Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
MP AND PROFESSOR
28 NOVEMBER 2007
Q60 Dr Iddon: You are right that
the figures look encouraging for the take of under-graduates into
chemistry, physics, combined maths and computer studies and other
subjects this year in the universities, but since I have mentioned
that careers advice is not all it could be, to what do you attribute
the success of those departments?
Bill Rammell: I think because
we have worked damn hard across government with the Funding Council
and the learned societies to really promote this agenda and there
are a whole range of initiatives that have been undertaken. We
have also reviewed the STEM advisory approach so we have got greater
coherence and I think we are having some success. It is not a
one-year trend. If you look at those subjects that I outlined,
you have now got something like a three-year trend at university
level. However I am not complacent. If we want longer term success
in this country then we need people to be studying the science
subjects. I have said this beforeI think one of the challenges
we face is, frankly, the fairly poor way that science is presented
and depicted too often in our media where it is presented as something
that is done to people and has adverse consequences rather than
something that is productive and positive, and I think some of
the changes within the schools system at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage
4 where they are looking to actually develop an understanding
of the underlying principles of science instead of just rote learning
but also linking that to some of the common day controversial
topics within the media and getting a commitment and enthusiasm
on the part of young people is part of the way we go forward as
Q61 Chairman: That was the whole
purpose of 21st Century Science and yet we had leading academics
likes Professor Sykes who just rubbished it straight away and
we did not get a robust defence from the Government at that time.
I think the Government should do more to actually defend what
it is promulgating through its programmes.
Bill Rammell: I think we did do
that. But something I have learned in Government is Government
ministers can say things and it is not always given the highest
currency. I know that will come as shock to you, Ian! I think
if you can get others to do it as well as Government ministers
that is the most effective way and we certainly have got a lot
of the learned societies coming out and saying this is exactly
the right way forward.
Q62 Dr Iddon: I have one last question
before I hand over to my colleague, Graham Stringer, and that
is which subjects continue to give cause for concern?
Professor Eastwood: Actually I
think there are probably two areas: modern languages where, as
is well-known, the take-up of modern languages at GCSE is continuing
to fall, and that is a challenge for higher education.
Q63 Dr Iddon: Why do you think that
Professor Eastwood: I think there
are a variety of reasons and I think most people would say languages
ceasing to be compulsory at Key Stage 4 had an impact, and that
is almost certainly true. I think we need to persuade people of
the importance of languages in different ways. Following what
Bill said, I think we are further down the road with science than
we are with languages because to say to young people "you
need to learn French in order to go abroad" is palpably untrue
and they know it to be untrue. To have a linguistic capacity to
operate in a global environment is something which I think resonates
with young people, so I think the presentation of languages to
young people is important. I think for higher education modern
languages almost certainly we will have to do what we did in classical
languages some time ago which is teach them ab initio from
first year at universities. I do not see any problem with our
doing that. I think there are some challenges around modern languages
and we have to couple those with the challenges of developing
capacity in the languages of the emerging economies notably, but
not exclusively, China. The other area which is actually quite
interesting is computer science. The computer science numbers
are going down and we need to ask ourselves why that might be.
I think it is partly because it is an area that has been demystified
for young people and also what the industry wants now is probably
rather different, so we are working with e-skills, the relevant
sector skills council, in order to try to refresh and revive the
curriculum in science because I am also sure it remains a pivotally
important area but I am sure it does need that kind of refreshment
if it is to recruit. There would be some other areas but those
are my headline areas.
Bill Rammell: Just very briefly
on modern languagesand as a French graduate I declare an
interestI do not actually think the decision at 14 is fundamental.
I think the idea of getting youngsters who have got no aptitude
for a language and forcing them to stay in a classroom from 14
to 16 is the issue. The really important change we have got to
make is the commitment which is in place that every primary school
teacher has a modern foreign language by 2010 and we are well
on the road to achieving that.
Q64 Graham Stringer: The first question
I was going to ask you was to give some statistics on institutions
teaching French and German declining and ask whether that was
important and what you were going to do about it, and you have
partially answered what you are going to do about it, you are
going to teach languages later, but you have not really expanded
on why is it important that we have more graduates in French and
German and Chinese and Finnish?
Bill Rammell: Even with the ubiquity
of the English language, ultimately, whether it is in politics,
whether it is in business, whether it is in the world of academia,
you lose an advantage in certain situations if you cannot converse
with people. I have certainly seen that at all different levels.
