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

Examination of Witness (Questions 880-899)


8 JULY 2008

  Q880  Chairman: But how do you account for that stark contrast between Scotland and Wales? Is it purely historical?

  Professor Diamond: I cannot say that it is purely historical; I would have to say that there are some bigger universities in Scotland, in my observation. I would also have to say—and you talk about the history—I think going forward there will be some very good news stories. For example, my own Council has partnered with the Welsh Assembly Government, with WORD and with HEFCW on a number of initiatives just recently and there have been some significant successes. For example, if I may, the recent centres of excellence in public health research, which were competitive right across the UK, Cardiff was highly successful in gaining one of those, and that was a competition through the UK Clinical Research Collaboration. In addition my own Council joined with HEFCW has just funded the Welsh Institution of Social and Economic Research, and that is joint between Cardiff and Swansea. These are significant pieces of funding which have not yet started but which are for the next three to four to five years, and I personally believe will see a start to raise that funding profile.

  Q881  Chairman: You give individual examples, almost piecemeal examples, pragmatic examples in a sense of collaboration. Are there other remedies more root and branch, more radical? For example, back in the early 1990s, 15 years ago now, Sir John Meurig Thomas had this major role in the University of Wales where he was basically proposing one university, one Research University. Would we need to go back to that model or are there other models that need to be looked at?

  Professor Diamond: I think it is very disciplinary based. In my view there has to be a real desire to have the very best facilities for the very best scholars to be able to pursue their research, and I believe personally—and speaking, I stress, personally—there is an enormous need and model for collaboration across institutions so that the very best researchers do not need to have the very best equipment, for example, in their own institution, but they can work together across institutions to establish that. That does not say that you need one research institution; it does say that you need collaboration and partnership, which goes across institutions, and may indeed cross institutions outside of Wales into the rest of the United Kingdom, or indeed internationally so that the very best scholars feel that they can pursue their research in entirely the best way within Wales.

  Q882  Mark Williams: That last answer is very much borne out with the partnerships being built between Aberystwyth University and Bangor, of course. You mention your pockets of excellence and of course in the Ceredigion constituency is of course the former IGER, and pioneering work being undertaken there. In the various debates that have been pursued over the past two or three years of the funding of the then IGER an alternative model was suggested whereby at least part of the funding for an institution like that would be by a formula which would give a set proportion to Wales rather than the existing bidding process. I emphasise from my constituency that the pursuit of excellence has always been there but there has been that perception that the Chairman alluded to, that the research base within Wales has failed somewhat short of other countries in the United Kingdom. What are your thoughts on a formula based system to govern these matters in Wales?

  Professor Diamond: My personal view is that one needs to have aspirations to be able to compete at the very best and that formula based funding may not, if you like, really raise that aspiration because it enables one to think that the money is there. Having said that, I think one needs a very clear strategy about how you not only raise aspirations but raise, if you like, the game in applications to ensure that you are competing at the very highest level. I cannot speak in depth to IGER but I could see why one might want to invest funds over a period of time to ensure that the best facilities and best scholars were there so that one had success in funding. So it does seem to me that it is an area that is important for research over the next few years; it is not an area which is going to be, in my view, slowing down its research needs. Indeed, it is also an area in which Wales as a nation would benefit from the knowledge transfer which comes from research in an institution like that.

  Q883  Mark Williams: Do you think there is a case for how you achieve this, but including the number of Welsh based representatives on the Research Councils' governing bodies to make the case for Wales in organisations like yourself?

  Professor Diamond: I think that is a very good question. I think it is important to recognise the distinction between Research Councils' governing bodies, which is a relatively small group of people and the funding boards because if you were to look at my own council since the late Haydn Ellis stepped down from our council we have not had a representative from Wales, although we always are concerned to have representatives from the different devolved countries of the United Kingdom and I can assure you that at the moment Professor Jeffery and Professor Alexander, who are Scottish representatives, take every opportunity to take a devolved view and to make sure that we do so on council. At the same time my own council, which has no representatives currently on council has a higher than you might expect number of representatives on the four funding boards. We always look at that position. So I think it is something that we are concerned about and would want to ensure that we are always clear that we must take into account the devolved angle on any decision on council and we always look at the distribution of colleagues on the actual funding board. Having said that, there is a two-way street and one of the things I always say to colleagues in universities, not only in Wales, is that you must encourage your very best people to put their names forward for those funding boards. These are the people who take into account the peer reviews and take the decisions and so for the credibility of the process these have to be the absolutely best scholars; they tend to be the absolutely best scholars who give of their time, and in order to be able to appoint them people have to apply, so I think it is very important that we do get that stream.

  Q884  Mark Williams: Is there a bit of reluctance from people from Welsh institutions to apply?

