Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


ORAL EVIDENCE - Part 2

Further dual support transfer?

  Chairman: Can we go back to the funding problems of the funding councils and the research councils where you suggest that the research councils should cover more of the indirect costs. Lord Flowers, I think you wished to follow up on that question.

Lord Flowers

  23. Well, there are a number of points which arise under it. I was rather distressed that you gave as your third option, definitely the lowest, but it is still there, a further transfer from the funding councils to the research councils to pay for increased indirect costs. For the life of me, I cannot see how that is going to benefit the research life of the universities because it does not involve any free money on the one hand, and it removes such flexibilities as the universities have on the other, so it struck me as a very bad suggestion and since the report is such a good one, my only conclusion was that you put it in to show the absurdity of the idea. (Sir Ron Dearing) You notice, sir, that it was our third choice.

  24. It was not your first choice, no.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Our first choice was extra funding.

  25. Yes, I know, but I was very surprised to see the third choice there at all.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) I am glad you dismiss it, sir.

  26. That is the first point I wanted to make, but on more detailed points, we are concerned about many universities which have only a few departments which are distinguished according to the research assessment exercise, but, nevertheless, in other departments they may, and often do, have individuals or even little units of very considerable distinction.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Yes.

  27. Now, you suggest, if I understand you properly, that universities will be able to provide sufficient institutional infrastructure for such people. Do you think that that is really going to be true, especially if the dual-support system is further robbed?   (Sir Ron Dearing) Well, we agree, Lord Flowers, that we do not wish the dual-support system to be further robbed and the preferred course is that the extra funding should be provided. The lone scholar can bid for funding and can be successful in bidding for funding. We do recognise that in our work and especially in the arts and humanities, this may well be the situation. So I think the way we are looking at things and what is desirable is very much the same.

  28. But will the universities be able to provide for the institutional infrastructure to support such people?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Well, we do recommend that amends are made for the under-provision in the past at the rate of £150 million a year for the next two years to try and put that right.

  29. If there is more money, I agree the problem is not so bad, but I am trying to face up to the fact that, as you said, you clearly think there may not be.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Lord Flowers, if one looks through our proposals for new money, there are two in the short term that are very substantial. One is to reduce the attenuation of the unit of resource that affects all things and the second is research and so we have put extra money for research very high on our agenda in terms of large sums of money. I recognise how scarce money is, but in terms of our priorities, in relation to the current situation which you have identified, we gave that priority.

  30. And there is still a further robbing of free funds which you suggest, namely that institutions might be charged for access to electronic databases, electronic journals and other such services.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) But not yet, sir, we say. We do envisage that that is going to be inescapable because of the sheer scale of it. But I think, if I recollect our report correctly, we say that should not take place for another two or three years, so that people have time to plan for it, and we do indicate that you cannot have this growth in communication and information technology without funding. We have a chapter devoted to that.

  31. I am concerned, and you will understand this point, about the number of increased demands being placed upon the same pot of money.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) And we share that and I am glad for your underlining of our concern, sir.

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) Chairman, the first point, I think we all agree with Lord Flowers' concern over this, but indeed the transfer that is suggested here or at least that is mentioned, not suggested, would still be a fairly small fraction of the R funds that are available, and I think around about 10 per cent or something of that kind, to the funding councils, but I think the answer is that one cannot give the kind of guarantees that Lord Flowers is looking for in the future. Our proposal that research council projects be fully funded does in fact help the lone researcher in the otherwise not very research-distinguished institution because that institution will get additional funding specifically to help upgrade that person's laboratory and meet broader infrastructure costs and in that sense the proposal to go to full overheads goes a little way to supporting the individual researcher who is perhaps isolated. However, on a broader front, I think we see three main strands to our strategy. The first is inevitably selectivity. The second is collaboration and access. In a number of places we have emphasised how important it is that those that enjoy the privilege of special facilities for particular projects make them open for reasonable access to qualified people with appropriate projects and this was certainly a pattern which we saw in North America very strongly. It was quite usual to go to a big lab and find people who were from relatively less prestigious institutions working there for a month, doing analyses, working in the lab there for a while and then returning, keeping in communication, being an extended member of that group, using the rather effective means of communication and networking that is now possible through e-mail and the World-Wide Web. The third strand is access to information and we believe that this side of research, this side of teaching and learning is changing very rapidly at the moment and will continue to change and lack of access to libraries and databases is something which we hope will be a thing of the past for almost anyone involved in research or scholarship in higher education; and this is another big change and will change the nature of the way research is done and the kind of projects that can be tackled. However, in spite of all that, there will be people who are not properly supported.

