Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 26

Memorandum submitted by The Institution of Civil Engineers

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

  In relation to Civil Engineering, exactly half of the Units of Assessment (UoA) submitted achieved a 5*/5 rating (15 out of 30 when the combined University of Manchester/UMIST submission is considered as a single submission). This outcome needs to be viewed in the context of the following information:

  1.  There was a marked reduction in the number of submissions, from 43 in 1996 to 31 in 2001. Here it should be noted that none of the nine graded 1 or 2 in 1996 made a submission to this UoA in 2001 and some of the 3a/3b departments made submissions elsewhere (Built Environment/General Engineering). However, most did not make any submissions, presumably because Grades 1 and 2 generated no income.

  2.  The total number of staff submitted in 1996 was 703.6 (see table below). However, this was reduced in 2001 to 518.0 (less than 74 per cent). Much of this reduction can be accounted for by the withdrawal of the lower graded departments. However, many other departments, up to and including 5* level, were very selective and only included their best researchers. The net effect on research active staff in each Grade can be summarised as follows:

  
  
Total Staff Submitted
Grade
QR Multiplier
1996
2001
5*
4.05
102.5
117.2
5
3.375
126.3
221.6
4
2.25
179.5
144.2
3(a)
1.5
198.4
15.0
3(b)
1.0
24.0
20.0
2
0
42.0
-
1
0
31.0
-
Total
  
703.6
518.0


  When these numbers are combined with the 1996 QR multipliers (used for England and NI) then only a 1 per cent increase in cost accrues.

  From the above table it should be noted that the total number of 5/5* researchers in 2001—338.8—is less than 50 per cent of the total staff submitted in 1996—703.6. (As an Institution, we have a national accreditation of degree courses role and, from our data, we know that there are currently well over 700 on staff in Civil Engineering departments in the UK.)

  3.  The overall criteria utilised by the Civil Engineering Panel in 2001 was similar to that used in 1996 and 1992 and generally reflects the recommendations made by the Institution in 1988 (copy attached)[7]. In terms of process, whilst the number of departments/research active staff submitted has markedly reduced in Engineering, there has been an increase in numbers of research active staff in the Humanities (for example) from 1996 as well as an improvement in Grades. There has also been a marked increase in numbers of staff submitted in Physics and Biological Sciences where over 70 per cent of staff achieved 5/5* Grades. Selected other examples are included in Appendix A.

  The efforts made by Engineering departments to satisfy all the criteria, including research income/FTE staff, has had the effect of clearly identifying and financially supporting selected groups of high quality researchers across the UK, presumably, in line with the wishes of Government. However, the significant differences in the proportions of staff in the 5/5* Grades for the other UoA could result in Government funding being diverted away from Engineering (where Grade inflation has not taken place without justification).

MEASURING THE IMPROVEMENTS

  In 1, 2 and 3 generic justification is given for an increasing percentage of higher Grade UoA in Civil Engineering. However, the question being asked is "Do the results represent a real improvement in research performance?" Here, the answer in the Civil Engineering UoA is a definite "yes" as similar procedures were used in 2001 to 1996. In order to ensure that standards were comparable, three of the 1996 Panel were also involved in 2001 exercise (30 per cent of total number in Panel). A comparison with the 1996 exercise has revealed that, in order to achieve a comparable grade in 2001, a UoA had, in general, to perform somewhat better. However, in order to avoid a mechanistic approach, a different balance of criteria was used in 2001 with most emphasis being on RA2—the quality of publications. Here, the overall quality of research papers was generally much higher than in 1996—clear evidence of an improvement in quality.

IMPACT OF GOVERNMENT REACTION

  HEFCE has produced detailed and complex Performance Indicators to assess the quality of university research. The outcomes by the various Panels have been confirmed by external international assessors, yet it would appear that the Government may disregard the improvements that have occurred. This will have damaging consequences, as:

    (a)  many universities have invested heavily from their own monies in order to produce an increase in performance and respond positively to competition from their national/international peers;

    (b)  the academic staff in universities across the country have invested a considerable amount of time and effort preparing for the 2001 RAE whilst, at the same time, improving their research performance;

    (c)  industrialists, represented on Engineering Panels and involved in joint projects with universities, will consider that they have wasted their valuable time as they will perceive that the Government has no real commitment to research;

    (d)  panel members from universities, who sacrificed much of the summer of 2001, will be reluctant to co-operate in any future exercises.

  Thus, it is essential that the Government reacts much more positively than the first responses from Minister Margaret Hodge would indicate.

WAY FORWARD

  Increases in research funding should be made available on a selective basis in those areas of research which are of importance to UK Ltd, eg Engineering, areas of Science and Medicine and where there is well substantiated evidence of an improvement in performance. The additional funds should be made available for the academic year 2002-3 and should be distributed, in the short term at least, using the 1996 HEFCE multipliers applied (in England and N Ireland) to the new Grades. This will ensure that Grade 5*/5 departments are protected. In essence, the Government will have achieved its goal of concentrating research excellence in a small number of universities (15 with 5/5* Grades out of a total of 52 Civil Engineering departments in the UK).

  In the longer term, the possibility of altering the 1996 HEFCE multipliers needs to be given careful consideration. However, there is a danger that this could impact negatively on the regions. [All 5* departments are in the South of the UK (Swansea, Cardiff, Bristol, Imperial College and Southampton) whereas Grade 5s are well-represented in the regions, eg Birmingham, UCL, Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, Dundee, Edinburgh, Belfast.]

  Removal of funding from departments graded 3(b) should not be automatic as the very low levels of funding currently provided ((3(b) accounts for a mere 1 per cent of total) in reality renders this unnecessary.

January 2002



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