Select Committee on Science and Technology Seventh Report


Introduction


1. At the beginning of the Parliament we undertook, as one of our core tasks, "To scrutinise major appointments made by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry" within our remit. This is in line with the Liaison Committee's Core Task 8 for Select Committees.[1] We envisaged that this would take the form of a single evidence session with new incumbents a few months after taking up the post. The sessions are intended to be analogous to the Congressional confirmation hearings in the United States, although we have no power to ratify or veto any appointment. Our purpose is to satisfy Parliament that the post has been filled with someone of sufficient calibre, establish the views and principles that he or she brings to the job, to alert them to our interests and concerns and to heighten awareness of our role in scrutinising each individual's performance and that of their divisions or organisations.

2. So far we have held four such sessions, with Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council; Mr David Hughes, Director General of Innovation at the Department of Trade and Industry; and Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council. On 22 October 2003, Professor Sir Alan Wilson was appointed as the first Director General for Higher Education (DGHE) at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). While his role is primarily within the remit of the Education and Skills Committee, many of his responsibilities are of direct relevance to our work, in particular the research component of the university block grant. We were keen to establish his views on a range of issues and invited him to give evidence to us on 22 March 2004. The transcript of the session is published with this report.

Role and suitability

3. The DGHE is the senior civil servant responsible for advising Ministers on the overall development of higher education policy and for ensuring that processes, systems and people are in place to convert policy into action. The DGHE is a member of the DfES Board, reporting to the Permanent Secretary, and is responsible for the new Higher Education Directorate, which has 268 staff. The role of DGHE was created since the Directorate of Lifelong Learning was deemed to be covering too wide an area.[2] Responsibilities include:

a)  Developing and implementing a long-term strategy for investment and reform in higher education;

b)  Leading relationships with key players in Whitehall and beyond;

c)  Presenting Government policy on higher education;

d)  Implementing a package of measures to improve student finance ;

e)  Strengthening university research; and

f)  Implementing approaches to improve reward and recognition for high quality teaching, and promoting professional standards.

4. Sir Alan Wilson joined DfES from the University of Leeds, where he had been Vice-Chancellor since 1991. His research interests cover many aspects of mathematical modelling, especially the use of models in all aspects of city and regional planning. He told us that he hoped that his administrative and management experiences would be as useful as a knowledge of the sector in his new job.[3] Nevertheless, if the Department was looking to appoint an external candidate, the obvious choice would be a current or former vice-chancellor from a large and established university. The timing of the appointment is a concern to us. It should have been clear before the Higher Education White Paper was published in January 2003 that the structures within DfES were inadequate and the White Paper could only have been improved with a strong steer from an experienced university administrator. The creation of the position of the Director General for Higher Education is welcomed and Sir Alan Wilson has the right credentials for the job. Our only disappointment is he joins the Department after the publication of the Higher Education White Paper. An earlier appointment would have been preferable, to enable the incumbent to help shape the Higher Education Bill which the Department is required to implement.

Bologna process

5. The Bologna Process is an intergovernmental European (not EU) initiative which aims to develop a European Higher Education Area. A key element, and one of the most contentious, is the harmonisation of degree structures. The preferred option is a 3 year bachelor + 2 year masters + 3 year PhD system. This has caused concern in the UK since the UK masters is generally one year and there has been a growing trend to run four-year integrated bachelor/master courses, particularly in engineering and the physical sciences.

6. The Institute of Physics (IOP) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) are particularly concerned that these four-year courses will not be recognised across Europe, threatening the employability of UK graduates and the market for overseas students. They have written to the Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, Alan Johnson, whose response indicates, they say, that he thinks Europe is moving towards the UK model and that little action is required. The IoP and the RSC maintain that while the UK will need to move less far than other countries, some action is still required. They are concerned that the universities are taking little interest or do not wish to change their degrees unilaterally. The RSC and the IOP argue that universities and the Government need to engage more actively in the debate and that Government needs to provide the impetus. They also express concern that Europe was not mentioned once in the Higher Education White Paper.[4]

7. Sir Alan admitted that he was not an expert on the Bologna Process but that he understood that the UK was closer to compliance than many other countries.[5] He said he hoped that the four year integrated courses were not threatened. We agree that the model proposed does not require major change but that is not the same as saying that no change is needed. At the very least we would expect him to be more familiar with the issues. We share his hope that 4-year courses are not threatened by the process but hoping alone will not make it less likely. We are concerned that the Director General for Higher Education knew so little about the Bologna Process. The science community is looking for leadership from the Government on this issue, and on the evidence of Sir Alan's comments, it is unlikely to be forthcoming in the near future. We recommend that he take steps to initiate a national debate among universities, ensure that the issues are well understood in the higher education sector and press for action where necessary.

HEFCE

8. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is an NDPB under the DfES. It distributes public money for teaching and research to universities and colleges, primarily as a block grant to institutions. Its freedom to allocate its funds independently of the Department and Ministers has been a concern of ours. In 2002, during the Committee's inquiry into the Research Assessment Exercise, the then Minister of Higher Education, Margaret Hodge, said that funding decisions based on the RAE were a matter for HEFCE but that she supported them.[6] More recently, there have been signs that the Department has been playing a bigger role in determining the allocation of funds. Appearing before the Education and Skills Committee on 5 March 2003, the Chief Executive, Sir Howard Newby, described as "broadly accurate" the statement that the Government had ignored his advice over how the funding should be shared out and required him to cut £30 million funding to departments rated 4 in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise. A further example was the announcement by the Department, in the Higher Education White Paper, of the introduction of 6* departments, in effect further increasing the concentration of research funding in the top universities.[7] We are concerned that the relationship of the DfES, and in particular the Director General for Higher Education, with HEFCE is not clear and that there could be confusion over HEFCE's ability to make decisions on the allocation of its grants. Subtle shifts in funding by HEFCE can have a big effect on universities. The Director General for Higher Education needs to be clear about what his role is in intervening.

