Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  Q180  Chairman: In departments do you think the financial considerations weigh heavily in terms of the decisions that are made?

  Sir Howard Newby: Yes, of course. What we have been seeing recently are two sets of issues with regard to the decrease in the number of science departments. One has been the decline of student demand in not all science subjects, but certainly in physics, chemistry, mathematics and most branches of engineering. I also add to that, by the way, modern languages. That has been one factor. The other factor is that universities have become much more aware of the need to invest in those areas where they have greatest strength and disinvest from those where they have relative weakness, to sustain their long-term position. In some cases, therefore, we have seen closures of departments in subjects even where there has been buoyant student demand.

  Q181  Chairman: In your written evidence you say there is no link between grant allocation and financial viability of departments; so what does determine financial viability of departments?

  Sir Howard Newby: At the macro level, of course there is an overall link because the HEFCE grant was the block grant to universities representing roughly 40% of their total income, and of course they receive income from other sources. We do not line-item our provision; we do not say, "here is so much money for this and so much money for that"; it is a matter for local managements to manage their resources according to how they perceive their best interests. We have the situation at the present time therefore where, despite what may be said in the press, the amount of money per student going in to support teaching in laboratory-based subjects has gone up in the last year, and we have also seen a situation in which the total money for research through the research assessment exercise has also gone up in these subjects, and yet we are still seeing departmental closures in a small number of cases.

  Q182  Chairman: Is that because people are determining what is a strategic national or local kind of departmental decision as to which kind of department should be open? Who decides what is strategic, and who decides that architecture at Cambridge is more important than at Exeter?

  Sir Howard Newby: The strategic decisions of this kind are made by the senior managements of universities locally, so there is an issue about whether the sum total of individual institutional interests add up to an overall national interest. It is not necessarily the case, and that to our mind does present the basis at least for having a look at this and seeing where we might wish to intervene.

  Q183  Chairman: Do you think a vice chancellor of a university, and a Nobel Prize-Winner in chemistry would close a chemistry department rather than a social services vice-chancellor, just to name but one?

  Sir Howard Newby: Chairman, as someone with a social science background who became a vice chancellor of a major science-based university, I think by the time you get to be a vice-chancellor, with one or two rare exceptions, it does not matter too much what your disciplinary background is. There are some exceptions.

  Q184  Chairman: You are a financial manager more than—

  Sir Howard Newby: I would like to say we are an academic manager first and foremost, and that finances come behind the academic mission. Certainly, with the exceptions of places like the London School of Economics or Imperial College, which are rather more specialist institutions, for broadly-based multi-faculty universities your disciplinary background is of less relevance.

  Q185  Dr Iddon: Why are ex colleges of advanced technology, which were solely science and engineering based, like the one I used to teach at in Salford—they have almost completely shed their science and engineering.

  Sir Howard Newby: By and large they have done so in response to student demand. It has indeed been one of the ironies of the expansion during the late eighties and nineties, which coincided with the granting of full university status to the former polytechnics; the new universities expanded far more in the social sciences and humanities than in the science and engineering side.

  Q186  Dr Turner: What do you think are the main reasons for struggling departments? People have blamed the HEFCE funding formula and others simply attribute it to falling student demand. It certainly is not always falling student demand, so what do you think are the principal reasons?

  Sir Howard Newby: Are you talking about science departments or generally?

  Q187  Dr Turner: We are talking principally about science departments.

  Sir Howard Newby: I do insist that this is also a problem with modern languages and some other subjects—land-based studies for example. The primary drivers have been either falling student demand or poor research performance, or crucially the combination of the two. The vast majority of those science departments which had closed—and obviously King's College London and now Exeter are exceptions to this—closed as a result of being small in scale, attracting fewer students, and having poor research performance—a combination of the two.

  Q188  Dr Turner: You propose to intervene in chosen cases to address the supply of science courses, but not to do anything about the problem of falling student numbers. How effective do you think it will be just dealing with the supply side and not encouraging more applicants?

  Sir Howard Newby: I feel very strongly that we should not address a demand-side problem through supply-side solutions and vice versa. I should say that we have been addressing the demand-side problem, especially in chemistry. The last time I appeared before this Committee I explained that for three years we have been working with the Royal Society of Chemistry on a number of schemes, working in schools, with employers, with university chemistry departments, to boost the demand for chemistry, and we began to discuss with the Institute of Physics and the Royal Academy of Engineering expanding that model into those subjects. There is something we can do, and there is something we are doing; but of course we are not responsible for the schools and FE colleges, so what we can do is fairly limited.

  Mr John Rushforth: Some of the more general things we have been doing to try and stimulate demand as part of the wider participation, where we are supporting universities and colleges to provide mentors, master classes and a range of subjects across the piece, has the impact not only of attracting people into higher education, but also makes them understand some of the possibilities; and just the ability to go into a university and play with the equipment and the possibilities within that environment can sometimes capture the imagination. Half the problem is the constraints operating in schools, in terms of how science is taught.

