Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 65 - 79)

WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2002

MR PAUL COTTRELL, MS NATALIE FENTON, AND PROFESSOR RUSS BOWMAN

Chairman

  65. You are very welcome. I noticed that you were present for the first part, so you know the format. You are very welcome indeed, and I think it is very appropriate that you follow on from the last set of witnesses. Ms Fenton, Mr Cottrell and Professor Bowman, we do know each other from way back, welcome; it is a pleasure to have you here. And we will ask you some questions, but you may like just to say, for a couple of minutes, something about why you feel it is important for you to be here?

  (Mr Cottrell) Thank you very much, Chairman, and thank you for the opportunity to come along and give evidence to you. Can I start by saying that we support very strongly the idea that research should be distributed on the basis of the quality of the research, and that it should be peer reviewed; and, insofar as that is an objective of the RAE, we support it very strongly. However, we do have some very serious concerns about the way in which the RAE has developed. I think these fall, really, into three groups. One is our concern about the over-concentration of research funding in universities, which has been brought about by the highly selective RAE system, and we think that what that has done is to allocate research funding very narrowly, so that the research funding available is narrower than the spread of the talent. And we are concerned, therefore, that many very good academics, with very strong research potential, are being deprived of the opportunity even to get onto the bottom rung of the research ladder; and we have some suggestions about how that position might be rectified. The second area of concern is the current situation, which is the failure to fully fund the outcome of the Research Assessment Exercise; and already we are getting a very strong message from our members that this is having an extremely demoralising and demotivating effect on many of them. And, thirdly, we are very concerned about some aspects of the fairness and openness of the system, particularly the way in which it affects certain groups of our members, particularly young members and, to a large extent, female members. And, as far as the openness of the system is concerned, we find it very difficult to get hard data about the way in which it is working and the effects that it is having on the system.

  66. Thank you very much indeed. If Ms Fenton or Professor Bowman want to add anything, at any time, just indicate and we will take you in, but we will try to keep it moving along, as long as you get your points over, and do not short-circuit the whole process. Do you think that RAE 2001 has given a fair assessment of UK universities; can we look at that and say we know everything about what is happening in universities now, in terms of the standards, and so on, because of that Exercise, or do you think it is just so biased? What do you really think of this Exercise that has come through?
  (Professor Bowman) I think, first of all, it is unusual to agree with HEFCE on many issues, but I think actually there has been quite a dramatic increase in research standards and productivity. Now I think we would be very churlish if we did not congratulate our members, and non-members, who have worked extremely hard, and I think harder than most people and the public would like to realise. Two of the colleagues here will know, because they have been in a university themselves, people work very long hours, have very little holiday, with this target of research, and people are driven by their research, extremely hard work, while still having a lot of time and respect for students, research students, researchers; and I think people will be devastated to find that these improvements they have worked so hard for will not be fully-funded by the Government.

  67. My question that follows on automatically then is: has the RAE been really the driving force in raising these standards, in your opinion?
  (Professor Bowman) Yes. There is a point that RAE has done some very positive things; I am not sure how long it will carry on doing so. I think perhaps the early RAEs produced more positive results than the present one, and I think continued RAEs will increase the damage. It is a balance of benefits and damages, and I think perhaps the balance is now going in the wrong direction.

  68. Could you give us an example of that, Ms Fenton, perhaps—a concrete example of how it has improved?
  (Ms Fenton) Yes; sure. It is impossible to overestimate the driving force, in terms of the culture of a department, that the RAE has; so it focuses completely a department's attention on a particular end sight, because that is the only way, it is the only multiplier, if you like, at the moment, they have control over. So, in terms of actually going out there and getting in more funding to the departments, they do everything they possibly can, strategically, within that unit, to do it; and that will mean that will have negative impacts on the teaching culture of the department, because teaching is not prioritised and research is. And a direct example of that, from my own department, which has done very well, 5*A, we have done very well because we have ensured that students get less contact time, `one to few' teaching is minimised dramatically, any extra teaching above a certain level is done by contracted-out staff; so it has direct implications, actually, for the quality of the teaching, or the learning experience, of those students. So the driving force, although you cannot make a direct correlation between the level of scientific activity, for example, you can make a direct correlation to the actual levels of productivity and concentration within departments.

  Chairman: Thanks very much.

Dr Turner

  69. In your own memorandum, you say that the RAE has become "a colossal exercise in terms of staff and resources", although HEFCE maintain that it costs only 0.8 per cent of available funds, which they say is not too bad for a bidding or tendering process. Do you really accept this, or what do you think is the real cost, certainly to your members?
  (Professor Bowman) I am quite happy to answer. The cost is much larger, and the instrument, the CVCP, now, and UUK, estimate, in the last RAE, that it cost between 2 and 3 per cent of the total university budget nationally, because it is not just the cost of actually paying the peers on the various panels and the back-up work for them, it is the cost of each individual university, the management of each university, the management of departments and colleagues in the department; a huge amount of time. It is very hard to cost it accurately, obviously, but the time is enormous. And it is an interesting point, if that 2½ per cent were given to the system, that may actually help to ameliorate some of the problems.

