Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-136)



  120. We have been told that the implementation of the RCI is very patchy across the country. Surely you could be tougher about it. You have an influence on the universities and represent them all. You negotiate with them; you talk to them.
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) Indeed, and our job is to try to use the influence that we have. I believe that that influence has been effective but there is still a lot more that needs to be done. The question is whether or not, through this initiative and through the other initiatives like the contract research staff good management practice, like the HEFCE funding of the human resource initiative, we can embed solutions for these problems associated with short term contract staff into human resource strategies of institutions because it seems to me that if we continue to deal with this as an add-on we will still have individual institutions not matching what the best are doing. The best are doing very good things indeed. Not all institutions are yet doing their best.

  121. So why did we need the Roberts Review then? Why have you not been operating that kind of study into practical solutions to it? Why did we need to have the Treasury ask Gareth Roberts to come in?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) I think because the Roberts Review, as indeed the funding council initiative, has been a follow-up to the work that has been done both through the RCI and through the Athena project of unpacking some of these issues and identifying the problems. I hope that the report that Professor Roberts has produced will mean that there are additional resources attached to the changes that are required because without those resources we will continue to try to change some of the systems but it will end up being a considerable degree of tinkering I think you will realise when you look at the outcome of the RAE this year that the impact of an unexpected change in funding, which followed on from a huge extra commitment by staff to improve quality, to deliver the results that were demanded of them, was a kick in the teeth effectively, because the money was not there to support that research and now departments are having to review whether or not they can even maintain some of that research, even though it had been identified as improved and excellent, seems to me to be something that the universities cannot address but, just to go back to the point you made earlier, the Government will have to address.

Mr McWalter

  122. The Royal Academy of Engineering told us that the Research Careers Initiative was failing for two reasons. One was lack of funds but the other was that universities were not really implementing the policy through their organisations. There was a bit of gesture stuff going on but there was not any real commitment. Is that fair?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) The first part is fair, that there is a shortage of money. I do not think it is fair to say that the university sector as a whole is not addressing these points seriously. I think the amount of effort that Universities UK has put into delivering good practice is testament to that and I think that both we and the unions have signed up to all these areas of good practice. I come back to the point that I realise, and I think we all realise, that progress in some areas is patchy, but there is no doubt that for major research institutions, and perhaps I can ask Glynis to make a comment on this, unless they value their research staff, including their contract research staff, they cannot deliver the excellence which is expected of them in the research area. They cannot generate the research resources that are required in order to maintain their reputations. They are entirely reliant on the quality of their staff to do that.
  (Professor Breakwell) Obviously, I would agree with that. It seems to me that it would be necessary to give very clear examples of institutions that were not complying with the requirements of the RCI. Blanket statements about being disappointed with the institutions are very difficult to respond to. I can say what my own institution is doing and it is totally compliant, probably more than compliant. One of the reasons that we want to be more than compliant is that if we look now at the development of our human resource strategy and a clear statement of the human resource strategy, this is a fundamental part of that strategy. We are rewarded through HEFCE for developing effective human resource strategies. There is a big incentive to universities to do this well. It baffles me, the suggestion that universities would not be responding to that incentive. It makes no sense. It makes no business sense.

Dr Iddon

  123. Can you tell us how you believe the new regulations on fixed-term employment will affect universities, and indeed have you done any analysis on that, particularly its financial consequences?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) You mean in terms of the European directive?

  124. Yes.
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) Yes. Where institutions are either asking or requiring staff to sign away the clauses on redundancy, it will no longer be legitimate for them to do that. The costs associated with that I suppose will depend on how successful those staff are in continuing to attract research grants and just how many staff are affected by potential redundancy, but no institution is keen to go down the path of making good research staff redundant. What I cannot do is say that we can put chapter and verse on the amount of money that it would cost. The one thing we do know, however, is that the money for redundancy is not part of research contracts. The funders and charities are not prepared to make that part of the contract so that will have to come out of universities' resources.

Mr McWalter

  125. Do you hold out any serious chances of getting your members, vice chancellors and others, to in the end try to create more tenured academic positions for research staff? Do you think they are serious about doing that?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) I find it very difficult to answer that question because if there is—

  126. Effectively the answer is no because if they have not indicated to you that they are strongly worried about this and would like to do something about it the answer is no.
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) No. I was slightly puzzled by your use of the word "tenure" because we do not have tenure any longer. What I think you mean is permanent positions.

  127. Yes.
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) Universities have to be responsible employers. Where they have to account to the funding councils for the way they spend their money through their human resource strategies and the returns they make, I do not think it would be responsible of them as employers to continue to employ people whom they know they cannot fund. I find it rather difficult to answer your question because clearly setting up a research team, establishing a research reputation, is entirely dependent on getting really good staff. One of the incentives to get really good staff is to offer people sustained employment, to offer them stability, not to be vulnerable in the way that so many of your witnesses today have indicated that they have felt terribly vulnerable, so that there is no incentive at all for universities not to do that where they can do so.