  Professor Diamond: I would have to say that there has been a reluctance of people from a number of institutions across the UK, and I have found it a very important part of my role over the last four to five years to encourage people to apply, and I have observed that when I have encouraged people to apply we have started to see a much greater flow in, and yet it is something that we must continue to do. Because it is something that takes a considerable amount of time to do properly and there has to be support from within the institution so that people are not pulled too thin. In addition this is something which is, I believe, a contribution not only to the community of scholars as a whole to help make the decision but one's institution gets a lot from it as well, because if you are sitting on the board which is making the decisions about funding you learn pretty quickly about the very best ways of writing a proposal and of getting funding. You are thus able to transfer that back and to mentor junior scholars. So I think it is something that is really important, that we really work hard to make sure that the best colleagues are applying and then the Research Councils will be able to appoint them to the boards.

  Q885  Mr David Jones: Professor Diamond, to what extent are Welsh universities participating in the broader innovation and knowledge transfer initiatives in the Research Councils, such as the one that it is conducting in collaboration with the Technology Strategy Board?

  Professor Diamond: The Technology Strategy Board I think is a wholly good innovation and we as Research Councils meet very regularly with Iain Gray, the Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board and with his colleagues to ensure that we are working with them. They are taking a very broad view of the economy, which I think is wholly good and that will have very good opportunities for Wales. They are in the early phases, let us be frank, of the work that they are doing and I am very clear in my mind that there is a lot of interest from the Welsh institutions that are taking part in knowledge transfer partnerships and some of the other major initiatives that they will take. I think it is too early as yet to judge on the success because this is an organisation that in its current incarnation has only been going for a relatively small amount of time. What I can tell you, Mr Jones, that the engagement is there and that my view is that the Welsh institutions are very keen to engage. I would also have to say that my observation is that a number of the Welsh institutions have really taken the whole knowledge transfer agenda very, very seriously and are doing so throughout the institution because I think it is important that leadership is given from the highest level that this is a very good thing for academics to spend their time on.

  Q886  Mr David Jones: Is there any concern, perhaps, that the Technology Strategy Board may be driven by policy formulated in London?

  Professor Diamond: That is not clear to me. My observation—I stress my personal observation—is that the Technology Strategy Board is doing everything it can to engage with industry and with policy makers throughout the UK and to engage right across the different sectors of the economy, and that I think is a wholly good thing. I would stress that these are early days and we need to continue to monitor and to encourage.

  Q887  Alun Michael: Could we look at the proportion of the Research Councils UK's funding for their own research institutes that is allocated to research establishments in Wales? I think we are talking about the fields of biotechnology, medical research and natural environment. What proportion actually goes to Wales?

  Professor Diamond: I do not have that number right in front of me. I would be happy to provide that subsequently[2]; it would be very easy to do that. Currently there are institutes within Wales from each of those organisations but I would have to say also very clearly that all the institutes of those councils, wherever they are situated, have a UK brief, so that the laboratory for molecular biology, for example, situated in Cambridge would have a brief to be a UK body, and I know would look right across into Wales as well. I do not think personally in the main that there would be an immense point about where the institutes historically have been situated. Having said that, the British Geological Survey does actually provide a Welsh service in the way that it is working on the geology of Wales, and I think that that is important. I think the key thing is that we ensure that there is the right degree of engagement with the Welsh authorities to ensure that the really important results that are coming out are being driven into policy and opportunities within Wales.

  Q888 Alun Michael: We are not seeking to be defensive or parochial about this, but to understand how the system works so that additional information would be helpful. Part of the Research Council support for research includes the provision of facilities that are available to researchers UK-wide and you have just referred to a good example of that. Can you provide some examples of projects which have involved collaboration between researchers in Wales and England which have been of particular significance?

  Professor Diamond: The one which I really hope has a huge impact—I have referred recently to the centres for public excellence in health and that is a partnership between Cardiff and Bristol, really taking the opportunities to use the skills in social medicine in Bristol, the skills in epidemiology and clinical trials in Cardiff and bringing them together with Welsh data in particular, which I think has a real potential over the next few years to have impact on the health of the population of Wales. I might also say that that is also part of a network of centres of health which includes the northeast, Northern Ireland and there is one on physical activity in Cambridge and one on smoking in Nottingham, which will also be linking together and then working to impact for example on the health of people of Wales. There is a lot of engagement of Welsh researchers with the electronic health initiative[3] of the Office for the Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research at the moment, which is UK-wide and colleagues working across those boundaries absolutely freely and openly. Another example is the rural economy and land use programme, which I believe has been a real example of multidisciplinary activity, where there were social scientists working with biologists, and environmental scientists and a number of those projects involved colleagues in Wales and in England, and really therefore getting the benefits of that collaboration. I think one of the things we have to work on in the future, if I may say so, is ensuring that there are also no barriers to participation between Welsh scholars and those in other countries,—my own council now has a number of bilateral agreements with Research Councils around the world—so that we make it as easy for a colleague in Cardiff, Swansea, Aberystwyth or Bangor, to name but four, to work with a colleague in Mannheim, as it is to work with a colleague in another Welsh institution or indeed in Bristol or Oxford or another English institution.