  Chairman: Could you estimate the paperwork from a department, for example, in tonnage, or any other measure you would make, in chemical terms, if you like?

Dr Turner

  70. Or in trees?
  (Professor Bowman) I think a good few forests hit the dust.
  (Ms Fenton) We have already started; and one concrete example. Immediately the last RAE results were announced, in our department we started, the very next day, the paperwork trail for the next one, even though we do not know whether there will be one.

  71. The outcome of the RAE seems to bear a very close resemblance to the sort of profile of success of Research Council grant patterns. How would you feel about doing away with the RAE and having a mechanism for doling out the HEFCE money that was based on the Research Council profiles?
  (Mr Cottrell) We would be very strongly opposed to that, Chairman, because we think that that would increase the concentration of research funding even more. It is still the case that some of the funding goes a little bit more widely than the top departments, and if we ended the dual support system, which essentially is what would be involved, then we think that almost all the money would go to the top 12-15 universities, and that would change the system significantly, in ways which we think would be very negative.

  72. That is a fair point, but what we have got here is a process of which you are being highly critical; the simple alternative, you think, is, if anything, worse. How do you propose to resolve this with a process which is less demanding, has less downside, in terms of administration and distorting of the work of universities, and yet produces a fair result?
  (Mr Cottrell) We would like to see a number of measures taken. First of all, we would like to see a postponement of the next RAE. We think that the selective funding has gone far enough and that the system should be allowed to settle down for a period. So, in fact, in our submission leading up to the current RAE, we suggested that it should be postponed for ten years; but we certainly would not want to see a repeat in five years, we can see very little value in that. When it is repeated we would like to see the formula changed so that the funding allocation is smoothed, so that the steps are not so great between the different grades; that would help to spread the research money somewhat further. And we would also like to see the setting up of a seed-corn fund, which would be restricted to those departments that did not enter, or that scored 1s or 2s in previous RAEs, in order to give their best researchers the opportunity to get onto, as I said before, the first rung of the research ladder, to get to a point where they are able to attract funding from outside, from Research Councils and from other funders. And we think that that would solve a lot of the problems that we face currently, that have already been mentioned, to do with researchers going into a smaller number of universities, the best researchers, and, in the long term, if you believe that there is some relation between teaching and research, would also strengthen teaching.

  73. Now you have been critical of the fact that DfES has not fully funded RAE 2001, and you have also criticised the fact that they are still maintaining that funding for the 5* departments, but only the 5* departments. What would you have done, given the grade increases that have emerged?
  (Mr Cottrell) I think that we would probably have gone for what HEFCE was originally threatening to do, which was to distribute on the basis of the existing grades, rather than the new ones. Now that, too, would have caused problems, many of our members would have been very critical of that, because some of them will have lost out. But I think it is consistent with our general approach to this, that what we do not want is a system which raises expectations, which creates all the work that Professor Bowman has described, and then disappoints people; we see that as extremely unfair. The Government is very committed to the RAE, it is committed to it for a number of reasons, one of which I believe is a political one, that is that it has succeeded in protecting some of the best research, and we have not had constant headlines of top research groups and Nobel Laureates leaving the country and going to America, or wherever. So it has had some political success, in protecting some of the best research. But we are now into a situation where we have a Government committed to a system but not agreeing to fund the outcome, and we think that is completely unacceptable. And so, therefore, if you put us on the spot, I think we would say that we would prefer the funding to have been allocated on the basis of the existing RAE scores from the last RAE, which is also consistent with our view that the current one should have been postponed.
  (Ms Fenton) We are also in the business of protecting our members' jobs, obviously, and that analysis, or that way of allocating the funding, would have allowed us to say, well, at least it sustains the current staffing profile within departments. We are now faced with the situation where we are already getting massive concerns over restructuring, which basically means delivering redundancies, whether voluntary or compulsory, on a certain level, and the numbers of staff involved, when you look at the cut of 15 per cent, and 30 per cent, in those 5- and 4-graded departments, is enormous. And that is going to create massive work for us, and huge distress, actually, across the system.

  74. I was just going to ask the reaction to the extra £30 million from DfES to fund the 5s?
  (Mr Cottrell) Yes, Chairman; well, obviously, we would welcome any additional funding. But you have heard, from HEFCE's evidence, what is the extent of the cuts that we will still face; and that money is helpful but, clearly, it does not solve the problem.

