UCU at the Science and Technology Committee

UCU President Dr Alastair Hunter appeared before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 10 February to put forward UCU's position on the funding of science research and teaching.

On the panel with Alastair were Professor Steve Smith, President, Universities UK; Sir Alan Langlands, Chief Executive, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); Adrian Smith, Director General, Science and Research, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The Research Excellence Framework was the first topic to be looked at. The committee had received numerous submissions about their science funding inquiry but they received more on the REF than on anything else (thanks to UCU members' efforts). Over 17,500 education professionals – including 6 Nobel Prize winners – signed the UCU petition about the REF, you can see the petition in full here: Statement on the Research Excellence Framework proposals [2Mb]

Committee chair Phil Willis MP has been previously made aware of the problems with REF, and UCU drove home the point that economic impact has no place in assessing research, notwithstanding the intrinsic problems with measuring said impact.

Alastair answered the committees questions on 'impact' and expressed UCU's reservations that impact would be almost impossible to measure and would also be highly subjective. The committee chair  was very interested in this line of questioning. Phil asked Sir Alan if past performance was a reliable indicator to prompt the move to increase the element of impact in assessment when trying to gauge future success; Sir Alan said they were but the proposed look at impact was secondary to the central question which was to assess the quality of research output.

Labour MP, and former AUT member, Dr Doug Naysmith sought Sir Alan's opinion on whether funding would go to different recipients as a result of the use of impact as a factor in the funding criterion and if this was not known, why exactly the changes were being put in place. He continued to say that it is not possible to predict at this stage what the result of the use of impact would be in terms of who received funding, but the aim was to reward those universities and research groupings who had built on their research to benefit the wider society and economy.

Sir Alan explained that the original purpose was to move away from a system that included so much reliance on the peer assessment of the quality of research outputs, and to have a lower burden system that was dependent on bibliometrics. 

The session was only an hour long so after discussion about the REF, the questioning moved on to cuts in general and proposals to change the way universities award degrees.

Adrian Smith from BIS admitted that although £600 million of cuts were to be made, the department did not know where these cuts would fall. Steve Smith from UUK said that universities could not be exempt from the pressures on public spending but that there was a point where the system would not be able to absorb the cuts and something would have to give.

Graham Stringer MP and Phil Willis MP both questioned the panel on what impact cuts in science funding could have practically on business and the competitive edge researchers have in some fields here.

The discussion inevitably moved to tuition fees, Graham Stringer enquired how making money available to pay undergraduate tuition fees increased the likelihood that they would be accepted on to courses. Sir Alan contended that the thing that was stopping student recruitment was that the student support system had run out of money and it could no longer sustain the number of students that were being recruited.

Mr Willis asked if it would be better if universities ran their undergraduate courses over two years and had students for 48 weeks of the year. Alastair pointed out that such a solution was superficially attractive at best; that there were a number of underlying problems including the ability of staff to research in such an environment, the amount of staff time that would be needed and the intrinsic value of a course of study where the student is allowed to progress and learn.

Besides the practical aspects of such an idea, Alastair continued, the Bologna process means that such a shift would leave our system very much out of step with the rest of Europe.

When challenged by Mr Willis on the best way to dealing with the funding crisis and whether it would better to have research universities and teaching universities Professor Smith answered by saying that one of the key experience of university life was being taught by academics who were also engaged in research.

Conservative MP Tm Boswell worried that there would be a point when universities could not bear the weight of the cuts and asked Alastair whether there was a point at which cuts to university budgets would place them and in particular science departments under irresistible financial pressure. Alastair told him that there would be such a point and it would be fair to say that cuts would place some institutions at the edge of viability, many of which were in places that were central to the program of widening access to higher education. 

Professor Smith broadly concurred with this view but said it would also be dependent on where the cuts fell and the source of further savings had not yet been identified.

Sir Alan was asked by Mr Boswell if he thought institutions may have to close as a result of the proposed cuts and Sir Alan said that funding for teaching had been protected and the ring fence for research funding had been respected.

Based on the increased funding over the last decade higher education was starting from a position of strength, Sir Alan argued, and the most frustrating thing for people working in the sector was that a huge amount of momentum had been built up and this could stop if the importance of science and higher education more generally to the country as a whole was not recognised.

Last updated: 12 February 2010