  Q889 Alun Michael: I think what you have said is very welcome and outward looking. It is perhaps worth suggesting that there is a need for a better profile of that wide cooperation. We tend very largely to be focused purely on things that are English or Welsh rather than on the benefits of—

  Professor Diamond: I could not agree more. The whole higher education story and indeed the whole benefits, both on the economic development and quality of life of the people of this country—and indeed beyond this country—is a very good one that we have been rather secretive in telling, and I think we have started to improve on that, and I think Cardiff, for one, is a place that has become much better in its outlook focus. But I do believe that there is a real need to celebrate and explain some of the benefits that have happened and to use that as a way to generate and to encourage the next generation.

  Q890  Alun Michael: Taking that point, obviously the starting point for research is the questions that need to be asked.

  Professor Diamond: Too right.

  Q891  Alun Michael: How do you integrate UK research questions or questions that are coming out of the research community or from public bodies at a UK level with the research and policy priorities of devolved administrations?

  Professor Diamond: I think in a number of areas. The way that this has happened is by the devolved administrations being part of the overall base of any conversation that goes forward with regard to directed research. Here may I take a second to say that there are two ways that we fund research? One is in what we call response mode research, where we in the research councils sit and wait for the great ideas to come from the scientists in any area that they wish in any field that they wish. The second area is directed research, where we take a view on where there is likely to be a gap or a need and we may do so with partners, for example WORD or the Welsh Assembly Government, or HEFCW and those kinds of bodies are represented on all of the committees which are UK wide. I, for example, chair the Electronic Health Records Board for the Office of Strategic Coordination of Health Research and Professor Ronan Lyons from Swansea sits on that, as does Professor John Williams, and so there is the opportunity to get the Welsh angle built into that. It is through that and through those kinds of partnerships that we are able to identify areas which are important and where there may be some—to use your word, Dr Francis—pragmatic but at the same time strategic, need to take work forward. So that, for example, with the Welsh Assembly Government where there was a feel of a need to look at the economic impact of higher education institutions on a particular area then the Welsh Assembly Government, together with the ESRC, together with the Scottish Government were able to put together a piece of research which will be reported either later this year or the beginning of next year, which looks at that and which is able to take a comparative perspective between Scotland and Wales.

  Q892  Alun Michael: I suppose the reason for some of these questions is the media-driven questioning about whether there is a fair share to Wales and a concern I suppose that would arise from the fact that the Research Councils have a relationship to government ministers and that others might be left out. Would I be right in saying that your view is that that is not what is happening and that there is a much more integrated situation as far as the work of the Research Councils are concerned that perhaps a superficial glance might suggest?

  Professor Diamond: I think that would be a fair point. My own council has a concordat with the Welsh Assembly Government which is not just a friendly meeting; it is something that goes on throughout the year at officer level. We have a serious meeting once a year to review progress and to set strategy for the next year. Other councils have memoranda of understanding and regular meetings. And on many of the strategic decision-making bodies the Welsh Assembly Government or its constituent parts are represented. So I do feel that there is a very good story to tell. I am not saying that we should be complacent—please do not think that I am—and I think it is terribly important that (a) we continue to be reminded of the need to consider all these angles; and (b) that we work together with Wales and Welsh institutions to raise the game thereon. But I do think that there is a considerable amount of good work going on.

  Q893  Mark Williams: Turning to postgraduate training, how effective do you feel that the UK-wide coordination of the provision for postgraduate qualifications is in particular with regard to the needs of the public sector—and I am thinking in terms of things like education and clinical psychology? Is there a mismatch between what has been provided, what has been funded and the needs of the public sector more generally?

  Professor Diamond: It is a very good question. I think one needs to be able to decide exactly what it is you are trying to generate research for in the next generation. If we take one of the examples you have just raised, which is education, bringing on the next generation of educational researchers is an extremely urgent agenda because academics in institutions across the UK in education are, as a group, aging somewhat more rapidly than almost any other subject. Therefore, to bring on that next generation there are a number of challenges that we have to undertake. Firstly, many of those people who will come to do research in our education institutions to be researchers will do this as a second career, having firstly, for example, taught in a school. We need to make it easy for them to transfer from one career into another and to become very good researchers in so doing, and my own council is working to ensure that. But also much of the great educational research comes from people who are not formally trained as educationalists. So that, for example—and you have given the example of clinical psychology—educational psychology is often trained psychologists who become researchers in educational psychology or similarly for sociology or indeed economics. So that we need to ensure that we are bringing on new generations of psychologists, economists and socialists whose interest is to undertake their research in education. These are real challenges that we are facing and addressing at the moment. I am not saying that in the area of education—and a similar area is management—that we are there yet, but certainly within the Economic and Social Research Council there are critical areas on which the Training and Development Board is working and which we have as a priority for the next few years.

