Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


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 research investments.

  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 given.

  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 facing.

  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 record—and I know within this Committee we have debated physics and chemistry in the past—if 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 increase—I 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 it?

  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 change—the Minister has been talking about that—and 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 and businesses?

  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 that review?

  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 base.

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