  Q189  Dr Turner: What about the justification for keeping open unpopular departments by filling them with students that are of less quality than more picky departments can demand? Do you think there is any justification for that?

  Sir Howard Newby: If those students who are being admitted to those departments can clearly benefit both personally and benefit society from graduating in those subjects, then I see no problem with that. What we must not do is lower standards; that would be wrong, and it would be wrong for the students—we cannot offer them a false prospectus by admitting them on to degree programmes that are clearly sub-standard. What is the point of that? One also has to recognise that there is a national macro level problem about the macro demand and supply in gross terms in departments throughout the country. There is also a more micro level problem: the regional and even sub-regional distribution of provision is an issue. I commented on this the last time I spoke to you. It may well be the case in some circumstances that nationally there appears not to be a problem, whereas regionally there could very well be, and vice versa. We have some concerns at a regional level about the access of well-qualified students to good-quality degree schemes in the science subjects, when in some parts of the country they are not very thick on the ground.

  Q190  Dr Turner: Do you think there is going to be any end to the problem of science departments? Where do you think we are going to be in ten years' time? How serious do you think it is as a threat to our future economy?

  Sir Howard Newby: I think it is a threat to our future economy. I do not think there is a one-to-one relationship between the volume of science graduates and the performance of the economy, but there certainly is a relationship. If one looks around the world, this is a global problem. Outside south-east Asia virtually all countries are suffering from a decline in demand from young people to study science and technology subjects, but—and there are some buts here—it is not uniform across all sciences; the problems in biological sciences and medicine are not nearly so great, either here or in other countries. One part of the issue there is that we find that the biological sciences and medicine attract female students in very large numbers, which on the whole, alas, physics, chemistry, engineering and mathematics do not. One country that has tried to address this problem with some success has been Canada. It has reorganised its school curriculum to be more attractive to girls at the age of 13-14 when they are choosing when to specialise. There may be some lessons we could learn there in this country.

  Q191  Chairman: How could you do that, Howard?

  Sir Howard Newby: They dropped the disciplinary emphasis. They did not teach separate maths, physics, chemistry and biology courses, but rather taught around themed courses related to problems of interest to students. They taught—

  Q192  Chairman: Like climate change.

  Sir Howard Newby: Climate change, the human body and things like that.

  Q193  Chairman: Real issues that are valuable in their lives. How strange! Why has that not happened here, then?

  Sir Howard Newby: Because, Chairman, if I may say so, the way in which the curriculum is still organised is locked into a rather nineteenth century conception of what the disciplines are all about.

  Q194  Mr Key: Why is the situation different in south-east Asia?

  Sir Howard Newby: I could not say with all honesty why, but I suspect it is because in the school system there is a much greater compulsory maths and science teaching to a much higher age level than there is in this country and other parts of the world.

  Mr John Rushforth: Even in Japan, with good follow-through, there is still a feeling that their children are beginning to be turned off mathematics, for example, even then.

  Q195  Mr Key: The best British universities, for example Southampton—it is specifically recruiting science students for undergraduate courses from the Far East and south-east Asia. If they are feeling that they must become a global university, which they are, does this not mean that they are going to be in a completely different league from those universities which are feeling that they cannot compete at all, and must concentrate on just teaching and abandon the research? How do you reconcile those two? You have said in your evidence that you wish to ensure that the best teaching goes ahead, but that you are prepared somehow to find a way of keeping the other university departments open.

  Sir Howard Newby: One of the main drivers of competitiveness globally is research performance as much as teaching performance. We now know that science research especially is really a global business, and so there is a question about how vital it is to this country to sustain long-term the most excellent cutting-edge science research in this country. I believe strongly in that, and that is my Council's policy to do that; it is its main priority. There is then an issue about how far research is linked to teaching in terms of informing teaching quality. I was present just now when you were asking Bahram Bekhradnia about this. It is necessary, in my view, for higher education teaching to be informed by the latest research thinking. That is often what makes higher education higher. It is not the same thing as saying all high-quality teachers in higher education must be active researchers. They certainly must have access to the knowledge that is produced by the leading-edge research. It is quite possible to organise affairs so that university science departments that are predominantly teaching, nevertheless have access to the kind of leading-edge research, knowledge and information that comes out of the cutting-edge research departments. If you ask how many leading-edge chemistry departments the country needs or can support, the answer is very different about whether we are talking about leading research departments or teaching departments.