Infrastructure

Lord Craig of Radley

  32. You draw attention, as we have already discussed, to the chronic problems of infrastructure and you say that you are convinced it ought to be possible to seek collaboration between all the major parties, government, industry, research charities and so on. I wonder in your studies whether you got anything on which to base that conviction which you could share with us. In other words, did industry, did the charities say, This is an idea which we would be very willing or keen to support provided that conditions are met"?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Well, I am glad to respond. Without naming names, I did indicate to one major charity why I was coming, but they, nevertheless, gave me an excellent meal and left me feeling that they had listened and for a thought-through case I thought there was a good chance they would respond. I have seen or been in touch with seven major companies. Only one has indicated that they would not see this as a possibility for them to consider. None of them welcomed me, but all were extremely civil and made it very clear in principle that they thought this was wrong, but realised that there was a real world, that there was a real problem and were kind enough on occasion to indicate how I might develop my thinking in a way which might be fruitful. I left these discussions thinking that each could see there was advantage in the leverage; for every pound they put on the table, there was £3 from another source. They all realised the reality of the problem and they would see it in the same way as the Committee. Their quantification of it was much the same. I think that if the Government were prepared to respond on its side positively, on the basis that the others were equally positive, there may be a basis for proceeding. I am hoping that we shall know in October or thereabouts that there is a basis on which someone can pick this up and pursue the early discussions which I had with very senior people in those companies. So I am hopeful.

  33. Thank you for that. That indeed is encouraging because it seems to me that there has to be an initiative here on the scale that you are proposing if this problem is to be tackled.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) I am convinced that we do need it, and there is a mutuality of interest in solving it.

  34. And you make the point in your report that PFI is not a route for a great deal of this sort of thing and that is a very important thing for you to have brought out.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) No, we have not seen the PFI as apt for solving this problem. The sums are so great that we need a multiplicity of sources and some friendliness towards the purposes. Can I make it clear that this is not a general fund; this is aimed at major research centres of real international standing. There are other proposals for a revolving fund for a wider range of institutions and departments of lesser research standing.

  35. But would you perceive some sort of institutional council being set up to administer such a fund?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) I have been very careful in speaking to people in not trying to be specific because as soon as one does, people begin to see the difficulties and I have been looking to them for ideas on how to solve these problems. Yes, there would have to be some body of trustees to manage these very considerable sums which I see coming in over, say, two years. There would have to be agreed priorities for making the loans and there would have to be criteria against which they are evaluated, which I think would include the expectation of a high rate of utilisation and sharing of facilities, not necessarily only between institutions, but possibly more widely. I think the issue of guarantees would arise, whether the loan repayments were guaranteed by the individual institution or whether there were joint and several guarantees by the participating institutions. But the straight answer to your question is that I have been very careful not to be too specific, to gather ideas, but it seems to me inescapable that there would be one body of trustees managing and accountable for the operation of this idea.

Arts and humanities  

Chairman

  36. You recommend, Sir Ron, the formation of an Arts and Humanities Research Council.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Yes.

  Chairman] That is not, I may say, a new idea, but one that has previously been blocked in various ways.

Lord Porter of Luddenham

  37. Yes, thank you, my Lord Chairman. We were wondering to whom it would be married and who would look after it, so to speak. The nearest thing to it, I suppose, has been linked in the past to the British Academy partly who provided some of the grants and to whom the money went. We wondered whether you were thinking of linking it with or copying the existing science research councils or whether you felt it was so different from the science research councils that this was perhaps not appropriate. In any case the science research councils are linked to the DTI, whilst I suppose the new AHRC would be linked or have affinity with the Arts Council and other departments of that kind.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Yes.