I also think that in order to get a better understanding of the
world in which we live you need those language skills. I also
think from a competitiveness point of view, young people who have
gone and spent some time studying abroad learning different cultures,
different customs and different ways of working bring about a
greater degree of flexibility in the way that they think and learn
and they bring something very productive to our economy and to
our country. Part of the work that I am involved in at the moment
is trying to incentivise that more. Part of the way we do that,
in discussions with the CBI, is actually to get business to send
a much stronger message to young people that even if you are not
studying exclusively a foreign language but if you spend some
time as part of your degree studying abroad you are going to be
Q65 Graham Stringer: I would be interested
in the evidence base for that, if you could tell us what the evidence
is for what you have just said. Secondly, if what you are saying
is right, would it not argue for languages as auxiliary subjects
to science subjects and other subjects rather than as a specialism
in their own right?
Bill Rammell: I think there is
a balance there. Firstly, there is some detailed research. For
example, there has been some research undertaken on the Erasmus
Programme and I am happy to provide the detail of that, and it
does back up what I know is my own instinctive view. I think you
are right, that actually we should not see this exclusively as
you have to go away for three or four years to university and
study a modern language, but it can be a module, it can in some
cases even be a term or three terms, but of course auxiliary subjects
do not survive unless of course they have got a strong base to
them and that does mean that you need graduates coming through
the system who have studied those subjects in depth.
Q66 Graham Stringer: You mentioned
previously as well the decline and then improvement in science
subjects at universities. When you look at the regional breakdown
where it is getting better and getting worse, the North West and
the West Midlands seem to be doing well in re-establishing or
improving on the number of students taking courses and the number
of courses, whereas the eastern region and the South East do not
seem to be doing as well. Have you any thoughts on why that is
the case and, if you have, is it important and are you going to
do anything about it?
Professor Eastwood: Can I just
comment on those two regions. In the eastern region, there has
been a re-establishment of physics provision, in fact in my old
university and Dr Gibson's old university, so the position is
not as bleak as it is sometimes painted. If we look at the South
East and we look at physics, we have a number of quite distinguished,
but small physics departments. What we are doing is we are bringing
that together in the South East Physics Initiative in order to
strengthen and to underpin that provision, so in both those regions
there are actually some quite important, good-news stories to
tell in areas of the physical sciences.
Q67 Graham Stringer: Nonetheless,
it does not quite answer the question I was asking of whether
you have thought of why that is happening and what, if anything,
are you doing about it? Is it important?
Professor Eastwood: I think we
would say that, if you look at those two regions, there is significant
provision in the physical sciences. The other rather important
geographical issue is the role of London and there are 42 HEIs
in London and that has an impact on provision in the South East
and East in the way that it does not in, as you say, the West
Midlands and the North West, so I think for some purposes it is
not inappropriate to think of the greater South East as the unit
for looking at provision. However, again, and I will not talk
further about my experiences as Vice Chancellor of East Anglia,
but one of the great strengths of chemistry and routes into chemistry
was in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft because there was a foundation
programme there which meant that actually, when I was Vice Chancellor
of UEA, our best statistics on social inclusion were in chemistry.
Q68 Graham Stringer: I have a final
question, and it is a big question really. A previous editor of
The Times who writes regularly in The Guardian and
The Sunday Times, he makes the point that there is no real
evidence that training scientists helps the economy and he points
to the old Soviet Union having more scientists than anywhere else
and that the Japanese economy slowed down as they increased the
number of graduates going through, that when they had a poor education
basis, they grew extremely well. What would you say to him, and
he makes the point regularly in the quality press? What would
you say to him? I do not agree with him, but I would be interested
in your answer to that profound point.
Bill Rammell: With the number
of scientists sitting on this Committee, this is what I would
describe as an "open goal"!
Q69 Graham Stringer: Well, it is,
but it is worth stating the case though.
Bill Rammell: Absolutely. I think
he is wrong. You can look at all sorts of indices and I think
there is a link between the number of people who are educated
to the highest level within the sciences and economic outcomes.
If you look, for example, at our proportion of young people within
the OECD who have got a science degree and then you link that
with our relative economic performance, but you then look at the
other countries which similarly did well according to that criterion,
there is, I think, a very clear link. I think, however, it is
not sufficient just to say that you need people to be trained
and educated in the sciences. If you look at it historically,
this country has a superb track record of actually promoting science
virtually since the year dot. We have not always been as good
at actually applying that science and seeing the business outcomes
which should come from it and that is one of the major priorities
for the new Department.
