Cross-border provision of public services for Wales: Further and higher education - Welsh Affairs Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Swansea University

  The Engineering School in Swansea University has for many years pioneered successful partnerships between academia (involving the Welsh HEIs), industry and the Research Councils, notably the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The most significant long term collaborations have been those involving research and training since they deliver both exploitable knowledge and the people with the skills that industry needs. This year has represented a step change for the funding available in Wales from EPSRC with the principality effectively cut off from secured future funding; this will see an effective annual reduction in Welsh HEI EPSRC funded students of 40 high calibre EngD researchers and around 30 one year Research Masters (MRes) students all of whom currently work with industry in the engineering sector. This disinvestment in postgraduate education in Wales is all the more confusing since all of the schemes which have been effectively closed have been rated very highly in the EPSRC's own independent reviews as will be detailed below.

  To start with the Engineering Doctorate in Steel Technology; this flagship scheme for the Welsh HEIs is a partnership between Academia (Cardiff, Bangor, Swansea and Glyndwr) and 23 companies in the steel supply chain lead by Corus Group. The Centre was established in 1992 as a pilot programme (one of only three in the UK) and grew rapidly with industry and EPSRC support with successful independent reviews of the scheme quality and strategic significance to the economy completed by EPSRC in 1997, 2004 and 2007. Indeed, the EPSRC review of the EngD Scheme (completed in 2007) highlighted that the Swansea centred EngD was "an excellent programme" with "a good focus on a cluster of target technologies". The following points were specifically praised as particular "strengths" of our programme.

    —  The engagement of an Industrial Advisory Board

    —  Planning for future research and skill requirements and developing projects accordingly

    —  Performance related element of RE stipends which help maintain high achievement

    —  The strong commitment of Corus

    —  The significant financial and in-kind contributions made by users

    —  That projects are driven by strategic business needs

    —  The strong industrial supervision

    —  The "Themed" approach which facilitates links with industry

  These points accurately describe a vibrant, successful and forward-looking EngD Centre which supports a strategic pillar of the Welsh (and UK) economy. The 40 EngD Research Engineers working with predominantly Welsh based companies represent an important interface between the HEIs and industrialists and world leading clusters of research activity have grown out of the programme. To illustrate this, the launch in October 2008 of the £10 million Corus/Dyesol PV Accelerator project in Shotton Steel Works, which aims to functionalise the 100 million square metres of painted steel Corus produces with photovoltaic coatings, is directly linked to two pilot EngD projects the first of which completed in 2004. The cluster has expanded and now supports 20 industrial research and development positions and a portfolio of EPSRC and WAG funded research at the partner HEIs.

  Economically the scheme is very important for Wales in developing high level expertise within the industrial sector. Since the year 2000, 87 doctoral researcher engineers have graduated the programme and 70 are working in Wales with 96% recruitment of graduates into industry in the last four years. Even the most conservative estimate of the value of this to the Welsh economy is around £10 million per annum based on salary and "on costs" alone (ie assuming they do nothing other than take a salary and sit in an office!). To lose this stream of talent into the Welsh economy represents a very serious blow at a time when technology and innovation are more important than ever for industries in Western Europe competing in global markets.

  The positive indicators from the EPSRC Review in 2007 were also reflected in the EPSRC review of the Collaborative Training Accounts (CTAs) in 2008. Again the scheme was recognised as "strategically important" for the Welsh economy and business partners. These facts and the continued enthusiastic support of industry were reflected in the bid to EPSRC for an Industrial Doctorate Centre (essentially a re-branding of EngD). The Welsh bid was rejected by email with a follow up letter which stated that "no feedback would be given". Whereas the decision reached was, in our view, simply wrong the manner in which the scheme was dismissed is utterly condescending, indeed, possibly insulting to the institutions involved. Our industrial and academic partners have used their reputations to promote the scheme widely and have worked tirelessly to get the EngD recognised here and abroad as the premiere UK doctorate degree. To dismiss 16 years of dedicated and successful effort in such an offhand fashion was unworthy of EPSRC.

  We have never received proper response to our request for the reasons for rejection. In response to my email to the EPSRC admin team I was told that:

    —  The successes of existing schemes were not relevant to the panel review. If success is not relevant then this calls into question the value of the recent costly and time consuming EngD review process

    —  There was "concern" over the future demand for our product. This "concern" simply ignores the fact of 96% EngD employment in the sector since 2004 and the 2:1 ratio of project proposals and UK student applications to each funded place

    —  There was "concern" over the international reputation of the researchers. This "concern" is completely absurd. The academics involved in Swansea MRC alone have brought in £14 million in EPSRC research grants and published over 300 papers in international journals in the last RAE period. Given that we pick the best from Wales as a whole and proposed working with metallurgy experts in Sheffield University and Imperial College any "concern" in this area is clearly groundless

  We have subsequently discovered that only 19 bids of the 41 received were taken forward to full business planning phase (with a view to funding 15) which goes against the figures promoted by EPSRC (89 out of 278) in which they have included all applicants to Doctoral Training Centres (the latter a completely different programme in which students do classical PhDs in clustered topics in a University setting and not linked to any "industry" or "user").

  We have also realised that in this instance the normal peer review process (ie proposals sent to four referees and then judged by a panel) was not used such that the panel acted as judge and juror. The composition of the panel was also of interest in that it was very light on industrial involvement with apparently no representation from manufacturing at all. By far the majority of members were academics and whilst the Chair was from Qinetiq, this is hardly an "Engineering Industry". There was also no Welsh representation on the panel. The panel members did have connections to many existing EngD centres but interestingly to none of the UK Centres that were essentially closed.

  The reorganisation of EPSRC priorities has impacted on the Welsh HEIs in another way. Under the EPSRC funded CTA programmes a wide range of one year MRes research projects and studentships were funded. This is an important "lifeblood" in certain skills shortage areas such as metallurgy as a "conversion" course for talented science graduates. In addition, it allows industry sponsors to work on a speculative piece of research as part of a larger research cluster with an enthusiastic young researcher who might then join the company after the programme. As such it represents true knowledge transfer. The CTAs were reviewed in 2008 but even before this review was complete EPSRC had already changed the system to KTAs (Knowledge Transfer Accounts) in which Masters research was not countenanced. The EPSRC view is that MRes activity will now form part of the first year of DTC or IDC doctoral research. Since no Welsh HEI has either a DTC or IDC (see above) then there is now no EPSRC funded MRes activity for Welsh HEIs to collaborate with industry across the UK.

  The disinvestment in Wales is significant. The EngD and MRes schemes represent an annual Research Council income to Welsh HEIs of around £1.4 million which is matched by industry and is critically the catalyst for far more value added research activity in the various clusters at the partner HEIs. In addition, for the longer term, the fall off in talented high calibre researchers entering Welsh industry will have a negative economic impact. With an upcoming period of recession, increasing global output of materials and the noted skills shortages in the UK this could make the industry sectors very vulnerable since innovation and product differentiation will be the success measures for a sustainable manufacturing sector in Wales.

Professor David Worsley MRSC CChem

Director, EngD Centre in Steel Technology, Engineering School, Swansea University

November 2008

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 16 January 2009