Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
MONDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2005
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
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
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 Salfordthey 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
subjectsland-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 closedand obviously
King's College London and now Exeter are exceptions to thisclosed
as a result of being small in scale, attracting fewer students,
and having poor research performancea combination of the
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
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
studentswe 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, butand
there are some buts hereit 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,
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
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
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,
Q195 Mr Key: The best British universities,
for example Southamptonit 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 closingthe 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
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 itemand this is quite
interestingis 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 heavilyand increasingly heavilyused 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 reviewsnot just the most recent one,
but the one before that and the one before thathave 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.