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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


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 before—I 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 well.

  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 is?

  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 languages—and as a French graduate I declare an interest—I 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 more employable.

  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 and engineering.

  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 backgrounds.

  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 message.

  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 much more.

  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 in England.

  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.

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