Archive for David Willetts

End of Term Report: David Willetts

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on July 15, 2014 by telescoper

News broke yesterday that the Minister responsible for Universities and Science within the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, David Willetts, had stepped down from his role and would be leaving Parliament at the next election.

Willetts’ departure isn’t particularly surprising in itself, but its announcement came along with a host of other sackings and resignations in a pre-Election cabinet reshuffle that was much wider in its scope than most expected. It seems to me that Prime Minster David Cameron has decided to play to the gallery again. After almost four years in which his Cabinet has been dominated by white males, most of them nondescript timeserving political hacks without beards, he has culled some of them at random to try to pretend that he does after all care about equality and diversity. Actually, I don’t think David Cameron cares for very much at all apart from his own political future and this is just a cynical attempt to win back some votes before the next Polling Day, presumably in May 2015. Rumour has it that one of the new Cabinet ministers may even have facial hair. Such progress.


David Willetts was planning to step down at the next General Election anyway so his departure now was pretty much inevitable. I never agreed with his politics, but have to admit that he was a Minister who at least understood some things about Higher Education. In particular he knew the value of science and secured a flat cash settlement for the science budget at a time when other Whitehall budgets were suffering drastic cuts. He was by no means all bad. He even had the good taste – so I’m told – to read this blog from time to time….

The campaigning organization Science is Vital has expressed its sadness at his departure:

We’re sorry to see David Willetts moved from the Science Minister role. He listened, in person, to our arguments for increasing public funding for science, and we appreciated the support he showed for science within the government.

We look forward to renewed dialogue with his successor, in order to continue to press the case that science is vital for the UK.

Now that he has gone, my main worry is that the commitments he gave to ring-fence the science budget will go with him. I don’t know anything about his replacement, Greg Clark, though I hope he follows his predecessor at least in this regard.

Other aspects of Willetts’ tenure of the Higher Education office are much less positive. He has provided over an ideologically-driven rush to force the University sector into an era of chaos and instability, driven by a rigged quasi-market propelled by an unsustainable system of tuition fees funded by student loans, a large fraction of which will never be repaid.

Another of Willetts’ notable failures relates to Open Access. Although apparently grasping the argument and make all the right noises about breaking the stranglehold exerted on academia by outmoded forms of publication, he sadly allowed the agenda to be hijacked by vested interests in the academic publishing lobby. Fortunately, there’s still a very strong chance that academics can take this particular issue into their own hands instead of relying on the politicians who time and time again prove themselves to be in the pockets of big business.

My biggest fear for Higher Education at the moment is that the new Minister will turn out to be far worse and that if the Conservatives win the next election (which is far from unlikely), Science is Vital will have to return to Whitehall to protest against the inevitable cuts. If that happens, it may well be that David Willetts is remembered not as the man who saved British science, but the man who gave it a stay of execution.

Would Scottish Independence be Good for English Science?

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on November 13, 2013 by telescoper

On Monday the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, visited Edinburgh where he took in, among other things, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and was treated to an explanation of how adaptive optics work. There being less than a year to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, the visit was always likely to generate political discussion and this turned out to be the case.

According to a Guardian piece

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to Willetts) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for English science.

For what it’s worth, I am a complete agnostic about Scottish independence – I really think its for the Scots to decide – but I don’t think it would benefit the rest of the UK from the point of view of science funding. I think it’s much more likely that if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom then the part of the science budget it currently receives would be cancelled rather than redistributed, which would leave us no better off at all.

Yesterday in Parliament

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 9, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in a rather muggy Westminster to attend a reception at the Houses of Parliament associated with an exhibition called Unveiling the Universe in all its Light which is currently set up inside the Palace of Westminster but will later go on tour around the UK.


