Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 180 - 199)

WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002

MARGARET HODGE

Mr McWalter

  180. The fact is, then, that if the current HEFCE decisions about funding go ahead there will be quite a significant increase overall in funding for history research but there will be a severe decrease in funding for research in science and technology, where there has been nothing like the same degree of increase in schools, and there has been a decrease overall in the number of researchers who are actually included? To give just one example, in civil engineering you will not get any research funding in England at all outside the south of the country because there is not a civil engineering research university in the north of the country which has a 5. I do wonder whether it has been fully taken on board how prejudicial to research and engineering and science and technology the current suggestions about research made by HEFCE are likely to be.
  (Margaret Hodge) I think you are laying at the door of the RAE blame for something which is not really related to that exercise at all. I have got the figures here which show—I have not got the history figures with me—that across all sciences the increase in research income between 1995-96, 1999-2000 was 27.5 per cent. The increase in research income across all arts in that same period was 28.1 per cent so it is about the same. Within that you are right that the increase for engineering was well below the science average, 17.6 per cent, and, if you take the other level, the increase in pure arts funding was 128.9 per cent—a very low base, they only started with less than 17 million—

Chairman

  181. They only need a pen and pencil really!
  (Margaret Hodge) I do not think they would say that—not modern art—but that reflects this whole issue of careers in engineering and people right the way through from school and the lack of new people coming on in the engineering field, and that is an issue of real concern. You are right as well—

Mr McWalter

  182. But you cannot look at a 28 per cent fall in electronic and engineering as being something where you can just say, "Well, that is how the formula works and there is going to be a catastrophic fall in research funding"?
  (Margaret Hodge) But the answer does not lie necessarily either within the university sector and certainly it is not the fault of the RAE exercise. The answer lies in the schools, in encouraging more young people, women, to go into engineering. That is where we have to start it. You will not solve it by giving a different set of rules at the RAE level.

Mr Hoban

  183. Your department in its written evidence says that it sets the overall framework and policy objectives for Higher Education Funding Council for England. You said earlier you were content with the discipline HEFCE took in terms of allocation of funding. Did it tell you or consult you about the decision?
  (Margaret Hodge) They take the decision. The HEFCE board take the decision; it is a matter for them. In a good working relationship, there are a lot of conversations that take place before those decisions are taken but, at the end of the day, the decision rests with HEFCE and it is theirs to take.

  184. In that context, and you are probably going to give me a slightly elusive reply here, how much freedom does HEFCE have in deciding how it spends its budget?
  (Margaret Hodge) On that it exercised its own judgment. We happen to agree—which is not an unhealthy way to be doing business with a non-departmental public body, which is what it is—that the priority must go to sustaining as best we can the world excellence of 5s and 5*s, but it could have decided to give it all to 1s and 2s.

  185. What would have happened then?
  (Margaret Hodge) It would have decided. That is its prerogative.

Mr Heath

  186. I want to take us on to the discussion that you will have heard earlier with previous witnesses which is the interface between research and teaching in the universities. First of all, I would like your view: do you see a connection between good quality research and good quality teaching or are they different attributes which are not necessarily linked?
  (Margaret Hodge) I think looking at the QAA outcome of the subject reviews, you tend to get a link between good quality teaching and good quality research. Having said that, we are thinking very much about in reviewing where we think higher education should be in ten years' time is that we have so far funded the higher education sector very much as if it is one-size-fits-all, so you get money through bodies and money through the RAE, two avenues, and you do not really get money for excellence in teaching. As we widen and extend participation it is going to become increasingly important that excellence in teaching is a feature in the HE sector and it needs to have a set of incentives around it so that some institutions can focus on that. So whilst traditionally if you look at the past there may be a connection, there is no reason why in the future you cannot think of not having a one-size-fits-all solution: having universities focusing on things they do best and then having a set of incentives to ensure that you reward them for doing that well.

