Examination of Witnesses (Questions 105
WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002
105. Welcome to our session this afternoon and
thank you very much indeed for taking the time to come and answer
some of our queries and give us your views and experience. You
know we are doing this Inquiry into the Research Assessment Exercise
which many of us have been on the end of in our careers. It is
something that worries many people and we are very pleased at
the results. We would like to find out what your thinking is about
the whole exercise. Would you like to start by introducing yourselves
to the Committee, please?
(Professor Floud) I am Roderick Floud. I am Provost
of London Guildhall University and President of Universities UK.
(Professor Smith) Adrian Smith. I am Principal of
Queen Mary University of London. I sit on UUK Research Policy
Strategy Committee, on the executive, but I am here in place of
the Chair of that, Alan Wilson, who cannot be here.
106. In terms of your submission to us, you
made it clear that the RAE results show a great improvement and
a general increase in research quality. What proportion of the
increase at the 5 and 5* end of the departments is due to more
selective inclusion of researchers? There has been some sharp
number crunching going on in terms of the numbers of people put
in. For example, I have seen evidence that it is possible a 5
might do better in financial terms than a 5* because of the figures
that were put in. What do you feel about that? Do you think there
has been some finagling, as we were told last time?
(Professor Floud) The overall reason for the improvement
in quality that has been generated and shown by the RAE is hard
work by a very large number of people and good management by universities
and heads of departments, not in any pejorative sense, but in
terms of focusing on the need to improve research and to be properly
responsive to the public money that goes into research. I do not
think it is an issue of calculation. As indeed the results of
the exercise have shown, it would have been somewhat foolish of
universities to have made calculations on the basis that you are
describing because they would have been upset by the actual funding
decisions that have been taken or might still be taken, because
we still do not know the full range of the funding decisions that
will be taken as a result of the RAE. The overall factor is improved
hard work, improved quality and good management.
107. If you go from a 3a to a 5 by only putting
in 40 per cent of the staff, do you think that really reflects
the quality of research in that department? What is the other
60 per cent doing?
(Professor Floud) The quality of the research has
always been measured in terms of those who are research-active
and universities have been making judgments since the Research
Assessment Exercise began on those who are research-active. One
of the factors which I recall on good management, one of the responses
to the funding pressures possibly that there have been on universities
over the last few years, has been a greater specialisation between
research, teaching and other activities. The pressure of the RAE
has certainly been in that direction, but I do not think that
is anything to be worried about. It is an example of the universities
managing their resources effectively.
(Professor Smith) If across the board the total numbers
entered dropped to 20 per cent of the numbers entered last time
and 3 went to 5 overall, there would be a point there but the
total numbers submitted are around about the same. If you take
the staff on the ground, 64 per cent of the submissions this time
rated national/international compared with 43 last time. If you
then go down to staffand remember the volume of staff submitted
is about the sameyou have 55 per cent working in those
top units against 31 per cent in 1996, so you have a real volume
increase in quality. It is not the smoke and mirrors of simple
108. I can see that holistic picture but in
terms of individual departments there might have been a bit of
manoeuvring around the edges to get there.
(Professor Smith) In one or two cases you might get
an eyebrow raised with a 5*d as a tactic, but there is very little
of that in the system as a whole. If you scan the results, you
might find one 5*d.
109. Do you think that a way round it is to
say that every department should put in a certain proportion of
its staff, particularly a majority? Would that not signal to the
public outside that a department was not carrying too many passengers?
(Professor Smith) We have to be careful with the words
and also take the broader picture about the mission of universities.
Research is a very important ingredient of the research base but
teaching, the relationships with local industry, relations with
the local health service for those of us with medical schools,
and I think you need the management flexibility within institutions
to value all sorts of staff input. There are dangers in what you
are saying. You are erecting at an individual, academic level
one particular piece of the jig-saw to a particular status.
110. When I did it, you were supposed to do
at least three jobs. I have been an adviser to students too. There
was a fourth job. You were expected to do all three well but it
seems to me we are moving into a situation now where that might
not be the case.
(Professor Smith) We have lived through a decade of
radical change in the universities and the current government
agenda and the target rates for participation are inducing tremendous
changes. We need the managerial flexibilities to respond to that
through diversities of mission across the sector. If we want excellence
in the lot, we are going to have to be selective about what individuals
add to the system.