  38. Where do you see the linkage of this from a funding and every other point of view with the existing departments?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) In Professor John Laver's report to the Committee, he does identify a number of options. He is in a strong position to reflect on the role of the British Academy since he chairs their Humanities Research Board. He did consider simply increasing the funding available to the British Academy, but he recognised that there was some inherent conflict of role in the institution being an independent commentator and adviser and at the same time a distributor of government funds. That led him to look for other solutions.

  39. It would be rather like linking the science research councils to the -

  (Sir Ron Dearing) To the Royal Society.

  40. Yes.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) And he explicitly thought that was not appropriate. In reviewing the options, he came down, and it was after a great deal of thought and heart-searching on his part, to a view that we should broaden our thinking to include the arts as well as the humanities and that they should have their own council so that they have parity of standing in the research structures, a seat at the table, and this seat at the table was an important consideration for the other bodies. On the other hand, we did not want to create greater administrative costs than was necessary and, therefore, we suggested that it should be administratively serviced by one of the existing bodies but should have its own council. Professor Laver looked at putting it in with the ESRC so there was a widened ESRC, but he came down against that because he saw the probability of strong competition for the money, with people having loyalties to their own disciplines and not readily able to take a dispassionate view. So he came down for the independent body but with a shared secretariat. In fact he put, if I remember rightly, the secretariat with the body where it is already located. But the conflict of interest issue led us to come to the view that it would be better to distance the secretariat.

  41. Would there be then any link to such bodies as the Arts Council and the new Culture Department, which would be analogous in some ways with the links which the research councils have with the DTI?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) We did not go into that. I think that would be sensible, if I may say so, to have such links.

Lord Flowers

  42. I merely wanted to say, my Lord Chairman, how very much I have agreed with everything you have said about the new research council. I think, and I have believed for a very long time, that it is an essential missing feature of our research support system and I very much hope that you win on this one. It ought to be independent of the other research councils and even if it reports to the same overarching organisation for pay and rations purposes, it ought to have its own links to all the various societies in this region and so on and so forth.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Yes.

  43. But my question is, who is going to progress this? I have a horrible feeling that the sort of arguments which have arisen before to this suggestion, because it is not new, will arise again, namely that the sum of money is not large enough to support somebody of any stature running it and it would be much better if it ran as a small division of some other body and so on and so forth, Treasury-like arguments, if I may put it that way, Sir Ron.

Follow-up to the report

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Yes. This issue worries the Committee for all 90-odd of its recommendations. I wrote an article to the THES last week saying, "Who is going to be the champion of this report?" Our Secretary, Shirley Trundle, anticipated this problem and in the final chapter of the report, she details off action on every recommendation against the government departments, the funding councils, the CVCP and so on, so we have got them in our sights. Thirdly, we decided that although we have finished our task, we are not minded to disappear entirely, not remaining as a government organisation or government-appointed body, but as a community which has devoted a good deal of time passionately to their report. We have agreed we shall meet again and again to progress this report. That is the best we can do, I think. We are looking anxiously for action on this report.

  Lord Flowers] I am much relieved.

Teaching and scholarship

Chairman] I am afraid time is beginning to run out, Sir Ron, but I wonder if we could spend a little time on your teaching proposals, starting perhaps with your proposition that people working as individuals or in small groups not in receipt of large funds should receive £500 a year to enable them to collaborate and travel and do the relatively small things. Lord Kirkwood, I think you would like to ask questions on this front.

Lord Kirkwood

  44. Yes, thank you, my Lord Chairman. Can I just add my congratulations to the Committee. I must admit I have read the summary imperfectly and it is going to take the rest of the summer to digest the whole of it. I think that the concern was whether in fact this sum of money would disappear into the maw of the university involved or whether it would be transmitted directly to individual members of staff, and whether a sum like that would provide any real incentive or not.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) I am going to turn to Sir Ron Oxburgh in a minute, but if I can start, the first decision is the decision of the department to opt out of the research assessment exercise. I think if a vice-chancellor is going to succeed in persuading departments to opt out, they are going to say in response, We are opting out on condition that in sacrificing our opportunity to win research funding, we will get this sum of money". So I do not see departments agreeing to opt out unless they have got an understanding with the vice-chancellor. There is a second safeguard, one which we have built in. We say that the Quality Assurance Agency should monitor the effectiveness and the way in which these funds are used, because we do not just want them to disappear. We saw a very clear purpose in these funds. I think the idea came from your visit to the United States, Ron: the idea that there was a distinction between corporate research and personal research and that there was advantage in trying to encourage people not to engage so much of their energies in pursuing a bid in the research assessment exercises to get corporate funding and instead to pick up what seemed to be a well-established practice in the United States of having personal funding for high-level scholarship.