It took me a while to find the way in. I lived in London for the best part of 9 years but never bothered to visit the Houses of Parliament (at least not the interior), so I was quite excited as, clutching my invitation in a rather sweaty hand, I eventually joined the queue to go through the security checks. That didn’t take very long, so despite getting lost in the corridors of power en route – it’s a bit of a maze inside – I had plenty of time to see the exhibition before joining the assembled throng in the Strangers’ Dining Room. There, surrounded by walls covered in expensive but tasteless flock wallpaper, I had a couple of couples of glasses of wine and ate some posh sandwiches while chatting to various astronomers, particle physicists and others, including a contingent of familiar faces from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

It was a coincidence, of course, that this event took place on the day that the Nobel Prize for Physics was announced; it was impressive that posters were already there celebrating the award to Peter Higgs. General opinion was delight that Higgs had won a share of the prize, but sadness that Tom Kibble had been left out.

There were upbeat speeches by Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts (who isn’t as tall as he looks on telly), Andrew Miller (Chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology), John Womersley (Chief Executive of STFC) and Lord Rees (Astronomer Royal). I think everyone present came away with a strong sense that astronomy and particle physics had strong political backing. Martin Rees in particular said that he thought we were living in a “golden age” for fundamental science, involving an exciting interplay between the inner space of subatomic particles and the outer space of cosmology. I couldn’t agree more.

The Threat to STEM from HEFCE’s Funding Policies

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2013 by telescoper

In my job here as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS)  at the University of Sussex, I’ve been been spending a lot of time recently on trying to understand the way the School’s budget works, sorting out what remains to be done for this financial year, and planning the budget for next year. In the course of doing all that it has become clear to me that the current funding arrangements from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) are extremely worrying for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Before the introduction  of the £9K tuition fees this academic year (i.e. in the `old regime’), a University would receive income from tuition fees of up to £3375 per student and from a `unit of resource’ or `teaching grant’ that depends on the subject. As shown in the upper part of Table C below which is taken from a HEFCE document:


In the old regime, the  maximum income per student in Physics was thus £8,269 whereas for a typical Arts/Humanities student the maximum was £5,700. That means there was a 45% difference in funding between these two types of subject. The reason for this difference is that subjects such as physics are much more expensive to teach. Not only do disciplines like physics require expensive laboratory facilities (and associated support staff), they also involve many more contact hours between students and academic staff than in, e.g. an Arts subject.  However, the differential is not as large as you might think: there’s only a factor two difference in teaching grant between the lowest band (D, including Sociology, Economics, Business Studies, Law and Education) and the STEM band B (including my own subject, Physics). The real difference in cost is much larger than that, and not just because science subjects need laboratories and the like.

To give an example, I was talking recently to a student from a Humanities department at a leading University (not my employer). Each week she gets 3 lectures and one two-hour seminar, the latter  usually run by a research student. That’s it for her contact with the department. That meagre level of contact is by no means unusual, and some universities offer even less tuition than that.

In my School, MPS, a typical student can expect around 20 contact hours per week including lectures, exercise classes, laboratory sessions, and a tutorial (usually in a group of four). The vast majority of these sessions are done by full-time academic staff, not PDRAs or PhD students, although we do employ such folks in laboratory sessions and for a very small number of lectures. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that 20 hours of staff time costs a lot more than 3, and that’s even before you include the cost of the laboratories and equipment needed to teach physics.

Now look at what happens in the `new regime’, as displayed in the lower table in the figure. In the current system, students still pay the same fee for STEM and non-STEM subjects (£9K in most HEIs) but the teaching grant is now £1483 for Physics and nothing at all for Bands C and D. The difference in income is thus just £1,483 or in percentage terms, a difference of just 16.4. Worse than this, there’s no requirement that this extra resource be spent on the disciplines with which it is associated anyway. In most universities, all the tuition income goes into central coffers and is dispersed to Schools and Departments according to the whims of the University Management.

