Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002
140. You said earlier you do not believe undergraduates
are affected by the British assessment exercise scores. I am not
entirely convinced by that argument when it appears in the prospectus
that such and such a department is a 5* department.
(Professor Floud) You use every piece of ammunition
you have. Our own market research suggests a disappointing unawareness
of the RAE scores and greater attention to either teaching or
newspaper league tables which combine all sorts of things like
the amount you spend on libraries and whether the residences cost
more. There is a whole ragbag so I think what we are trying to
say is we will take it on board certainly in future discussions
about RAE but we do not believe there are these major distortions
that you are worried about.
141. If that is the case for undergraduate recruitment,
and I accept obviously what you say on that; is that equally true
of staff recruitment? Are capable scientists not attracted to
departments which have a high reputation for research?
(Professor Smith) Yes, would be the simple answer.
142. So there is a divide opening up between
those departments which are offering those high assessments in
research and those who are not, and there is the risk, is there
not, of developing research universities and teaching universities
where the teaching universities are not attracting the same calibre
(Professor Smith) I think it is more subtle than that
because if you take, let's say, the top department in whatever
area it is, they can attract and because they are very successful
they can probably pay to bring in, people who are already halfway
up the ladder with track records and have grants and so on, but
to sustain the system there have to be entry points for the young
people coming on for PhDs, etc. They do not have the leverage
and clout to get positions in that top university, do they, so
there is a self-regulating pyramid through the system.
(Professor Floud) That is why we are so concerned
about the decisions of the funding council which will reduce the
research funding of the lower-rated departments because those
are the seedcorn of the other departments.
(Professor Smith) Without that support pyramid and
the entry points lower down away from the superstar staff you
will not have anything to support and sustain the superstar staff.
143. So you will have colonies of the great
and good in the Russell Group universities and new entrants to
teaching and to research spread thinly across the rest? Perhaps
it was ever thus.
(Professor Smith) But there are 96 institutions that
have something up in the 5s; there are 60 odd that have really
substantial numbers. There are not just ten or 15 places which
are sustaining the excellence of UK academic life.
144. There are 25 universities, are there not,
attracting the bulk of the funding?
(Professor Smith) You have to be careful with that
calculation. If you take any particular research council they
will have a graph that says 90 per cent goes to the 25 but then
you take another research council and another one and there are
different 25s. When you add them up, you have 60 or 70. It is
not this nonsense that you can somehow concentrate everything
in 20 universities. It is totally absurd.
145. In my experience research is done by the
young graduate students anyway, doing the PhDs and so on. If you
do not have a good graduate schoolwhich is extremely expensive
to run, to attract people inthen you do not have good research,
but academics are too busy filling in forms and doing all the
other things and whingeing continuously?
(Professor Smith) Whatever the wrinkles around the
edges, for sure we will not be attracting them if the funding
base is going to crumble. If we have not the money to sustain
expensive science by 5* departmentsthese things do not
come cheapyou ain't going to have it.
146. Yet we had two Nobel prizes this year and
the highest citation of best in the world in science still in
this countrya tremendous record. Maybe not having money
is feeding us, like getting out of the ghetto. What do you think
(Professor Floud) As an economic historian I think
it is deeply flawed!
(Professor Smith) There has been a recognised price
to pay for sustaining, let's say, a 5 department in a certain
area of science at the moment. The current HEFCE proposal says
you are going to sustain it at the future on 85 per cent of that
Dr Murrison: Can I just observe that Ernest
Rutherford said, "Now we have run out of money, we are just
going to have to sit down and think"
147. Just quickly, what do you think about universities
and the spend and infrastructure and has that been relegated?
JIF and SRIF came along to help restore that in universities but
have people just worked in garrets because they have to get the
RAE out and get their four brilliant research papers out in five
(Professor Smith) The infrastructure support has been
very helpful. Of course, it did have this requirement of institutions
finding 25 per cent matching funding. It would be very interestinganother
round of that just at the moment might cripple the system. 50
per cent of institutions are projecting recurrent deficits this
year so the infrastructure has been terrific, but now we need
the recurrent funding to make use of the infrastructure.
(Professor Floud) And we need similar investment in
the teaching infrastructure to ensure we can actually teach these
young people in appropriate facilities.