Q70 Dr Gibson: Do you think that
government departments would be advantaged by having scientists
in them, if all their civil servants had scientific training?
Bill Rammell: I actually had this
conversation with some of my civil servants recently where I suppose
I was in a fairly rude way asking them what degrees they did,
and there is actually more of a representation of science graduates
within the Civil Service than, I think, is sometimes appreciated.
Chairman: What is interesting, Bill,
is that the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser said to the
former Science and Technology Select Committee that civil servants
hid their science qualifications for fear that it would hinder
their promotion. Hopefully it will not do in this.
Q71 Dr Harris: Just on this question
of science subjects, you provided a memorandum to the Science
and Technology Committee and the figures have been discussed where
you said that physics was up 12%, chemistry was up 9%, maths up
9% and combined maths and computer studies up 16%, and I have
the actual memorandum here, but what was the baseline for that?
Is that since 1997?
Bill Rammell: No, those figures,
I think I am right in saying and I will write to you to correct
this if I am wrong, I think those are for last year and we have
now had, and I acknowledged this earlier when you were out of
the room, that actually we did go through a period where there
was a reduction in numbers from the STEM subjects. We have now
actually got something like a three-year trend of applications
at university level for maths, combined maths, physics, chemistry
Q72 Dr Harris: The problem is that,
unless you agree in advance prospectively a baseline and then
say, "We are going to refer all our data to that baseline",
then any commentator can just say, "Well, compared to 1998,
it is up", or, "In the last three years it dips a bit",
and then say, "Well, we'll include that and say that over
a four-year period it is still up", so would it be possible,
as I asked the Science Minister at the last science questions,
just for the Department to say, "From now on, in order to
avoid unfair allegations of spinning, we're going to stick to
a baseline and say that all progress is going to be measured against
that baseline", and 1997 would be a decent one because you
cannot really be blamed for what happened before then, even if
"blame" is the right word?
Bill Rammell: To be perfectly
honest, I do not think it is. All our figures are open, they are
published, they are available for people to scrutinise, but just
saying for every question that we will make a baseline comparison
to 1997, often you will be engaged in a debate about, as has just
been asked of me, "What has happened to STEM subjects since
you recognised there was an issue here and you've done something
about it?" If we simply gave the baseline comparison compared
to 1997, that would not actually answer the question.
Q73 Dr Harris: I think you have to
answer the question, but you could always include the baseline
figure because, otherwise, you can always find a year compared
to which something has gone up, and I can show you that the Government
has used at least seven different baselines over its time in office
and always shown percentage increases, whereas, if they are asked
and probed on a specific thing from 1997, sometimes the picture
is not so rosy. It is important obviously that you do not lull
yourself into a false sense of security, is it not, by only ever
seeing positive increases by choosing the data points that fit
that positive picture?
Bill Rammell: Well, my style and
practice, as a politician and a Minister, is to actually answer
a straight question with a straight answer and I have said before
to this Committee that actually we have 150,000 more people studying
science subjects today compared to 10 years ago, but I have also
acknowledged that in the STEM subjects in the years running up
to three years ago we did see some reductions and very welcomely,
as a result of a whole series of initiatives that not just government
has taken, we have seen in the major STEM subjects a turnaround.
We are not by any means complacent, but I do think that is an
improvement. That is not ducking and diving with the figures,
that is trying to give people a straight answer.
Q74 Dr Harris: Okay, I will not deal
with anything on engineering now, other than to say that the Chief
Scientific Adviser expressed continued concern last night. In
terms of access to universities from schools, we read in The
Times that students from independent schools are now five
times more likely than the national average to be offered a place
at one of the 20 lead Russell Group universities. Do you think
that is the fault of universities or action for the universities
to take mainly or for the schools, or it is obviously both, but
where do you think the prime responsibility lies for that figure
which, I think you would agree, is not really satisfactory?
Bill Rammell: Well, firstly, my
understanding is that the Independent Schools Association have
actually repudiated the way that those figures were presented.
Nevertheless, I am the first to admit that actually we have a
challenge to both increase and widen participation for every area
of society and it is one of the strongest imperatives both of
the former Department and of this Department, and there is no
magic bullet about how you do this. Student financial support
is part of the answer and I think the very significant increases
in non-repayable grants that we are bringing in for next year
are meeting part of that solution. Aspiration is critical and
that is where the announcement of the continuation of the Aim
Higher Programme, I think, is particularly important, although
at the same time ensuring that we target that effectively so that
it is really getting to the young people who most need that support.
