Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002
120. On the back of the fact that there are
far fewer science departments entering the Research Assessment
Exercise today than when we started all those years ago, you would
say that is the main reason for it?
(Professor Smith) That is the reason. There is a qualifying
aspect, however. You must not take it straight that the straight
closure of departments leads to total contraction. For example,
the closure of chemistry at Essex some years ago. At least two
thirds of that department there were redeployed in other universities.
You have certainly had a contraction of the number of departments.
You have not had a proportional contraction in the number of academic
121. Can I put to you another distortion which
I am unhappy about, looking at the humanities on the one hand
and scientists on the other? Scientists have to produce for the
Research Assessment Exercise within this five-year time slot.
Yet, the humanities have successfully argued that they should
be given seven years because their research is over a longer period
of time. I put it to you that some researchers who would have
been dismissed by all the Research Assessment Exercise scientists
because their research is long-term are very disadvantaged by
this system. We could put up an equal argument that some of the
long-term research in science and engineering would warrant that
seven-year time slot just as the humanities would warrant a time
slot. What we have actually done is distorted science and engineering
research programmes to gear them to the Research Assessment Exercise
rather than allowing them to go into the areas of innovation that
might take longer to explore.
(Professor Smith) I think we said earlier that we
need to relook at the RAE and there are a number of issues that
we would be happy and willing to join in putting on the table.
That could well merit looking at. I mentioned earlier interdisciplinary
areas, where there may be a much larger lead time in getting research
off the ground because you are breaking into new areas and you
are getting new groups of people who have not worked together
hitherto to work together. All that should be on the table. I
do not think it is a major distortion in what you are seeing at
the moment. It is a danger present at the edges and in a small
number of cases but it is not a dominant danger at the moment.
122. When I entered university life in the sixties
as an academic, university staff were expected and encouraged
to get involved in a lot of activities. They were school governors.
They were JPs in the magistrates' courts. They went out and gave
public lectures, like I did for 29 years. They wrote books. They
engaged themselves in a whole wide remit of activities. The allegation
has been made in the evidence we have had that all that is going
or in some universities, especially the Russell Group universities,
has gone because the sole thing that you have to do now to stay
at 5*, 5, 4 is to do research and nothing else. Even the teaching
seems to be suffering.
(Professor Floud) I think that is an exaggeration.
If I look at my own universityI certainly cannot claim
to be a Russell Group university; perhaps that is differentwe
would continue to encourage our staff to engage in the whole range
of what is becoming known as the third leg activities. I was at
a seminar this morning of staff at the University of North London
with which we are merging to discuss our contribution to the London
regional economy. One of the ways in which that operates is through
the voluntary work of university staff. I can assure you that
there is still a great deal of that going on. Clearly, one of
the effects of the efficiency gains, the cuts in university funding
over the past 20 years and the Research Assessment Exercise is
a much greater concentration on management of the job. In some
cases that is going to mean that people are encouraged to produce
quickly. They are encouraged to produce and publish in particular
journals etc. There has been that kind of pressure but I am not
sure that I think it has greatly inhibited the ability of university
staff to contribute to the community.
(Professor Smith) It is a tribute to staff. There
is absolutely no doubt that pressures have increased dramatically
over the last 10 or 15 years. In my situation in the east end
of London, we are heavy hitters on the research front but we are
extraordinarily networked in the school system and community issues
and health related issues through our medical school in the east
end. An extraordinary proportion of staff participate and perform
at the research end.
123. What do you think attracts young people
to science at any particular university? You made allusions to
teaching. Do you not think the RAE scores count at all?
(Professor Smith) I do not think there is much evidence
of that. There is an attrition in areas of science and engineering
because of diminishing numbers so there is a concentration of
where students are going but I do not think from our market research
that students pay much attention to that.
124. Can I press you a little on the scores
on the doors because a cynical man would say that to go from 23
per cent 5 and 5*s in 1992 to 55 per cent nine years later takes
some explaining and would want to be convinced that that huge
leap was not largely accounted for by departments playing the
system. Can you give me any reassurance to stop me being so cynical?
(Professor Smith) One of the issues we have already
dealt with which is playing the system in terms of only putting
in very small numbers of staffif you look at the global
numbers that have gone in and you look at the percentage movements
upwards in grades, you can see objectively that that is not the
case. The other thing then you might worry about is are these
bunches of cronies all giving each other 5s and 5*s arbitrarily
to buck the system. We would like to put to you very strongly
that if you look closely at what has happened, the way it has
been managed, that is not the case. This is a credible instrument.
There is external evidence that you can look at, rather than just
looking at the RAE and being suspicious. What are the kinds of
external things you might look at to see whether there has been
a strengthening of the research base. There are citations done
on the basis of international comparisons. There is external research
funding that is bid for on a competitive basis. You take that
whole batch of indicators and they mirror exactly the same story
of a strengthening in the research base. It is not manipulation
of numbers. You can look at them and see that does not work because
the volume numbers are there. It is not just a percentage gain.
