Examination of Witness (Questions 800-816)|
24 JUNE 2008
Q800 Mr Martyn Jones: Do you know
if that modelling takes place in the healthcare area?
Professor Gummett: I do not know
how it is done in the healthcare sector so it would be wrong for
me to try and answer it.
Q801 Mr David Jones: I would like
to ask you about funding for cross-border collaborative projects.
We have had a submission from Cardiff University which says that
"There is great potential for highly productive collaborations
between Cardiff and English HEIs but there are challenges in securing
funding for such initiatives from the respective funding councils.
There are often common interests and objectives across the UK
and, as such, it would be helpful if the various administrations
could consult and consider a common way forward." Do you
recognise these obstacles to collaborative projects?
Professor Gummett: No. I have
been in discussions with Cardiff Universitysince you mention
the particular casefor several years now about cross-border
collaborative possibilities. We have had discussions with the
English Higher Education Funding Council about this and we established
with them a very clear understanding that if a proposal came from
a university on the Welsh side or the English side of the border
about doing something jointly, we would each look at it according
to our normal criteria for making decisions. People come with
ideas all the time and sometimes we would say yes and sometimes
not, so we would each look at the proposal according to our normal
criteria and if we both felt there was advantage in it, we would
find a way to fund it. It is true to say that there are some legal
constraints here and since we have not yet crossed that bridge
there might be some stumbling blocks that we have not identified,
but we do not think that should actually be very difficult at
all. If one thinks of a jigsaw puzzle I do not see why we in Wales
should not fund the Welsh piece and the English funding council
fund the English piece, slot the two together and make something
that is bigger than the sum of the parts. Basically, that is the
advice that both funding councils have given the universities
involved in that discussion and said to them, "Come back
to us with a coherent proposal and we will look at it." That
is where we stand.
Q802 Mr David Jones: Cardiff are
not very happy with that though, are they?
Professor Gummett: I would have
to ask them.
Q803 Mr David Jones: This is what
they tell us.
Professor Gummett: They have not
come back to us with a proposal; I would like to see the proposal.
Q804 Mr David Jones: If it resolves
itself to a question of policy and the policy varies on either
side of the border then the project is less likely to succeed.
Professor Gummett: I am sorry,
perhaps I have not expressed myself very well. We have not had
a concrete proposal; we have had suggestions and ideas but I appear
before audit committees and I am not going to advise my council
to commit millions of pounds to something without proper due diligence
and a proper proposal, and we have not had that. We have gone
back to Cardiff and the other university with whom they are talking,
and our English counterpart, and said bring us something we can
get our teeth into and look at properly and we will see what we
can do, but at the moment we have not had anything. I do not think
it is the case that there are policy barriers and what we have
both said, both the English funding council and ourselves, is
that if there were then we would aim to break them down because
we think if it makes sense to do something then we should find
a way forward.
Q805 Mr David Jones: What are the
legal constraints that you mention?
Professor Gummett: Unless I discover
anything else, at the moment our understanding is simply that
we could only fund the Welsh end and the English funding council
the English end of a joint activity, but we do not see any reason
why, that said, we should not do that, so long as the two pieces
of the jigsaw fit together in some sensible fashion and we both
think there is a benefit and advantage according to our normal
criteria for investment, we do not see why we should not do it.
Q806 Mr David Jones: Can you give
us some examples of successful cross-border collaboration?
Professor Gummett: Of that sort,
university to university, of the kind that they are speaking of
there, no, because we have not had any proposals come through
to us, but in other contexts, yes. We work with the research councils
on joint arrangements. For example, Bangor University has a centre
for bilingualism research which is co-founded by the Economic
and Social Research Council and ourselves; we have a Wales Educational
Research Network, similarly co-funded by ESRC and ourselves; we
have joined the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
(EPSRC )in a number of ventures where they have been trying to
build scientific research capacity across the UK and the other
funding councils have gone in the same way, and we have all said
that if the winner of one of these competitions falls in one of
our territories we will come in with funding as well. There is
actually a case which involves Cardiff where I guess we would
have to say it is a very complex funding package, because Cardiff
is part of a consortium led from Lancaster University in the field
of operations research where the funding is now coming from EPSRC,
the English funding council and the Welsh funding council, so
we do those things and we find ways through any little difficulties
that might crop up. We are quite open and I do hope I have not
given the impression that I see any serious barriers in policy
terms to the sorts of things we are speaking of, but what we do
need is a serious worked-up proposal that we could analyse, do
due diligence and take a proper view.
Q807 Mr David Jones: Would not such
projects be easier if there was simply one funding council?
Professor Gummett: Possibly, but
equally one might lose the advantages of being able to play both
ends against the middle. The key thing in all of thisand
it goes back to our earlier discussion about winning research
grantsis actually getting ideas and proposals; are they
there, are they good?
Q808 Chairman: If I could pursue
this question of research funding, during the period of HEFCW's
existence have you succeeded in improving the proportion of funding
that came from the research councils? In your memorandum you note
that it is lower than in England and you say it is about 3.5%.
How has that varied?