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) I think the first point is to say that the wording, and I have had to be careful, is no less than £500" and possibly rather more. I think the Chairman is right. The proposal is that within universities the decision should be made department by department whether to opt in or out of the research assessment exercise. Going into the research assessment exercise is an immensely time-consuming activity and for the departments that do not have much chance of winning anything from it, it is a serious distraction from their main job of doing teaching. So we felt that given that their only reason for going into it was the hope of getting a little bit of money, the sensible thing was actually to give them some money to support them in their prime activity and actually save their time. I believe that one can never guarantee that money ends up where you actually want it, but, as Sir Ron said, given that we propose that the use of this money by universities be scrutinised and justified as part of the teaching quality assessment process, we think that universities will have a very strong incentive to actually put it where it was intended and use it as intended.

  45. Can I just check that my reading of this is correct? You are talking about £500, or whatever it may be, per member of staff?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Yes.

  46. Given to the department, not to the individual?

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) Correct.

  47. That seems more reasonable, yes.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

  48. May I, my Lord Chairman, again join my fellow peers in congratulating you on your report. You have taken quite a lot of evidence from the United States and compared the US system with ours and I admire you for that and, having spent some part of my life there, I know it reasonably well, but if you could come to the question of teaching and university research, you say that in a higher education system, research is believed to be the hallmark of a proper academic. I might just change that to say scholarship" rather than research". In the States of course, as you may well know, there are the liberal arts colleges, such as Haverford and Oberlin where research is not encouraged, but teaching at a very high level with excellent scholarship is valued and is an excellent preparation for higher education. Is that a model that could be followed in this country and pursued in this country?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Yes, sir. We have a view, deriving from what I said earlier about the basis of competitiveness being a knowledge-based industry and services, which means we have to invest in people because they are our only assets. It follows from this that if that is the basis of competitiveness, it should be a clear, determined objective of national policy to be, and I mean this not just as a nice thing to say, world class in the business of the management of learning and teaching. Therefore, we are in the business of trying to create a major cultural change, so that these two activities are very highly regarded and institutions do seek, even if they are seeing themselves as research-led, to be outstanding in the business of learning and teaching. We do see a continuing need to concentrate research funding on centres of excellence and for it not to be spread around so that everybody can engage in research. We do see further expansion in the teaching side of universities and colleges and, therefore, in terms of getting the best out of people, there must be another basis for self-esteem and professional success than research or high-level scholarship, and we want very much to be like those institutions in the United States where teaching is admired and reputations are made and careers based upon excellence in teaching. To that end, we say that teaching is a profession and a high profession and that it should have its own distinctive professionalism. Like other professions in the United Kingdom it should have a professional institute - for learning and teaching - and, as a normal condition of completion of probation for new staff, they should have to achieve associate membership of that institute, by a level of attainment that is recognised through a national system of accreditation of awards. We do feel that these awards must be national so that an academic who achieves recognition at this level has something which has standing across the whole system of higher education. This is, as we see it, one of the major recommendations in our report.

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) Could I add to that, my Lord Chairman, briefly? I think we did have a tradition of that kind in this country and it has been one of the serious casualties of the RAE. If one looks no further than the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in which I have spent quite a lot of my life, there was in fact a very strong tradition of gentleman scholars", of people who had never done very much research in their lives, but who devoted an immense amount of time to college teaching, looking after their pupils. Now, that kind of person, and I am using that caricature, that kind of person was found in the universities all around the country and their life has been made enormously more difficult and painful and embarrassing by the existence of RAE.

Chairman

  49. Thank you very much for bearing with us for slightly longer than the time we promised we would be. We could of course have gone on for much longer, but I am sure you will be quizzed by many bodies throughout the country and we look forward to the continuing debate in the autumn surrounding your report. Thank you very much indeed.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) My Lord Chairman, thank you very much indeed to you and your colleagues for giving us a hearing.


 
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