This article is more than 11 years old

HE White Paper: it's time to back science

There is a myth going round that science and engineering are having an easy ride, with both teaching and research escaping the new climate of austerity. After all, unlike in the arts and humanities, science and engineering undergraduate degrees will still be part-funded by HEFCE rather than relying solely on student fees – and the science research budget was frozen during last year’s spending review rather than being hit with cuts. So what’s to worry about? In reality, HEFCE teaching grants took a hit across all disciplines. The only reason science subjects still get anything at all is because they cost more to teach, and were therefore getting more from HEFCE to begin with; think of the cost of a physics laboratory compared to a philosophy library.
This article is more than 11 years old

Imran Khan is the Chief Executive of the British Science Association and formally Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), one of the UK’s leading independent advocates for the science and engineering sector.

There is a myth going round that science and engineering are having an easy ride, with both teaching and research escaping the new climate of austerity. After all, unlike in the arts and humanities, science and engineering undergraduate degrees will still be part-funded by HEFCE rather than relying solely on student fees – and the science research budget was frozen during last year’s spending review rather than being hit with cuts. So what’s to worry about?

In reality, HEFCE teaching grants took a hit across all disciplines. The only reason science subjects still get anything at all is because they cost more to teach, and were therefore getting more from HEFCE to begin with; think of the cost of a physics laboratory compared to a philosophy library.

The badly named ‘Science Budget’, on the other hand, actually funds research across all fields, not just science. That means that the frozen cash settlement safeguarded the budgets of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the Economic and Social Research Council, as well as the five science and engineering research councils.

So science hasn’t had any special treatment. In fact, after the science budget was announced, we saw an almost 50% cut to capital spending on research. This will have a disproportionate impact on science and engineering, as these subjects have a more inherent need to invest in new infrastructure and equipment.

With that in mind, the long-promised Higher Education White Paper should be used as an opportunity to boost science and engineering and there are a whole series of measures that could be taken to achieve this. Over the next two days we will lay out what they are – here are the first three:

1. MASTERS COURSES

Taught MSc courses play a vital role in meeting the UK’s skills needs, training people in everything from nuclear physics, to hydrogeology, and veterinary pathology. They are part of what attracts industry to invest in the UK, and are critical for the provision of public services (for instance, health statisticians in the NHS).

There has been a problem around the funding of these courses for years. Unlike undergraduates, who get fee support and low-interest loans for living costs, post-grad applicants have no systematic funding support. They often have to pay everything up front, sometimes having to rely on commercial loans.

We’ve just about muddled through with this system – partly with the help of industry subsidising specific courses, or the Research Councils stepping in with funding. However the Research Councils are now facing greater pressure not to fund taught courses, and instead focus solely on funding research. Industry, for its part, is finding the economic conditions increasingly difficult.

This is happening just at the moment when universities will find it untenable to charge around £5,000 a year for specialised postgraduate courses, given they will ask for far more to cover undergraduate degrees.

So with costs set to rise, the White Paper has to set up a new model of funding for MSc students. If there are no new proposals, we risk facing a real skills shortage in key sectors of the economy.

On top of that, we’ll see an exacerbation of the current access problems: In the absence of reform, only the independently wealthy will be able to buy the extra skills and job-prospects that a one-year MSc gets you.

2. VAT

In order to drive down costs, universities are being increasingly asked by Ministers to collaborate more with each other. One of the ways in which they could do this is by sharing services; for instance, back-office functions, libraries, or technical equipment.

Unfortunately, whenever they do engage in such sharing, they have to pay VAT on the transaction to HM Treasury – and, of course, VAT has just gone up to 20%. If the government is serious about encouraging collaboration between universities then they should stop financially punishing universities for doing just that. The White Paper should recognise that promoting a sense of community across academia should be a VAT-exempt activity.

3. INDUSTRY

Research and development collaboration with businesses will have to be an ever more important part of the HE sector, too. The Government’s role should be to make it cheaper for both academia and industry to conduct science that would benefit both society and the economy. Again, there are barriers here which should be taken down.

For instance, when a university begins to house a significant amount of business activity in one of its buildings, it has to pay full property rates on the entire building. If the aim is to encourage more industry tie-ins then a proportional, rather than an all-or-nothing, formula for rates should be introduced.

The White Paper might also explore – especially in light of the huge capital budget cuts to universities – how businesses could be incentivised to build new research equipment on an academic campus, rather than in-house.

4. RESEARCH CAREERS

The UK’s research and economic output are inextricably linked with the careers of our academic staff. The same people being asked to make their research more cost-effective and productive are the ones who will have to deal with more consumer-minded students likely to be more demanding as they pay higher fees for their education. What impact will this tension on researchers have on the UK’s research base?

There is also a real difficulty faced by post-doctoral researchers trying to tread the career path to become fully fledged academics. Around two thirds of scientificpost-docs expect to get a permanent research contract, whereas some data show that fewer than one in nine can actually do so. This disparity leads to a significant loss of talent from the sector, and can be demoralising for researchers trying to make it.

The RCUK Research Careers Concordat was designed to provide some improvement, supporting the career development of research scientists and giving them transferable skills. It is still too early to tell whether it’s had the desired impact, but there’s no doubt that the White Paper could be a high-profile way to ask the HE community how more can be done to improve the welfare and career prospects of its key members.

Furthermore, there are still concerns about how universities are incentivised to hire people under the Research Excellence Framework. A focus on the research publication record of academics means that people (particularly women) who take career breaks to start families, as well as those who leave academia to go into industry, find it difficult to get back into research – particularly if their publication record has a big hole in it.

The focus on publication is important, but the Department for Business should use this as an opportunity to discuss how the downsides of that focus could be addressed.

5. DIFFERENTIAL FEES

We are already starting to see some universities (London MetCoventry, and Derby) suggest that they could potentially set higher fees for lab-based subjects, which cost them more to teach. The remaining grant from HEFCE isn’t enough to offset the greater expense of science and engineering courses.

It seems unlikely that students will completely ignore the cost difference between two subjects. We know that fees have an impact on student choice, and that students from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds already have their choices curtailed. There is a risk that subject-differential fees within universities could push disadvantaged students from a first-choice STEM qualification into a cheaper, second-choice degree.

Most institutions look set to charge the same fees across the board, regardless of subject, but there is a diversity and access issue that the White Paper should show sensitivity to – there’s nothing to stop more institutions following the differential fee model in the coming years.

6. COURSE CLOSURES

In the past we’ve seen that difficult financial times for universities can mean the closure of science and engineering departments. With the increasing marketisation of higher education, this could happen again.

The teaching and research capability of STEM departments in universities is important for the UK, and again there is an access issue here if students who want to study from home don’t have a local university that offers the STEM subject they want to study.

The Government should seriously consider how to keep track of this provision. Ideally this should go as far as specifically providing a way to tide such departments over when the markets fail, but at the very least should involve a mechanism to keep an eye on science and engineering departments which may be struggling.

AND SO WE WAIT…

The ongoing debate about student fees, important though it is, mustn’t be allowed to overshadow the huge range of other issues facing Higher Education.

The forthcoming White Paper presents an opportunity for Vince Cable and David Willetts to set out their vision of what the academy is for. For CaSE, this has to include sustaining our universities’ ability to train tomorrow’s scientists and engineers, promoting them as the best place in the world to do research and development, and making sure they can support a world-leading high-tech economy. We’re waiting…

To support CaSE’s work, please visit: bit.ly/joincase

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