Professor Gummett: It has not
moved much over the five years now that we have been trying to
work on this. It is a difficult problem, for the reasons I outlined
earlier, and of course it is dynamic. It is dynamic because everyone
is raising their game, so all the English, all the Scottish and
all the Northern Irish competitors for research council funding
are also raising their game and in that sense actually staying
still is itself not an inconsiderable achievement. Our problem
is that in order to get up to what we think would be a more appropriate
figure like 4.5%given that Wales is about 5%as in
the racing metaphor I used earlier, we are running from behind
and we have therefore got to run faster. The issue then is about
being able to invest in order to run faster. That said, we are
doingas we indicated in our evidencea number of
things, and the research councils have been very helpful in this
regard, they have laid on various kinds of events in Wales to
come and talk about what they do, tell people about their priorities,
give help on how proposals get written and those kinds of things.
A series of things is being done about this, therefore, but it
is a tough one and we are simply holding the line.
Q809 Chairman: But a decade ago all
this was happening, it was clearly identified a decade ago. You
used the words earlier in your evidence ambition and a lack of
ambition, would it be the case that you are also part of the problem
as well in HEFCW in that you also lack ambition?
Professor Gummett: I would accept
the charge that we are part of the problem in so far as we are
not able to invest more heavily in this area than we have done
because we are stretching the funding in other dimensions as well
and we have to have balance across the whole array. We have already
pushed funding latterly in the direction of research, but there
is a limit to how far it is essentially safe to do that without
starting then to do damage to the teaching, which is of course
the major part of the activity of the universities. We have made
submissions on various occasions in the public spending rounds
to say how we would use additional funds if they were to become
available. Short essentially of robbing teaching to pay research
there is a limit to what we can do in that direction, and that
is why we are going down the line instead of trying to encourage
more ambitious proposals and to encourage restructuring to underpin.
The game in winning the really big research prizes is about having
teams with scale and scope, so that they would be large enough
but also covering enough inter-related research areas to be credible
competitors against similar teams elsewhere. Given, as was explained
earlier, the scale of most of the departments in our universities,
that is a tough one and the way we are trying to go forward is
through collaboration. That we are seeking to do quite actively
Q810 Chairman: You have already touched
earlier in your evidence upon the problem of making the Department
of Innovation, Universities and Skills aware of the Welsh dimension;
how can you tap into the UK-wide elements of that department more
effectively? Do I get a sense that there is a dialogue that is
only going on with the Welsh Assembly Government and you are not
really reaching out to Whitehall and Westminster at all? Have
you met the Secretary of State for Wales, for example?
Professor Gummett: Personally,
Q811 Chairman: Why is that?
Professor Gummett: Simply that
there has not been an occasion where it has arisen; there has
not been a natural occasion for doing so.
Q812 Chairman: Some of these problems
are easily addressedI am not saying solvedif you
actually knock on his door because he is the voice of Wales in
Whitehall and Westminster.
Professor Gummett: With respect
what I would say is that we convey the message into these departments
frequently enough, the problem is a problem of culture and personnel.
It is one thing to put a message in at the topand I accept
that perhaps there is more that we should do therebut the
problem then is that it is the instinct that arises out of working
in an environment where the focus is predominantly English. Then
when you combine that with the turnover of staff, what you find
is that you have developed relationships with one set of officials
and they have changed, there is another lot now, and so you have
to start again. There is a tension, therefore, in the dual functions
of DIUS and it was there to a degree in the DTI before as well.
We have to be a bit realistic about it; we are a very small part
of the UK, we are 5%, and although we will trumpet loudly and
proudly about what we do, it is also easy to understand how, if
you are dealing with the 80% odd that is England, it is quite
easy simply to forgetnot to be malicious in doing so but
simply to forget. That is part of what I mean about the cultural
Q813 Alun Michael: Could I just come
in on that because given that Wales is a small proportion of the
whole of the UK does that not mean that we need to do more for
people to understand the distinctions, understand the needs of
the higher education sector in Wales, and that therefore the Welsh
Assembly Government should be encouraging you to take on a sort
of ambassadorial role for higher education in Wales. Is that encouraged
Professor Gummett: It is encouraged.
I shall be going back to Cardiff this afternoon and back to London
tomorrow evening to go to Central Hall for the launch of the concordat
on researchers, which I submit is part of this public relations
role, being there simply to be seen to be there along with the
Q814 Alun Michael: My point is really
that you said a few moments ago that the same problems existed
when we had the Welsh Office and DTI, as indeed they did. There
is always a changeover of staff within Westminster departments,
it is the bane of everybody's lives, but it is also the way that
people get experience and develop so it means that you have got
to accept that as a fact of life. I am not clear in your response
to the Chairman whether you are actually doing the foreign service
part of HEFCW's job with the enthusiasm that perhaps is necessary.
Professor Gummett: Others would
have to judge that, it would not be for me to do so.
Q815 Alun Michael: I was asking you
to judge it.
Professor Gummett: I would say
I spend a great deal of my timefor example, there is an
organisation called Funders' Forum which brings together all the
funding bodies and research bodies. That is a high priority activity
for me. It is meeting in a couple of weeks time in London and
I am cancelling other things to be at that. I come to things in
London frequently in order to make sure that Welsh higher education
Q816 Alun Michael: Do people go away
from those meetings saying "Gosh, the really impressive bit
was that guy who came and represented those exciting universities
Professor Gummett: You would have
to ask them that.
Chairman: Thank you very much for your