  Q196  Dr Turner: You mentioned some of the causes of departments closing—the fact that they may be small departments, inefficient in performance, and falling student demand. I am a chemist, as you probably know, and in chemistry circles the steepness of the cliff between five-star departments and grade-4 rated departments is far too steep, say the chemists. That is coupled with the fact that you, namely HEFCE, have changed the funding formula against the sciences from 1.2 to 1.7, along with not-often-mentioned rapidly inflationary costs in teaching in science. This Committee has looked at the cost of journals, which is ramping ahead of inflation; there is the cost of instruments that have to be imported; the cost of chemicals; and the cost of laboratory refurbishments. I put it to you, Sir Howard, that there is no way that the current dual support system is producing the full costs of running a science department.

  Sir Howard Newby: Let me break that question down. First of all, on the issue of research funding, I wish we had more resources to put into research funding in our universities, but, as you know, the quantum of that is decided essentially out of the spending review through the Treasury. Given the money we have for this, the question my board and I have to ask ourselves is what is our first priority. Our first priority is to sustain truly world-class science research in this country; then, as I often say, we work our way down until the money runs out. At the moment, it runs out at about two-thirds of the way through the grade-4 departments. I wish we could fully fund the grade 4s, but we do not have the resources to do so. I do not think, with respect, it is in the national interest for it to be taken away from five-star.

  Q197  Dr Turner: Why is the cliff so steep?

  Sir Howard Newby: We have tried to work out what are the real costs of sustaining five-star and grade 5 departments and, as I say, work our way down. Your other question was about the ratios of teaching. You refer quite correctly to the fact that the ratio between classroom-based and laboratory-based subjects has been changed from 2.0 to 1.7. If I could take the Committee through the thinking on that, I would be grateful. First, we do not sit in Bristol and think these numbers up; they are based on the returns which universities feed back to us on their expenditure in the four price bands that we allocate. They are classroom-based subjects laboratory-based subjects; a hybrid between the two, part classroom and part laboratory; and medicine. We reviewed it a couple of years ago and found that roughly speaking 70% of the total cost of teaching, not research, goes in salaries. There is very little differential between classroom-based and laboratory-based subjects in terms of teaching salaries. A law professor, I can assure you, gets a lot more than a chemistry professor, for example. The next item—and this is quite interesting—is the use of IT in teaching. Five or 10 years ago it was only science and engineering departments which were making use of information/communication technology in the teaching of their students. That is no longer true: all departments are major users of IT, and the IT support we put into universities is heavily—and increasingly heavily—used by all the students. That is one of the reasons for the narrowing of the differential. Thirdly, perhaps looking around when most of us were students, chemistry and other science-based subjects were taught in laboratories through live experiments. Partly for health and safety reasons, partly because of the reducing cost of IT, that is less the case. More is taught through simulation rather than through live experiment, and that has also reduced the cost relative to classroom-based subjects. We put all that together, and the results are as you describe them; but I must insist that, even so, the amount of money given to universities for teaching classroom-based subjects has gone up, not down. The ratios have changed, but the amounts have gone up. Finally, I would say that successive spending reviews—not just the most recent one, but the one before that and the one before that—have delivered to the higher education sector far greater increases in research expenditure than teaching expenditure. The money that we receive at HEFCE for teaching students in the sector stopped going down, as you know, and it has really just levelled off and shown a very tiny increase; so the amounts we have to distribute are limited. I would say to the Committee that overall in the sector, if you cost it out, all the sector is losing money on its undergraduate teaching; in other words, teaching is under-funded in the university system, despite the efforts the Government has made to reverse 20 years of previous decline.

  Q198  Dr Iddon: Are you accepting the basis of my question; that science, engineering and technology departments are inadequately funded and that is the reason why they are closing? Is that a "yes" or a "no"?

  Sir Howard Newby: They are closing primarily because of declining student demand. I come back to what I said earlier: putting more money into those departments will not produce a single additional student; so we come back to the very difficult policy issue about whether we should sustain a group of departments even in the absence of falling student demand for them, in the hope that at some time in the future, through the demand-side interventions you have heard about in schools, demand will pick up again. It is true that once a laboratory-based subject is closed, it is very difficult both in terms of costs and all sorts of other reasons to revive it again.

  Q199  Dr Iddon: Exeter was essentially a thriving department. It was not going through a clearance scheme. How can a vice chancellor such as Vice Chancellor Smith at Exeter justify the closure of the department? He has been in front of the Committee both informally and formally and he tells us that he does not have enough money to run the chemistry department at Exeter. That is what the vice chancellors are telling us. You have not answered the question in terms of "yes" or "no", but I put it to you again that the amount of money for running science, engineering and technology departments, wherever the funding comes from in this dual support system, is inadequate. Do you agree or not?

  Sir Howard Newby: I agree that teaching is under-funded, and it us under-funded in the science, engineering and technology subjects. The particular case of Exeter is one, as I understand it, that the university made a strategic decision to improve its overall research performance, and made a decision to invest in those parts of the university which it feels can bring in the greatest return. In that respect I agree with you. I did say earlier that the case of King's College and Exeter, and the combination I described earlier of poor research performance coinciding with lowering student demand, did not apply.

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