  Q894  Mark Williams: How explicit can you be in your directions? You mentioned in terms of directing what you see in the previous answer in terms of the specific area of research, so how proactive can you be in directing the shortfalls in particular area of postgraduate qualifications?

  Professor Diamond: It is absolutely critical that we do that. If I might just speak to my own council, but this is indicative of others, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council I can give an example of as well. First we look at the demography; annually the Research Councils as a whole provide a report to the Research Base Funders Forum on the health of the research base which looks at the demography of the academic base in the UK by discipline and also sub-disciplines. So that for example while it may look like research in biology is in a healthy state we are short of people who work on whole animal physiology, particularly with regard to big animals, which has huge impacts, for example, in a rural area with dairy farming, and enabling therefore that we generate a new base there is important. But it is not just demography. For example, there has been a decline in quantitative skills and so we are very keen to raise the capacity for quantitative social science and one of the reasons that HEFCW and the ESRC has funded the Welsh Institute for Social and Economic Research has been to have a real initiative to raise capacity in quantitative skills in the social sciences in Wales. So we are very cognisant that we have a dual role in research training and that is firstly to provide an overall base in the research students; but secondly to be very clear on areas which need special attention—either areas which are going to be new in the future, areas where there are demographic declines in the academic base which we wish to address, or areas which for some other reason have dropped off, and for those we allocate specific funding to do that. Could I also just say that we are also very clear in our mind that we need to engage better with policy makers at the beginning of the academic career and that is why we have had student-ships funded jointly with the Welsh Assembly Government, where people are jointly supervised in an academic institution and by a civil servant with research expertise, and that gets people who are able therefore to do research and to know how to apply that into policy; and we are also within my own council introducing a scheme which enables research students to spend time on an internship in government, and that is also true of other councils, for example the Natural Environment Research Council.

  Q895  Mark Williams: What about early engagement with employers as well in terms of the overall career development of researchers? How engaged are employers in this process?

  Professor Diamond: I think that is something that again different councils have worked in different ways. So the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has a huge engagement with employers where people are often jointly supervised in major industry and in the university. I think it is something that we really have to work through in the future and that is why we have been investing in transferable skills within all the councils and engaging with the major employers, so that we identify all the skills you really need. And one of the things that is coming across, for example, is the need for teamwork skills, and I think in the future we will be working on our postgraduate training guidelines to build in more employer needs into the transferable skills that people get as well as their research skills.

  Q896  Mark Williams: Are those relationships formalised through a formal relationship with the Sector Skills Councils or are they still pretty ad hoc?

  Professor Diamond: I would have to say that I think they are still pretty ad hoc with the Sector Skills Councils, although the research careers and diversity groups within the Research Councils UK certainly works across those bases. We have formal meetings with some of the major employers, but I think it would be fair to say that much of what goes on is rather ad hoc.

  Q897  Alun Michael: Turning to science policy, the Welsh Assembly Government has published a science policy under the heading of A Science Policy for Wales. What do you think of this?

  Professor Diamond: I thought it was interesting. I thought it raised aspirations and raised some points which I would hope to see now moving forward into an agenda for action.

  Q898  Alun Michael: As far as the Research Councils are concerned, are you able to take account of different priorities such as the ones articulated in that policy document when considering research bids from Welsh Higher Education Institutions?

  Professor Diamond: I think what we are able to say very clearly is that we encourage excellence, so I do not think anyone would want to say that it is a priority there so therefore it is not subject to the same standards of excellence as if it were not a priority. Having said that, we are very keen to work with the devolved admissions more broadly and in this case in particular, the Welsh to say, "These are the key areas you have identified as areas you wish to take forward, areas that you see Wales focusing on, areas that you see as important, now what can we all do to work together to ensure that the capacity is there, to ensure that the opportunities exist and to ensure that the applications that are coming in have the best opportunity of being of the excellence that is required?"

  Q899  Alun Michael: So if I understand you correctly you are suggesting that where there are the aspirations that you refer to in this document they would stimulate a discussion amongst the scientific and research community about ways of pursuing them rather than being a straight line response?

  Professor Diamond: Yes. You could not say, "We have an aspiration here, therefore we will put the money in," but the question is how do we, for example, link those aspirations to focus in a particular area with the funding base?

2   Ev 178-179 Back

3   Note by witness: of the Office for the Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research. Back

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