Mr Hoban

  75. Just to follow on from the point that Ms Fenton raised, about the level of redundancies, or potential job losses, in the university sector, as a consequence of RAE. Given the Government's stated aim to increase participation in higher education to 50 per cent, surely, people who were doing research are going to be shuffled across to do teaching? Is not your concern about staff redundancies misplaced?
  (Professor Bowman) If I can answer that. I am also active in the local AUT community, as well as being an academic, and, with devolved financing, which is common throughout the sector, if a department does not meet its budget, staff go, one way or another, usually generously, with early retirement or relocation; increasingly, as the room for manoeuvre by local management declines, or has disappeared, by redundancies. And you often are making redundant people in the prime of their career, who are world-leading researchers, teachers, sometimes snapped up by industry, sometimes not, and the amount of distress to colleagues is enormous. Every university in the country, if you look at the levels of stress, breakdowns, it is really quite scary; my own GP, just to mention, never used to see an academic with stress, and now it is one of his main groups, in a small town, Loughborough, that he now has to worry about, and people are desperately trying to meet all these things. The problem is, if the money does not come in under RAE, the department will not have the money, and university management is obliged, or feels they are obliged, actually to shed staff. And if I can just stress, the productivity of staff now is absolutely at a maximum, it cannot go any higher, you can work only 50 to 60 hours a week, with little holiday; you cannot expect people to work harder than that, without personal problems of breakdowns in family, not looking after their children properly, etc. There is a real point of break now, where it cannot go any further, and there is not any leeway left in the system. Most universities, even leading, Russell group ones, are running into severe financial trouble. So there are real problems for the Government to address.
  (Ms Fenton) I think, in response to your question, there is not enough slack in the system to say, "Oh, well, you're not being returned in the RAE, you'll concentrate your efforts in teaching." They cannot do that. The people who go are the people who are not returned in the RAE.

  76. But, surely, the increase in student participation that Government is keen to see will lead to more funds coming into universities; that will absorb some of the people in the university sector that are labelled research-inactive?
  (Ms Fenton) There will not be enough. If the expansion is on predicted rates, say, their lowest estimate, 400,000 extra students coming in, the current staffing profile is not sufficient to teach that number of students, so they have to recruit more people in. They have not got the funds to do that, to deliver that increased participation.

  77. Is there not a contradiction there, because, actually, what we are saying is we need more university lecturers to cope with the increased participation; so, actually, the reclassification from research to inactive research will help meet some of the staffing needs of the future?
  (Ms Fenton) I do not see how on earth that is possible.
  (Professor Bowman) Can I just comment. You are the Science Select Committee, and if you look at the figures of the number of students selecting scientifically-related subjects, science and engineering, it carries to decline, very worryingly; my own subject, chemistry, at 7.5 per cent down this year, and other physical sciences down 15 per cent. So if the research money coming in is not in these departments, they are not being backed by increases, then that should be something that is very worrying to the Government. It is essential to the economy of this country that we have a large number of very able science and engineering graduates coming through, and that is a decline of some concern, partly related to the pressure of the RAE. So it is not that you can have a civil engineer going to teach media studies, because civil engineering is not a popular subject. So there are problems related to RAE, which we have not yet touched on, of what encourages and brings students into the system. And I think it is not necessarily that the staff are excess in the areas where you would wish them.

  78. I will ask one last question, moving on from that topic. One of the questions we raised with the previous set of witnesses was the issue of does the RAE encourage quick publication of research, and is that, RAE, changing the way in which people in universities do their research and bring it into publication; do you think that is happening, do you think the scene is speeding up?
  (Professor Bowman) If I can answer; definitely, yes. Although HEFCE has told us that it is four papers judged, everyone who sits on the panel knows most of the people in that particular community, so, professors reading my four papers, he does not know what I am doing in the community; of course they do, and we know them, they know everyone personally, so it does influence them and the number of papers do count. Every manager in a university is leaning on people to up their publication rate. The problem there is that you may be on work that is perhaps unpopular. Academic freedom is seriously at threat, blue-sky research, which may need time to get off the ground, may never get off the ground, and in five years you have got to produce. And this is one of the reasons we are arguing for even the abandonment of the RAE, or a much longer-term period, which will allow staff to challenge these ideas and get them off the ground, without the threat of "You must produce your five or ten papers a year." That is a real situation.
  (Ms Fenton) In addition to that, one of the real threats I see to the science base is that some research that is genuinely innovative and really very much new and at the cutting edge, actually, some of that does not have an immediate publishable location, it just does not have anywhere to go, for several years on. So, actually, you really do discourage that. What you encourage is more of that sort of clubby atmosphere, or you follow the herd; or this is a particular trend, "We know this is interesting, we know it will get published, we will pursue that." So it does discourage better concentration of minds on doing generally innovative work.

Mr Harris

  79. I wanted to ask about the peer reviews; you mentioned it in your opening comments, Mr Cottrell. You have argued in the past that the peer review should "remain central to any performance-based approach to research funding." Do you actually have any criticisms of the way the peer review is undertaken, as part of the RAE?
  (Mr Cottrell) Yes. We support very strongly, Chairman, the principle of peer review; the way in which it is applied in the RAE does have a number of problems. In the past, certainly, the composition of the panels has been an issue, and, I think, to be fair to the funding councils, they have attempted to deal with that issue, and there are more women, for example, on the panels now. But we would argue that they should represent the academic community more broadly, so that, for example, if you look at the average age of the panels you find that they are very old, and it could be argued that that reinforces the tendency to favour conservative, tested and tried research, rather than innovative and new areas of research. So we would certainly like to see a much broader representation on the panels, so that it is genuinely peer review, and not review of a small section of the academic community.


 
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