  187. That is a very interesting answer. It pre-empts my next question because that is what I was going to ask: is there an imbalance in the incentive which means that all of the funding, apart from undergraduate levels, follows research rather than teaching? Is the corollary of that that there is the potential at least for universities to diverge into those which are research universities and those which are teaching as their prime focus? Does that worry you at all? Do you see it as a positive development?
  (Margaret Hodge) It does not and I do see it as a positive development. I think if we can encourage greater diversity in the higher education sector, that is great. I think there are some really strong, difficult issues we have to think about and that is something you have touched on—for instance, a new medical school. How do you provide the incentives there so that, if an excellent research capacity emerges, you nurture it and grow it. So I think there are some really tough issues you have to think through but I am very keen, particularly looking at our widening participation priorities, that one of them should be that we should focus on teaching. I really feel strongly that the cohort of young people who we want to encourage into higher education in the next decade, both to meet our target and to meet the skills needs that are required in the economy, will probably need a very different sort of teaching from the teaching I experienced when I was one of the 6/7 per cent to go to university, so we have to reflect that in the quality of the staff. I see nothing wrong, therefore, with having a diverse set of institutions but we need to have some permeability in the system a bit like a old football league, so they can go up and down and switch around as and when. Also, the reason I talked so much about the distinction between different sorts of research is that you do not want to end up with all your basic research being done, for example, in one area of the country; you want to have a knowledge transfer capacity really well spread across the region and economies.

Chairman

  188. Do you think universities have changed over the years since we were young—
  (Margaret Hodge) I hope so!

  189.—in terms of the persona they put out to the public, for example? They are still called places for brainy people, but do you think that has changed at all?
  (Margaret Hodge) I think it is beginning to change; I think it needs to change more. All universities are trying to link themselves into their regional economies better than they used to and that is to be welcomed, and the incentives we put in the system to achieve that are beginning to work and we need to do much more of that. It is interesting that only 4 per cent of UK companies use the HE sector in their businesses and we have to grow that.[4] You have probably heard me going on about this terrible business of young people from the lower socio economic groups and their aspirations in relation to university, and there is this awful research that shows that over 40 per cent of people from C2/DE socio economic groups never think about university as an option for them during their school years. That is partly about the school sector getting itself sorted out; it is partly about what we do—the aim-higher campaign; promoting, raising aspirations; but it is also about universities going out and down into their communities.

Mr Heath

  190. I think I accept what you are saying there but there is a concern that, if we allow this dichotomy which I suggested between those universities who have their focus on research and those who focus on teaching, there is a danger that the staff who we might want to be at those universities which they are best suited to, for concentrating on teaching, will nevertheless be attracted, particularly in the sciences, by the quality research foundation along the road and that you end up with not just a dichotomy of purpose to an extent but a dichotomy of standards as well. That would worry me because it would introduce a new divide which was not there previously and might work against the quality of access which you are quite rightly advocating as a fundamental bit of policy?
  (Margaret Hodge) That could emerge so, again, we need to see what incentives and structures we put in place to prevent that happening. Whilst it might be sensible, particularly in the sciences to concentrate on the funding because of the massive cost of much of the investment, you might think about opening up those facilities to be used by staff working in other institutions in a much more open way than currently happens. Making that a condition of grant might be one way of trying to ensure that we maintain some sort of permeability between institutions and allow new research capacity to flourish. There are issues and particularly in the sciences it would be crazy to think you can spread what will always be a limited pot too thinly, so you cannot get the real investment you need to succeed internationally.

  191. What you are suggesting there is that there is a much more directive approach from government to the academic community than perhaps we have seen before. That may be good or bad but it is I think steering universities down very clear avenues.
  (Margaret Hodge) If the Committee has any ideas of mechanisms that we could employ which would allow the concentration of resources which we require and yet the permeability that we also desire, let us know, please.