It is about continued increases in attainment in the school system,
but is it the responsibility of schools, is it the responsibility
of universities or is it the responsibility of both? The prospectus
that we recently launched between our Department and DCSF about
part-improving on the very strong degree of partnership initiatives
between the universities and schools, I think, is part of the
way forward. It is no good universities saying, "Well, there
aren't suitably qualified applicants", but they have actually
got to go and work with schools to turn that situation round,
and I also think it is about advice and guidance.
Q75 Dr Harris: Well, I have two separate
approaches that come from that answer. Firstly, what evidence
do you have that your proposals to ameliorate the problems that
you suggest occur from student finance are the right solutions?
For example, do you have any evidence or have you done any research
on the impact of overall debt on the likelihood of people from
the socioeconomic groups who are not applying in sufficient numbers,
so have you commissioned research to look at whether the likely
debt is a factor that deters or is it just your hunch?
Bill Rammell: I think you actually
have to look at the evidence and, even before those changes next
year, under the new system, which many people said would be a
disaster and that it would impact upon access, actually that has
not proven to be the case. Applications are up by 6% for this
year and they are also proportionately up for students from poorer
Q76 Dr Harris: What is your baseline
there? Is it just last year or before you did anything to the
student finance system the first time round?
Bill Rammell: Sorry, I was talking
about applications for this year. When we introduced the new variable
fee system, and we predicted this would happen, just as happened
in 1998 when tuition fees first came in, in the first year there
was a dip in applications. Thereafter, applications have gone
up very strongly and they are up by 6% for this year. In proportionate
terms, they are up by about half per cent for students from the
bottom four socioeconomic groups and I think that does give us
a strong indication that the progressive nature of the student
financial support system is working, but actually it is important
that we go beyond that and that is why we sent out a very strong
Q77 Dr Harris: Can you say that?
If it fell proportionately by more than half per cent because
of previous policy changes, which you say it may well have done,
saying that there has been a half per cent increase, firstly,
is not solving that problem and you are just choosing the baseline
year that shows a significant increase without talking about the
drops that have occurred beforehand. Secondly, if you had not
done what you have done, maybe it would have been a 2% proportionate
increase and maybe one needs to have an over-proportionate increase
in the students from disadvantaged backgrounds in order to get
anywhere near their allocation in higher education.
Bill Rammell: With respect, I
think that was taking words out of my mouth and misconstruing
them. I did not say that there had been a previous downturn and
that actually this has not caught up with it. If you look in both
global terms at applications and also at proportions in terms
of low socioeconomic groups, we have our best set of applications
that we have ever had, the highest level of applications for university.
I think that is a strong indication that the system is fair and
progressive, but we need to do more. I do not actually think that
student financial support is the biggest determinant of whether
or not someone from a disadvantaged background goes on to university.
I think it is a prerequisite, that you actually have to have a
strong system of student financial support, but you need to do
Q78 Dr Harris: I understand that
is your view, but I am asking what research have you done to underpin
your opinion that you have just stated that you, Mr Rammell, do
not think that students in that position are deterred by debt
as the major factor. I am asking you, can you do, have you done
or why do you not do some research to look into that and maybe
comparing with the Scottish system which has had a whole series
of better percentages in terms of proportionate increases from
those sorts of groups?
Bill Rammell: I would urge the
Committee to look at those figures and that is simply not true.
If you look at applications for Scottish universities for this
year, they are nowhere near as robust as they are for the system
Q79 Dr Harris: I am not talking about
this year, am I? I am talking about over a period of time because
you can always choose a year, can you not? It comes back to my
point that it is just not science to retrospectively pick a baseline
once you have seen the figures, but you have got to prospectively
say or over a time period, "Look at the overall trend".
Bill Rammell: Look, I know there
is a critique going on here that we pick particular years in isolation
to make a point, but actually that is not the case. If you go
back over the way we have presented these figures year on year,
our system is working, the applications are up and they are up
for students from poorer backgrounds. I would also refute the
notion that the Scottish system, which I know was supported by
the Liberal Democrats when they were in government, is any different
in principle from the system that we have in England. It is a
postgraduate system of repayment that is no different from the
system we have in England.