148. In keeping with some of the other questions
I asked you earlier about how the RAE operates; do you think sufficient
weight has been given to collaboration with industry or to the
development of patents in science research?
(Professor Smith) In general funding, of course, there
have been special initiatives like University Challenge bringing
forward IPR nearer to market. There was the HEROBC scheme and
now son and daughter of HEROBC. There has been quite a bit of
injection in funding to help us set up the infrastructures to
get those communication channels going and I think that has been
not too bad, to be honest, but we need from the point of view
of this Committee the scientists and technologists there doing
the research that can be exploited through those mechanisms.
149. And the panels will give weight to that,
will they, as opposed to publication in peer review journals?
I do not think so, in my experience, to answer my own question.
I think there is a huge emphasis upon the peer review journal.
(Professor Smith) I think you are confusing two things.
The Research Assessment Exercise is there to assess research as
conventionally understood. An awful lot of what the HEROBC and
the University Challenge stuff has brought out which is also vital
is knowledge transferit is not necessarily new knowledge
created through research: it is the knowledge transferand
you may well have an issue that you want to take up elsewhere
of the amount of funding that goes into knowledge transfer, but
I do not think it is right to attack the RAE exercise in those
terms because that is not what it was set up for and not what
it was charged with doing.
150. So you do not think there is any danger
that universities might close the department which does this sort
of excellent work but which does not really make it on the RAE
grading system? You do not think any university is going to do
(Professor Smith) If it is doing excellent work with
industry it will probably be in financially better shape than
relying on the RAE income.
151. But it will not get the students?
(Professor Smith) That is not true.
(Professor Floud) That is not necessarily true at
all. Many of the universities that are most connected to local
industries, most engaged in knowledge transfer, are the post-92
universities which have not had the volume of research funding
but nevertheless they have managed to make a substantial contribution
to their locality and to devise courses which do attract students.
Going back to the point about what attracts students to a university,
it is I believe a very good thing that students look at the nature
of the courses and there are now, I think, 50,000 undergraduate
courses in the UCAS handbook and students choose the one that
they think will most suit them and will hopefully lead on to a
152. There has been a large-scale attrition
of science departments in those 1992 universities, and I think
you need to give that very serious weight.
(Professor Smith) Somebody does but we take you back
to the earlier point: it is the incredible and very dangerous
decline in student interests and applications for those subjects.
(Professor Floud) There is certainly no shortage of
supply by universities of courses in science and engineering.
The difficulty arises from the lack of students demanding them.
(Professor Smith) They are closing because there is
153. Just to return to a theme, why do you think
academics despise the RAE so much? Is it because it disturbs,
as so many people think, the quiet little number they have?
(Professor Smith) The 97 per cent of my staff who
were entered and did wonderful things were holding parties; they
do not despise it at all.
(Professor Floud) HEFCE conducted when it did its
review of research last year extensive consultation with staff,
including focus groups with old and young and all kinds of different
staff, and for whatever reason those kinds of criticisms did not
154. Moving to the future, you have indicated
your thinking about the HEFCE review that is going on. Just quickly,
you do not have specifics I guess but in general, for the record,
what would you individually like to see inculcated into the review
of the RAE? You mentioned it might have to be scrapped if the
money did not come through; that is an extreme position but how
would you change it to make it fairer, perhaps?
(Professor Floud) One of the issues that does need
to be discussed in the next review of the RAE is the question
of the amount of money, the quantum, the unit funding for research
in a particular discipline, and the overall distribution of research
funding between disciplines. Neither of those subjects and any
possible national priorities for research have been incorporated
into past reviews of the RAE, and I think that is the area that
we would wish to see considered.
(Professor Smith) I think it is the same point: that
the funding council hitherto has firmly set its face against having
a policy dimension to its manipulation of those numbers. I cannot
say that we can necessarily speak on behalf of Universities UK
as an agreed policy but perhaps that is a position that cannot
be sustainedthe concerns that you have been expressing
throughout. Are there some national priorities you want to push,
155. Can I thank you both very much indeed for
taking the time and giving us your thoughts and ideas and rebuttals.
If you have thoughts when you go back which mean you would like
to resubmit something, please do.
(Professor Smith) I think this Committee should have
in front of it for deliberation at some time the figures on trends
and applications that are subject to UK infrastructure.
Chairman: Thank you.