  192. One area which I know this Committee is concerned about is the shrinkage of the number of science departments, which we have already heard this evening is largely a function of undergraduate recruitment. Does the Government, at the same time as wanting to concentrate resources on the elite departments quite rightly and to maintain the science base, etc, see a need also to maintain, against the pattern of undergraduate recruitment and, indeed, the difficulties which we know apply in selection of sciences in schools, a variety of departments across the country in larger numbers than might be the case than allowing natural selection to take place? There is a national incentive to maintain a variety of science departments around the country which is greater than that which sheer market economics in terms of undergraduate recruitment will require.
  (Margaret Hodge) There will always be a regional dimension to a sensible higher education policy so we will want always to ensure a proper regional offer across the country. Beyond that, I have to say that I am not convinced that sustaining uneconomic departments where there simply is no demand for places is a sensible way of using our resources. If you think of how much money we do need and the under-investment over such a long period, I can think of other really important priorities to which I would put that money, so I am not sure it is a sensible way of doing it.

Mr Hoban

  193. In your memorandum to the Committee, it is suggested that 5* departments could be selectively funded on the basis of their value to the British economy. Could you give examples of departments that might be funded and how you would choose them?
  (Margaret Hodge) Actual departments and their value to the British economy? Can you re-read the passage, please?

  194. It says that 5* departments could be selectively funded on the basis of their value to the British economy. Following on from that, could you give examples and how would you choose them?
  (Margaret Hodge) Well, I think they are funded on the basis of their value to the British economy so it was a sentence that passed me by, I have to admit, in the drafting of that particular bit. I probably need to see the context.

Chairman

  195. You would never let a civil servant slide that past you—
  (Margaret Hodge) I read it and I had a big hand in drafting it, Chairman, but I just cannot remember that particular paragraph.

Mr Hoban

  196. It is paragraph 17(a): "The future development of selectivity, and whether it would make sense in future to discriminate even between departments currently rated 5*, for example to identify those departments whose international..."—
  (Margaret Hodge) I know what we are talking about now, yes. What we are anxious about is this issue of concentration. There are only a limited number of departments, particularly in some of the science areas, where we need really heavy concentration of investment to compete internationally, and the 5* has almost become too bunched up now to enable you to select within it those three or four. We know that, for example, under the 1996 allocation, a third of the RAE money went to four institutions—it was that concentrated, similar to in the States but it was pretty concentrated—and that seems not an unsensible way of proceeding. Given the growth in number in the 5*, is it still sensitive enough for us to be able to extract from that those that really need substantial investment to be able to pay the sort of salaries and attract the sort of people that will keep our capacity going? And we worry about that. There are various ways in which you can address that. One of the options would be, again, perhaps to create a new grade, those that are internationally competitive, where we would give extra resources which would enable them to attract the brightest of people.

  197. So it would be a process of grading so we can identify those that need more resources?
  (Margaret Hodge) That would be one way. It is not desperately sophisticated. I think probably round this table you could all do it better than I can because you are all scientists.

  198. Thankfully not all of us! Are there any particular departments you are concerned about, or is it a general concern?
  (Margaret Hodge) I am very concerned about our ability to maintain our international competitive edge. As you know, we talk about all the Nobel prize winners but they came out of investment ten, fifteen, twenty years ago and we want to have the Nobel prize winners of the next generation. I am really worried particularly about the salaries we are paying in competition to the States, which is the key competitor, and that we have not enough money in the system to pay competitive salaries.

  199. Is there not a slight problem with the bunching you talked about in that what we are seeing is departments with international reputations graded to 5 having reduced funding in relation to research, and the same is happening with those graded 4? Those graded 5 are losing 15 per cent of their funding; those at 4 are losing 30 per cent of their funding. Are you not seeing a diminution or weakening of this activity in the system as a consequence of the bunching?
  (Margaret Hodge) Could you just repeat the last bit?


4   Note by witness: Source: Community Innovation Survey. The figure (which relates to 1994-1996) refers to the proportion of businesses with 20 or more employees that obtained technological knowledge for innovation directly from higher education institutions. Back


 
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