111. You wrote in your submission about reducing
the cost and burden of accountability of universities. You have
figures for the cost of the RAE in 1996 when HEFCE said it was
£27-37 million. The AUT claimed it was very much higher than
that. Do you have an estimate not including an assessment which
incorporates a financial equivalent of researchers' time and,
secondly, an estimate that does include that?
(Professor Floud) I do not think we have made such
assessments. The exercise which HEFCE undertook, looking at the
overall burden of accountability, did include this particular
one and of course it came out at very substantially less than
the teaching quality assessment which, as you will recall, was
assessed at getting on towards £200 million a year. On that
basis, the Research Assessment Exercise is relatively cheap in
terms of the cost of the exercise itself. It is very difficult
to separate the costs of good research from the costs of accounting
for good research. I think universities have become much more
concentrated on managing research, on setting research targets,
on discussing and appraising the research of their staff. If you
were to include all that in the costs of the exercise, then it
would be a very large sum of money indeed, but I do not think
that is sensible because that is something which universities
need to do.
(Professor Smith) My colleague has drawn a comparator
with the cost of the teaching quality assessment. There is another
form of research assessment that goes on in the other part of
the dual support system in the competitive grant business with
research councils. I am not sure whether anybody has costed the
untold hours that go into writing the grant assessments, the peer
review, the committees etc., there, but we are convinced that
the RAE overhead compared with that is a small one.
112. The people who do the reviews do not get
paid for it, do they?
(Professor Floud) I do not think so.
113. A second class rail fare.
(Professor Smith) Unless it has changed, I never got
a penny in 1996.
114. If it is cheap, you do not need to reduce
(Professor Floud) I am sure you believe that one should
always be economical with public money which is what it is and
obviously we try to do so. We anticipate that there will have
to be a review of the RAE and no doubt your Committee may suggest
such. If that is so, we would want to participate fully in that.
We have ideas about what we would want to consider in that and
one of the issues would be how expensive different methods are,
because we have become acutely conscious of the burden of accountability
and the costs of accountability on the university system.
(Professor Smith) We have to be aware of potentially
conflicting issues. There have been concerns raised about whether
interdisciplinary interfaces in emerging areas are adequately
coped for. If we start making noises about that, we are making
it more complex and perhaps more costly. We need a very studied
review of where we go from here.
115. I was interested in your remarks about
being research-active. One of the submissions that we have had
suggests that Darwin did not do badly out of this process. Einstein
did not do that well until 1905. Long-term strategic research
and the sort of research that is involved which results in a definitive
text of some sort, a monograph, or research that is done in connection
with industry, which we are very interested in, is somewhat marginalised
in this process. Is it not the case that the RAE rather distorts
the picture, so you end up being labelled research-active if you
have a certain pattern of research but other patterns of research
or academic activityyou are trying to write a really good
teaching textbook or whatever, and all of those things are marginalised.
(Professor Smith) Let us acknowledge that any system
in some sense will introduce behaviours and patterns and potential
distortions. We would add to the list of the things that we would
want to take into account in the review that we do not create
a short-termist mentality. There are some acknowledgements of
that in the system already. Perhaps in history there is a six-year
time window for submissions. We could look more systematically
at that but it is a recognised problem. Close to industry research
is getting its income stream because it is being funded through
contracts. If it is good research in the sense of leading to generalisable
ideas which are interesting nationally or internationally, the
publications will get reflected in the RAE anyway. These things
are not quite as separate.
116. A lot of that work does not get published
at all. It is held by Glaxo or whoever on a confidential basis.
(Professor Smith) We have not yet cracked the problem
of peer reviewing that which we are not allowed to see.
117. It is not surprising, is it, that the AUT
is rather hostile to this because it does look like a quite significant
infringement on academic liberty and a distortion of their activity
into a particular accepted activity so establishments might quite
like it because they can generate extra money but individual academics
do not like it because it distorts their activity along a path
which they may well regard as not the best way of developing themselves
(Professor Smith) The conventional worries about academic
freedom are restrictions on the actual thoughts, unpopular views,
highways and byways that people might go down. We are in a slightly
different issue if we are talking about can you manage to do that
research within a five- year window or a seven-year window. Yes,
there are issues there but they do not really get into that kind
of territory. It is not a widespread view among my 18 members.