Of course the new fee levels have led to an increase in income to Universities across all disciplines, which is welcome because it should allow institutions to improve the quality of their teaching bu purchasing better equipment, etc. But the current arrangements as a powerful disincentive for a university to invest in expensive subjects, such as Physics, relative to Arts & Humanities subjects such as English or History. It also rips off  staff and students in those disciplines, the students because they are given very little teaching in return for their fee, and the staff because we have to work far harder than our colleagues in other disciplines, who  fob off  most of what little teaching their supposed to do onto PhD students badged as Teaching Assistants. It is fortunate for this country that scientists working in its universities show such immense dedication to teaching as well as research that they’re prepared to carry on working in a University environment that is so clearly biased against STEM disciplines.

To get another angle on this argument, consider the comments made by senior members of the legal profession who are concerned about the drastic overproduction of law graduates. Only about half those doing the Bar Professional Training Course after a law degree stand any chance of getting a job as a lawyer in the UK. Contrast this with the situation in science subjects, where we don’t even produce enough graduates to ensure that schools have an adequate supply of science teachers. The system is completely out of balance. Here at Sussex, only about a quarter of students take courses in STEM subjects; nationally the figure is even lower, around 20%…

I don’t see anything on the horizon that will alter this ridiculous situation. STEM subjects will continue to be stifled as universities  follow the incentive to invest in cheaper subjects and will continue to overproduce graduates in other areas. The present Chief Executive of HEFCE is stepping down. Will whoever takes over from him have the guts to do anything about this anti-STEM bias?

I doubt the free-market ideologues in Westminster would even think of intervening either, because the only two possible changes are: (i) to increase the fee for STEM subjects relative to others; and (ii) to increase the teaching grant. Option (i) would lead to a collapse in demand for the very subjects it was intended to save and option (ii) would involve increasing public expenditure, which is anathema to the government even if it is an investment in the UK’s future. Or maybe it’s making a complete botch of the situation deliberately, as part of a cunning plan to encourage universities to go private?

`Difficult to Defend’

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , on February 26, 2011 by telescoper

My copy of the Times Higher arrived a little late this week, so I’ve only just seen the latest evidence that the Westminster government’s plans for English Higher Education are degenerating into farce.

For a start it seems that the government made a serious error in believing that the Office For Fair Access (known to its few friends as OFFA) actually doesn’t have the legal authority to impose fee levels on universities. The government had assumed that they would be able to prevent all universities charging the maximum £9K allowed under the new rules. But they can’t.

Since the increased tuition fee is being offset by cuts of up to 80% in teaching budgets it’s no surprise that universities want to maximise the income from fees. Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and UCL have all already indicated that they will go for the maximum, which isn’t surprising since these are among the leading universities in the country. It may be that some universities, perhaps from the ex-Poly sector, might try to go for the `pack ’em high and sell ’em cheap’ approach to undergraduate degrees, but a more challenging issue is what the middle-grade universities will do. Will they try to compete on price, or will they fear that charging less than £9K will get them branded as second-rate?

However, if all universities charge £9K – which has always seemed to me to be the most likely outcome – then this costs the government much more than it anticipated, because it has to provide a much higher amount in loans. David Willetts has argued that the £9K limit is `difficult to defend’, claiming that despite the cuts a fee of this size would lead to a 40% increase in teaching resource. This isn’t actually true because universities will have to devote a large slice of the fee income to supporting less-well-off students and they are also being hit by huge cuts in capital funding, which will have to be made up some way. Methinks Willett’s famous two brains might have got their wires crossed.

Whether the £9k level is defensible or not, the government appears powerless to stop universities charging it, so is threatening to penalise research grants or to cut the number of student places if too many try it. This looks like panic to me.

The current state of British Higher Education policy is difficult to defend in other ways too. In among the figures spun out by Willetts is one that reveals that 80% of UK students are in subjects outside the area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), which attract a lower level of central funding than STEM disciplines. However, the differential is not as large as you might think: there’s only a factor two between the lowest band (D, including Sociology, Economics, Business Studies, Law and Education) and the STEM band B (including my own subject, Physics). The real difference in cost is much larger than that, and not just because science subjects need laboratories and the like.