  128. You do not think universities operate creative accountancy then in terms of shovelling money from pocket to pocket despite the rules and regulations?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) One of the things that the Transparency Review has indicated is that where universities have control over resources in other areas, some of that money has clearly been put into research. We know as well that where cuts have been made, investment in, for example, maintenance of building has been foregone because it has not been regarded as quite the same priority as maintaining support for teaching. There are all sorts of ways in which universities have tried to be creative to manage reducing resources, but the idea that they can provide resources for posts where they know the resourced stream for that project and for that work will be cut off or may be cut off I think would be irresponsible.

Mr McWalter

  129. Universities have a general expectation that they will push back the frontiers of knowledge. "Here is a person; they can push back the frontiers of knowledge but because they have not got a contract we will sack them". That is the reality, is it?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) Perhaps I can turn it around and say to you, where is the university to find the money in order to employ them?

  Mr McWalter: The Chair has indicated that there are ways of organising your finances. You do not have to visit upon particular members of staff the uncertainties of a particular funding stream if you do not choose to do so.

Dr Iddon

  130. Let me follow that through. We have seen during the research assessment exercise since 1992 research concentrated in fewer and fewer universities; in other words it has become more selective. My worry is that if we tackle this problem that we are discussing today larger units will be able to handle contract researchers much more successfully than smaller units and therefore we will accelerate the division between teaching and research universities that is becoming so apparent to us all. Would you agree with that?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) Yes. We have certainly said that the degree of selectivity has gone far enough and that there is a real danger to seed corn funding for new research for new ideas and a danger, if we continue to go down that path, of ossification. If I can just come back to the point that was made about numbers of staff and providing support for them I would like to make two points about that. One is that I do not think anybody believes that every contract research member of staff either wants to or should become a permanent member of staff. That is not necessarily the career path they want to go down. The second point is, and perhaps this is a bit unfair, that I do not know how on earth you would make the choice, of the 39,000 contract research staff we have in the UK, that the university would choose to fund and those that it would not when the money for all of them is coming from other sources, and where the university and the researcher are responsible to those other sources and accountable to those other sources for the way the money is spent. I think it would be a highly dangerous proposition.


  131. But in the Health Service, for example, the Macmillan Cancer charity, which I know a little bit about, gives the National Health Service funds to employ nurses in the cancer arena for a set number of years on the basis that they will take them on, so there is a model there and elsewhere where that can happen. You do not take them on unless they are going to have that chance of permanency. Of course there are trip wires along the way. They may want to duck out; they may not want to carry on and so on and they may not be up to it, for example, of course, but most of them will be up to it. I have not met many contract research workers in my experience, and I must have met as many as anybody, who are not up to it. There may be one or two of them but they know it themselves and get out.
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) I will ask Glynis to respond to that particular point because I think she has some experience of it, but it sounds very seductive. I would only say that we have had a real battle with the funding charities in terms of infrastructure costs, that what they are prepared to fund is the project. They are not prepared to fund the core costs, the costs associated with the staff and so on.

  132. The overheads.
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) It sounds a bit Nirvana-ish to me to have them going down the path we are talking about.
  (Professor Breakwell) There is that model already with some research contracts where you have, for instance, the Royal Society or Wolfson who are providing research fellowships where the universities, if they are to apply for those, must at the point that they apply assure the person who is appointed a permanent post in the university subsequently.

  133. There was a model with young lecturers too, I seem to remember, in the 1980s, when they took the other lecturers on only on the basis that they would then employ them.

   (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) The New Blood Scheme.

  134. Yes. So the models are all there, so why should research contractors not be part of that too? I know it is big bucks but it is something you ought to fight for, is it not, if we want to keep our science base up and keep our research going on in the arts and so on?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) It is a point we are constantly making to the private funders. I would only reiterate the point that we have not yet been successful even in persuading them that they should provide resources for infrastructure costs but yes, in principle, absolutely.

Dr Turner

  135. Are you making that point to the Treasury?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) We have been making the point about infrastructure to the Treasury, yes. It is actually in our submission under the SR2002 bid.

  136. Did your submission include anything to address the problems of short-term research contractors?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) In terms of adequate funding for research, yes. In terms of getting recognition for the imbalance now between the amount of money that is coming through public sources and the amount of money coming through private sources, no, but certainly the amount of research that would be done were those private sources to dry up, I think it would reduce considerably. In a way the Government is making a choice in terms of the amount of money that it is prepared to invest in research through public funds. Universities are trying hard to deliver their side of the bargain by looking for other sources of income which will enable them to continue to do top quality research. That is their responsibility.

  Chairman: I really must bring it to an end; I am sorry. If you have some points you would like to write to us about please do, and thank you very much for coming. You are very welcome to listen to the man himself, Sir Gareth Roberts, who has been sitting patiently at the back.

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