118. The result of all this is if HEFCE's allocation
of resources gets through, science, engineering and technology
will do very badly because the total quantum of resource they
would be given would drop significantly. Have you taken any account
of that in your general approach to this exercise?
(Professor Floud) I am interested in what you say.
As far as the overall results of HEFCE funding are concerned,
we are extremely disappointed by the decisions that have been
taken. We regard it essentially as a slap in the face for a very
large number of researchers who have done what was expected of
them in terms of improving the quality and quantity of their research,
who have now been told that that research cannot or will not be
funded, or their future research will not be funded at even the
same levels as before. That seems to me to be a very short term,
very mistaken decision which will have lon-term implications for
British science, technology and indeed all academic disciplines.
We are facing a situation in which the failure properly to invest
in a whole range of areasI would not single out science
and technology; I think other areas like the creative industries
will perhaps be even more severely affectedis a very serious
decision to have taken and one that I hope will be very swiftly
(Professor Smith) The maintenance of the unit of resource,
if that is what it turns out to be for 5*, does not solve the
problem. The range of really important research across the 4,
5s and 5* and if you look at the shifts from many departments
that were 3as in 1996 with the investment that went in at that
stage they moved up in some cases to 4s and 5s and in two cases
from 3s to 5*s, that investment for the future is fundamental.
Protecting the 5*s should not mask the fact that you are going
to do severe damage to the whole of the academic base, but if
you want to concentrate on the science and technology base, yes,
119. At the meeting with HEFCE I made the allegation
that the Research Assessment Exercise has literally closed down
scores of science and technology departments and that things have
slid in the direction of the humanities which are cheaper to run
because they do not have to operate laboratories, buy expensive
machinery for the laboratories, NMR machines and so on. HEFCE
seemed to deny my allegation. I quoted some figures which are
on the record for the closure of chemistry departments. I was
a chemist. They are quite considerable. The allegation has been
made, not by me, that 11 more chemistry departments might be at
risk as a result of the 2001 exercise. Since then, however we
have had some figures from Save British Science which show that
even between the 1996 and 2001 Research Assessment Exercises the
number of equivalent research staff that have been submitted has
actually fallen in chemistry, biology, electronics and electrical
engineering, yet risen quite substantially. I will give you the
figures. 25 per cent rise in staff submitted in history. 15 per
cent rise in the staff submitted in music. It seems to support
my argument that there is a slide towards the cheaper end of academia,
namely running humanities and the social sector, rather than running
the science and heavy engineering, which is very expensive.
(Professor Floud) The general point that one has to
remember is that the principal driver of the expansion or contraction
of departments is not the research funding; it is the teaching
funding in the sense of the ability to recruit undergraduates
and, to a certain extent, postgraduate students. In many cases,
that has led universities around the country to close departments
on the simple grounds that they cannot get the numbers of students
in those departments; whereas, on the other hand, in areas like
business studies or media studies, of significance to the economy
but obviously not the main concern of this Committee, it is possible
to attract the students. If you are to teach those students, you
then have to attract the teachers and those teachers do research
and are entered in the Research Assessment Exercise. Although
I am not questioning your figures in any sense, what you have
left out is the movements in student numbers.
(Professor Smith) I would echo the same point. You
are absolutely right on the contraction issues. Very crudely,
if you are looking at the financial viability of an institution
or devolved cost centres within it, the relative ratio of the
importance of the teaching income to the research is about three
to one. If your teaching income stream falls apart, declines radically,
you are in deep trouble. I can tell you from ten years' work at
Imperial College and three years in my current job that any such
rationalisations and closures of that kind have not been driven
by the RAE. They have been driven by the student demand. Over
the last decade, there has been an 80 per cent drop in applications
to United Kingdom universities in engineering, something like
a 40 per cent drop in chemistry and if this Committee were interested
I could arrange for you to be given a full table of all the subjects
in the United Kingdom and the percentage changes in applications
over the decade, both the positive and the negative. The figures
you are quoting will show an absolute mirror of the student trend