To give an example, I was talking last week to a student from a Humanities department at a leading University (not my employer). Each week she gets 3 lectures and one two-hour seminar, usually run by a research student. That’s it for her contact with the department. In my School, a typical student can expect around 20 contact hours per week including lectures, exercise class, laboratory sessions, and a tutorial (usually in a group of four). The vast majority of these sessions are done by full-time academic staff, not PDRAs or PhD students, although we do employ such folks in laboratory sessions and for a very small number of lectures. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that 20 hours of staff time costs a lot more than 3, and that’s even before you include the cost of the laboratories and equipment needed to teach physics. In the current system, however, students pay the same fee for STEM and non-STEM subjects.

This situation not only works as a powerful disincentive for a university to invest in expensive subjects, such as physics, but also rips off arts students who are given very little teaching in return for their fee. It is fortunate for this country that scientists working in its universities show such dedication to teaching as well as research that they don’t try to do what our cousins in the arts do. I sense a growing consensus, however, that we’re being ripped off too.

I suppose it could be argued that the big cuts in teaching grant in England do something to redress this anomaly, as the central funding element for Arts & Humanities subjects is cut to zero in the new funding regime. On the other hand, however, if universities do charge £9K for all subjects then the differential between arts and sciences will turn out to be lower than 2:1, as the central funding element for STEM subjects is far less than £9K. On the other other hand, if STEM subjects were to charge a higher fee than the others then demand would probably collapse.

To get another angle on this argument, consider the comments made by senior members of the legal profession who are concerned about the drastic overproduction of law graduates. Only about half those doing the Bar Professional Training Course after a law degree stand any chance of getting a job as a lawyer in the UK. Contrast this with the situation in science subjects, where we don’t even produce enough graduates to ensure that schools have an adequate supply of science teachers. The system is completely out of balance.

I don’t see anything in the post-Browne era that will alter this ridiculous situation. STEM subjects will continue to be strangled and universities will continue to overproduce graduates in other areas. Somebody has to get a grip. I doubt the Westminster government is capable of doing this. It has already delayed its planned White Paper on Higher Education, providing yet another indication that it has completely lost the plot.

Or maybe it’s making a complete botch of the situation deliberately, as part of a cunning plan to encourage universities to go private?


Farewell to the Haldane Principle?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on November 17, 2010 by telescoper

Many scientists – myself included – were so relieved at the outcome of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review that we thought the government had accepted the argument that Science is Vital more-or-less completely. Most of us have stopped worrying about whether we’re going to have to go about to carry on doing science and just got on with doing it for the past few weeks.

However, today I came across some worrying news about planned changes to the way the science budget is administered in the UK. In particular, the post currently occupied by Adrian Smith Director General for Science and Research – is to be phased out. The position will be merged with what are currently other separate positions within the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to form a single Director General covering science, universities, research and innovation.

There’s nothing intrinsically sinister about administrative reorganisation, of course, and one can understand that a certain amount of streamlining might well be justified in order to save costs at a time of economic challenge. However, there are worrying signs about this particular change.

One thing is that the new post has only been advertised to civil servants. Apparently there will no longer be a scientist in a position to speak up for science among the higher management of BIS. Adrian Smith is not only an effective manager – as demonstrated by his past success as Principal of Queen Mary, University of London – but is also a respected figure in the field of mathematical statistics. I suspect this combination of skills and gravitas played a big role in securing a reasonably satisfactory outcome for science in the CSR.

Another worrying thing is that the planned reorganisation apparently hasn’t even been discussed with the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington. Former Chief Scientific Advisor Lord May has reacted angrily to the new proposals, calling them “stupid, ignorant and politically foolish”. Strong stuff.