Vetting of students and researchers

9. During our inquiry into the Scientific Response to Terrorism, it became apparent that the Voluntary Vetting Scheme, intended to curb the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, was not functioning as it should. Under the scheme, university institutions are invited, on a voluntary basis, to refer to the Government for advice on any applications from potential students from certain countries seeking to undertake research in particular disciplines, who might in the future engage in the proliferation of dangerous technology.[8] We gathered that many universities were not taking part and that this included several large research universities. The level of participation with the scheme has not been made public. Sir Alan told us that "It is not a scheme that I have been directly involved with but it is probably true in my case that one of my colleagues [at Leeds University] may have been".[9] It is a pity that Sir Alan is not better acquainted with the scheme - and its shortcomings - as we believe that the DGHE should play a valuable role in reforming the scheme. We are concerned that the Director General for Higher Education knew little about the Voluntary Vetting Scheme. A successful scheme that helps to prevent the UK becoming a training ground for terrorists needs a coordinated approach from UK universities and Sir Alan must play an active part. We recommend that he takes this up with the Foreign Office.

Evidence-based policy

10. We were pleased to hear that Sir Alan is an advocate of evidence-based policy, and indeed that this was an area of his academic interest.[10] We were interested to know how it would be implemented in practice. When we raised the issue of student debt and its potential impact on undergraduate applications from poorer families, he retreated behind the imperfections of social science in which "you often find evidence that points in different directions and what is necessary at the end of the day is to make a judgment about effective ways forward".[11] We appreciate that political judgements need to be made and they are ones that Sir Alan is not in a position to make. Nevertheless, we would have preferred to hear him insist that he would be pressing his political masters to take account of evidence rather than implying that if the evidence does not support your position it can be easily disregarded.

11. One element of applying evidence-based policy is ensuring that the appropriate research data are available. It is reasonable that the role of DGHE should include the commissioning of research studies to inform policy development. Sir Alan told us that this was not "directly my responsibility at the present time". We think it should be. We are pleased that Sir Alan is an advocate of evidence-based policy. If he is to bring this to bear on Government higher education policy he should be in a position to ensure that appropriate and reliable data are gathered, which cannot be airily dismissed as a result of the many and serious imperfections of social science.

University funding

12. While university funding is not central to our remit, the health and vitality of the science and engineering base certainly is, and this necessarily leads us to comment on its funding environment. We are currently engaged in an inquiry into the Research Assessment Exercise and the wider issue of dual support and we do not wish to prejudge our Report here. We detected some complacency at the current level of research selectivity. In recent years research funding there has an increasing concentration of research funding in the Russell Group universities. Sir Alan's analysis was that this was "where there is more research capacity".[12] Of course there is greater capacity in them if they receive more money. There is nothing special in the soil in the so-called Golden Triangle. If significant funds were, for example, made available to the new Bolton University, we have little doubt that it would attract the talent and create a research environment to rival the best.

Science departments

13. The closure of several university science departments in recent years, particularly in the physical sciences, has been a worrying trend. We were interested to hear if Sir Alan had any practical solutions. He said he had faced the problems of low student demand in certain subjects but that he had addressed this by putting an extra effort into student recruitment.[13] We were delighted that the University of Leeds has managed to solve the problem but it is clear that many of his former vice-chancellor colleagues have not been as successful. We recognise that falling A level enrolment needs to be tackled but we do not accept his view that it is difficult to "manage student choice in any directed way".[14] There is nothing difficult about intervening in the market to support subject areas crucial to future economic performance. We accept that the long term solution is to encourage more young people into these subject areas, but until trends in student demand have been reversed this intervention is essential. This is the responsibility of the Government and cannot be left largely to universities, as Sir Alan suggests.[15] We are disappointed that Sir Alan does not see a greater role for Government intervention to maintain university research and teaching capacity in key disciplines.

Conclusion

14. We have no doubt that Sir Alan Wilson's experience and talents makes him well-qualified for the job of Director General for Higher Education at the Department for Education and Skills. We do have concerns, however, about certain gaps in knowledge and awareness. Sir Alan offered to come back to see us in six months' time.[16] We welcome this and look forward to discussing progress.


1   First Report of the Liaison Committee, Session 2002-03, Annual Report for 2002, HC 558, para 13 Back

2   Q 4 Back

3   Q 7 Back

4   Institute of Physics, Bologna process threatens UK physics degrees, press release, 29 October 2003 Back

5   Q 60 Back

6   Second Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2001-02, The Research Assessment Exercise, HC 507, Qq 184-185 Back

7   Department for Education and Skills, The future of higher education, Cm 5735, para 2.15 Back

8   Eighth Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2002-03, The Scientific Response to Terrorism, HC 415-I, paras 200-205 Back

9   Q 17 Back

10   Q 22 Back

11   Q 25 Back

12   Q 38 Back

13   Q 46 Back

14   Q 47 Back

15   Q 48 Back

16   Q 74 Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 21 June 2004