You can look at those external indicators, plus the fact that
this time we are relevant. There are industrial members of the
assessment boards. All those that were claimed this time to be
international quality were sent to international assessors, outside
the cronyism, if that is what was suspected in the United Kingdom.
I think that is an incredibly robust system and we want to say,
on behalf of the academics in the United Kingdom, there is a hell
of a problem with morale when you are behaviourally induced to
change the culture to perform better. You do it and then the United
Kingdom national culture is to say somehow you have cheated; it
was smoke and mirrors; it is not real. This is real.
125. Professor Floud, would you agree with that,
because you did mention management in your opening speech?
(Professor Floud) Management is concentrating on improving
research quality, which is what I mean by management. It is a
good thing in itself, but I think what Adrian has said is true
across the whole range. My university, without a research tradition,
has achieved in the last Research Assessment Exercise very substantial
improvements from 2s to 3bs to 3as and so on. That is the result
of a great deal of hard work by a lot of staff. They are not at
the 5* level. They have not perhaps had the opportunities to do
that but they are still working extremely hard to raise their
game. It is very disappointing and a slap in the face to those
people to be told that in future there will be no investment in
their research, even though it is of higher quality and they have
been judged to have improved their quality. That is not a good
way of running science policy in this country.
126. We have mentioned already that the humanities
get a seven-year window and science and technology get five. Do
you think that is reasonable or not?
(Professor Floud) I really do not think it is a significant
difference between the two. One could easily change that particular
parameter of the exercise and give everybody seven years and see
127. You could repeat your experiments if you
had a little longer sometimes and not go for the quick publication.
(Professor Floud) Possibly, yes, but there are other
pressures in many of the science areas towards rapid publication,
as we know, probably far greater in those areas than in the arts
and the humanities.
128. You would support the status quo in that
(Professor Floud) No, I do not think I would say I
support the status quo.
129. How would you change it?
(Professor Smith) Universities UK collectively do
not have a set of prescriptions for what one should do next time
round in the RAE. We are still in this awful position where the
very significant successes and improvements this time are threatened
with not being funded. If that is going to get set in stone, you
are into altogether different territory. Is it worth doing it
at all? The questions will depend I think on how the finances
roll out but I personally, not speaking collectively for Universities
UK, think there are a whole host of things that we would be interested
to see opened up for discussion and put on the table in any revision
of the system. The kinds of things you are mentioning are issues
that we should think about.
130. I am asking you, as individuals, whether
you think that having the same windows for the humanities, science
and technology would be reasonable or whether you think there
are good reasons for making them different?
(Professor Smith) I would be very happy to look at
it in a more focused unit of assessment basis and feed into that
whether at the moment we may be handicapping the interdisciplinary
131. Can I turn to funding? On 21 January, the
department announced additional, one-off funding of 30 million
for 2002/3 and on 23 January HEFCE announced that 3b departments
would receive nothing while 3a departments will share 20 million
between them for that period of time. Would you like to have seen
more money for 3bs?
(Professor Floud) Yes. Our view was and remains that
the degree of selectivity in the research funding system in this
country was already sufficient to support the research effort
of this country. We wished and continue to wish that 3bs and 3as
should be funded and obviously that the unit of funding for those
areas and for 4s and 5s should be at least as good as it was before.
I would stress that I do not see this in any sense as a reward.
I think it is an investment of this country in future research.
What has gone has gone. What we are talking about is what we need
to do in the next few years. What we have essentially done is
to diminish the possibility of investment in a whole range of
research activities which have been shown to be of high quality
and in many cases have been shown to be of rapidly improving quality,
which will no longer be funded. I think that is a great pity.
132. What do you think will be the effect of
morale on academics who face funding drops or funding standing
(Professor Floud) Very bad indeed.
133. Would you like to see some more support
for low-rated departments? We have heard the AUT empirically suggesting
that £100 million should be provided as seed corn for lower
rated departments. Is that something you would support?
(Professor Smith) I do not know at what point in the
recent development of information from HEFCE that went through.
At the current time where in addition to investment for the future
we are even faced with the problems of sustaining and nurturing
what is on the ground at the moment. A department which was a
5 last time and a 5 this time is looking at a 15 per cent cut
in its funding from the RAE. There has to be a prioritisation.
The first priority must be to restore the funding which would
have been anticipated even under the old regime and then perhaps
we can talk about that. That cannot possibly be the highest priority
at the moment, can it?
134. Is the answer to the question no?
(Professor Smith) From me. We are talking in a context
where we are very disappointedindeed dismayedby
what is on the table at the moment as the proposed funding. We
are hoping that your good selves and others will bring some influence
to bear to change this situation. We are going to have to regroup
on all sorts of thoughts about the future if this is not put right.
I would not like to be drawn into specific what ifs because we
are facing a rather dismaying current situation here.
