 RAE will take away the cliff edge which is why we have moved
to graded profiles for the 2008 RAE. Bibliometrics again would
enable you to have a continuing, variable quality assessment which
would then feed through to the funding assessment so that point
about the cliff edge has been well made and it has been well taken,
and in fact we have already addressed it in the 2008 RAE.
Bill Rammell: Just to add for
the recordand I know within this Committee we have debated
physics and chemistry in the pastif you look at the procedures
we now have in place through an early warning system even where
some institutions have closed their chemistry departments regionally
the numbers and the capacity have been maintained.
Q51 Mr Cawsey: I would like to move
on to knowledge transfer and the Higher Education Innovation Fund.
You have already announced details of round four of the fund saying
it will go from £110 million to £150 million by 2010-11
with a number of rule changes as well. Would you like to tell
us a bit about why you have made these changes and what difficulties
you are trying to address with them.
Bill Rammell: Certainly I think
the increase in funding where the vast majority of institutions
will see an increaseI think two-thirds of them will see
an increase of something like 50%is very welcome. If you
look at the level of activity and the 30 spin-off companies that
this has generated, I think it has been a very solid initiative,
but there has been a debate for example about the balance between
the bidding process and actually seeing it allocated by formula
and I think we have seen a change in the operating practices of
universities. We are now moving to a situation of 100% formula
allocation. One of the reasons that we want to see that happen
is that you do want some guarantee and solidity of the funding
stream because if you want individuals within institutions to
see their future careers in the knowledge transfer business, they
need some degree of security that that funding stream is going
to continue. With the announcement that we have made I think we
are actually able to deliver on it.
Q52 Mr Cawsey: So you do not think
that the competitive element has worked? Is that why you are doing
Bill Rammell: No I think it has
driven change but if you look across government, if you look in
education at the balance between competitive bidding and formula
allocation, I think you initially do look for a strong, competitive
bidding element to get people to look at the way they are operating
and to get them to change their business practices. You reach
a certain change where you have embedded some of that change and
you want some on-going security. If you want individuals to restructure
their careers and move in that direction, I think you need to
give a stronger degree of guarantee.
Professor Eastwood: This is an
activity that Government wants all institutions to be involved
in. We needed to build capacity and we needed to drive changethe
Minister has been talking about thatand bidding in a competitive
process was an element of that culture change. We believe now
it has matured and all universities and colleges have their knowledge
transfer platforms, have their IP specialisms and so forth, so
I think the challenge now for us is to embed that and to ensure
that we have an appropriate distribution so that we appropriately
fund all kinds of institution, and that is why we have moved towards
a funding matrix which uses staff numbers as the measure of capacity,
uses business income as a measure of activity; and doubly weights
engagement with SMEs, because we recognise that that is challenging
and we want to incentivise it. We capped the allocations at 1.9
million to drive an appropriate distribution and, as I have said
from public platforms, if you look at our HEIF funding formula
it is a work of algorithmic genius.
Q53 Chairman: Did you say that?
Professor Eastwood: I said that.
Q54 Mr Cawsey: You spoke about the
importance of on-going security for the institutions around round
four, which has just been announced, so is it your intention now
that this funding will become permanent?
Bill Rammell: You do not make
commitments beyond three-year spending periods and we are going
to be announcing the full CSR settlement in a few weeks' time,
but certainly for the forthcoming CSR we are strongly committed
to HEIF, we think it has worked; it has delivered; it has brought
about the culture change, and I see no reason to change that.
Q55 Mr Cawsey: The double weight
SMEs which you mentioned I think is to be welcomed. Clearly there
have been issues with small and medium-sized businesses in previous
rounds. Is there anything else that you are doing other than double
weighting to support that particular part of the scheme?
Professor Eastwood: In the context
of HEIF, no, that has been our response through HEIF. More generally
in the Funding Council we are using our Strategic Development
Fund to incentivise engagements with SMEs, and that has notably
been the case in the way in which we have been responding to the
priorities that drive employer engagement. HEIF is not the only
instrument that we have but it is an important one and I think
we have sent the right kind of signal through the funding formula
this time around.
Q56 Mr Cawsey: HEIF cannot itself
be the answer to everything. Do you plan any additional schemes
to assist knowledge transfer or exchange between universities
Professor Eastwood: Three weeks
ago we announced a pilot on Beacons of Public Engagement, a £9.2
million scheme jointly between us and the research councils and
Wellcome. That is a different kind of engagement, an engagement
around a real dialogue and engagement with the public. We see
that as something which is complementary to the kinds of activity
that HEIF is facilitating.
Q57 Dr Iddon: I want to turn now
to the strategically important and vulnerable subjects, gentlemen.
I have a registered relevant interest in this question in that
I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. HEFCE has commissioned
Evidence Limited to conduct an evaluation into the use of the
£160 million that your organisation has made available to
raise the aspirations of young people to study strategically important
and vulnerable subjects. We are not just talking of course about
STEM subjects but languages and other subjects as well. Are you
able to give us this morning any evidence that is emerging from
Professor Eastwood: Not at this
stage from the review, no. I think I can indicate that in a number
of strategically vulnerable subject areas, but not all, the position
looks as if it is turning around.
Q58 Dr Iddon: Lord Sainsbury said
in his report: "HEFCE should transform the Strategically
Important and Vulnerable Subject Advisory Group into an Advisory
Group on Graduate Supply and Demand and extend its remit to include
responsibility for publishing an annual report." Are you
able to tell us how that recommendation is likely to be implemented?
Professor Eastwood: Following
David Sainsbury's report we are now commissioning advice on the
way in which we will put that annual report together; we are committed
to producing it and we will be in a position to publish our proposals
for doing it in February.
Q59 Dr Iddon: If I could address
this question to Bill, it is one I have raised before in question
times. I am very disappointed at the careers advice that is being
given to young people in schools, particularly with a view to
directing them into STEM subjects. Since Connexions was set up,
they seem to be concentrating on children at the lower end of
the academic achievement ladder rather than at the higher end,
and some of the very brightest people are not being directed,
I do not think, into the subjects that matter. Are you in any
conversations with your colleagues in the sister department to
try and correct this?
Bill Rammell: Yes although I think
that there are real advantages to the new departmental structure,
we also need to work across the departmental boundary with DCSF,
and certainly I have regular meetings with Jim Knight, and Ian
Pearson. Jim and I also meet to look specifically at the science
agenda. I think, like you, the advice that is given to young people
is really important. One of the factors that I always use when
I am talking at universities is the graduate earnings premium,
which for example in a STEM subject is about a third more than
it is for a non-STEM subject. Not everyone who takes a STEM degree
will end up working specifically in a scientific area. Actually
getting those facts across and positively promoting science is
really important. I also think in this debate it is important
that we do have some context because we did go through a period
when there was a downturn in STEM applications. Certainly at the
university level for the last three years in chemistry, physics,
mathematics and engineering we have seen some robust improvements,
but even in the years when we were seeing a downturn, if you look
at the overall picture in science subjects we have got 150,000
more students studying science today than we had 10 years ago.
They are not exclusively within the STEM areas but they are getting
good outcomes from that and they are feeding into the science