Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 105 - 119)




  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 staff—and remember the volume of staff submitted is about the same—you 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 submission rates.

  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.

Mr McWalter

  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.

Mr McWalter

  114. If it is cheap, you do not need to reduce it?
  (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 activity—you 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 as academics.
  (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 areas—I would not single out science and technology; I think other areas like the creative industries will perhaps be even more severely affected—is a very serious decision to have taken and one that I hope will be very swiftly reversed.
  (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, that too.

Dr Iddon

  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 statistics.

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