(Professor Floud) I am sure I do not need to remind
you that in preparation for the SR2002 we made estimates of the
additional need for both recurrent and capital funding for research
in this country. Those are very large sums of money. We face at
the moment a considerable shortfall which has been exacerbated
by the decisions of the Funding Council.
135. You are talking as if the total amount
of money is going down but it is actually going up. The total
quantum is going up but a department that was a 5 stays as a 5
because more people have 5s will lose out but the department that
went up to a 5 would obviously gain. The total amount of money
available is rather larger than it was before. There is an issue
about how you use the word "cuts" which I have been
rather confused by.
(Professor Floud) It shows itself as a cut in relation
to the past performance and the potential of a particular department.
136. You have called recently for a £10
billion increase in higher education spending. It may come as
no surprise to you that I do not get any letters in my post bag
asking for such increases in higher education spending but I do
get letters asking for increases in health and transport. How
can you justify such a large increase potentially at the expense
of other areas of government?
(Professor Floud) It is for government to make decisions
about priorities and we accept that those decisions have to be
made. What we have done in our submission to SR2002 is to identify
what we think are the costs of doing what the Government has asked
us to do. Those costs fall into a number of different categories.
They are to increase the participation rate to 50 per cent of
18-30 year-olds by 2010. Possibly, if and when that happens, your
post bag will have more in it about higher education funding because
there will be more higher education students, parents and grandparents
concerned about these matters. Secondly, we have been asked to
provide for world class research and, thirdly, to improve the
relationship and the knowledge transfer between British universities
and the rest of the economy and the community. All those things
cost money. They are what we have been asked to do and increasingly
universities are being challenged and given targets to do these
things. We have made a sober assessment supported by evidence,
supported by studies done by independent experts, often not even
commissioned by us, of what the costs of that activity will be.
I do not believe that we have asked for too much. We have asked
for what we believe is needed to do the job.
(Professor Smith) We do not have any difficulty understanding
why that does not dominate the post bag but you and we are charged
with seeing a little deeper and longer-term, are we not? The quality
of the universities not just in the science and technology areas
underpins the successful economy. Without the successful economy,
you are not going to have the money for health either. It is a
fundamental contributor to the success of the United Kingdom.
Of course, it is hidden. It is long-term and subtle. It will hit
the agenda of more and more people if we move to the social aspiration
of 50 per cent participation rates. The generation like myselfI
do not know if we dominate the post bag brigade, but we went to
university at a time when six per cent of the age cohort went.
It was a minority. As we move now into generations, 50 per cent
of whom will have been to university, the perception may get more
acute. Do we not know that the United Kingdom university sector
underpins a successful economy?
137. You talk about the three priorities that
have been set in terms of government policy improving access to
research and knowledge transfer to industry. Of your £10
billion, how does that break down between the three categories?
(Professor Floud) Rather than reading out a table
with large numbers of figures on it, perhaps we can submit it
to you in evidence.
138. Can you give the broad proportions?
(Professor Floud) It is quite difficult to do that.
I suppose the greatest amount within the ten billion is approximately
six billion for infrastructure of which 3.9 billion is for teaching
infrastructure and 2.6 billion for research infrastructure. We
greatly welcome the improvements which have come in research infrastructure
funding over the past five years but independent studies suggest
that there is still a huge gap there and that, partly as a result
of the expenditure on research infrastructure and of the efficiency
gains which have been imposed on us, there really is a serious
problem about the teaching infrastructure in both quantity and
quality. We believe that there is absolutely no point in improving
research facilities in universities if the students who will be
the future researchers are being taught in inadequately equipped
and, in some cases, potentially dangerous laboratories, for example.
Teaching infrastructure is a very major priority for us.
139. I am interested if there are distortions
imposed by the Research Assessment Exercise on the relationship
between research and teaching and whether departments are putting
a priority inevitably on research in order to attract funding
and, as a result, teaching has become a lesser priority. I think
your answer suggests that that is not the case but perhaps you
would like to enlarge?
(Professor Floud) I do not think that is the case.
Universities have been shown over the past five years of the teaching
quality assessment, which has been a very rigorous assessment
by external experts, to provide a very satisfactory teaching experience.
That is also demonstrated by surveys of satisfaction of past graduates
and so on and what they have experienced. The evidence is that
the British universities are still continuing to provide an attractive
student experience, to provide good teaching and employability
skills for their graduates. You may be sceptical but I think it
is true that we have experienced a very considerable increase
in productivity generally in universities. We are doing an effective
job. What we are sayingthe ten billion is part of itis
that to continue that job and to do it better as the nation expects
of us we need this additional resource.
(Professor Smith) I think there is a bit of a danger
that of course we talk about the RAE and we just focus and stop
seeing the bigger picture. It is not as if there is a stick there
to beat us on the research front and so we put all our energy
into doing that. We also have the teaching quality assessment.
We have a quality agency which has sat on us for the last decade.
You go back to the point of attractiveness in teaching. It may
be that that is a bigger determinant. Students look possibly more
at the teaching quality assessment scores than the research assessment
so it does turn into money eventually.