On top of all this is the apparent ambivalence expressed by the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, about the Haldane Principle, which has underpinned British science policy for decades. Roughly speaking, this principle states that it should be researchers rather than politicians who should decide where research funds should be spent.

Willetts recently responded to a question about the Haldane Principle in the form of a Parliamentary written answer:

The Haldane principle is an important cornerstone for the protection of the scientific independence and excellence. We all benefit from its application in the UK.

The principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers through peer review is strongly supported by the coalition Government. Prioritisation of an individual research council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for Ministers. Such decisions are rightly left to those best placed to evaluate the scientific quality, excellence and likely impact of scientific programmes.

The Government do, however, need to take a view on the overall level of funding to science and research and they have decided to protect and to ring fence the science and research budget for the next four years. This decision has been made in the context of the current economic status of the UK and the strategic importance of research funding, while recognising the value of science to our future growth, prosperity and cultural heritage.

Over the years there has been some uncertainty over the interpretation of the Haldane principle. I intend to clarify this is a statement which will be released alongside the science and research budget allocations towards the end of this year. In order that this statement has the consent of the research community, I intend to consult with senior figures in the UK science and research community to develop a robust statement of the Haldane principle.

A superficial reading of this does start out by giving the impression that it strongly supports the  principle. However, I’m not aware of what  “uncertainty” there is over its application that requires such clarification. I rather think this is being put up as  an excuse to limit its scope, i.e. that the uncertainty is more about how the political establishment can get around it rather than what it actually means.

The fact that the  “robust statement” of a Revised Version of the  Haldane Principle is going to be wheeled out just when the allocations to the research councils are announced makes me very nervous that its prime function will be to justify big cuts in fundamental science in favour of applied research.

This all seems to add up to  a systematic attempt to sideline the scientists currently involved in the development of UK science policy development and its implementation. If nothing else, it seems rather strange from a political point of view to try to bring about this change in a way that is bound to alienate large sections of the scientific community, just when the government seemed to be recognizing the importance of science for the UK.

But then, perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Maybe we just have a new government that’s trying to do too much too quickly, and happens to have made a botch of this particular job…

You can find other blog posts on this issue, e.g.  here and here.


Did HE fall, or was it pushed?

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by telescoper

One of the other scary bits of news to emerge last week concerns proposed changes to the arrangements for tuition fees in English universities. According to the Times Higher, the Minister responsible for universities, David Willetts, has admitted that the cuts to university budgets announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, will occur before any new money flows into universities from whatever new fee arrangements emerge from the government’s deliberations following the Browne Report.

One of the recommendations of the Browne Report was that central government funding for arts, humanities and social sciences be scrapped entirely. Although I’m a scientist and I do think Science is Vital this is a very bad move, as I think other forms of scholarship and learning are vital too, for a wide range of reasons including cultural ones. It was never clear whether arts & humanities departments would be able to recoup the money lost as a result of cuts to central funding, but now it appears they will have to survive for an indeterminate time without any prospect of extra income to offset the shortfall.

The upshot of all this will be a huge and immediate cut in the budgets of many university departments, a  state of affairs about which Willetts commented only thus:

You have to expect that there will be pressure on universities to save money, and we don’t think they should be exempt from the pursuit of efficiencies.

Can an immediate 40% cut in teaching income be made by efficiency savings? I don’t think so, Mr Willetts. Even making large-scale redundancies won’t help there, as that costs a lot of money up front.

So why is the government pushing through cuts to university funding before ensuring that the new fee arrangements are in place? A variety of answers are possible. One would be incompetence, always a possibility when politicians are involved. However, although this government has tried to rush things through very quickly, I do not believe that this is something that hasn’t been considered very carefully. I think it’s deliberate.  I believe that this government wants some universities to fail, and has found an opportunity to push them over the edge.

It’s not about efficiency savings, it’s about survival of the fattest. Only those places able to dig into their reserves for several years will be able to weather the storm. Some will cope, some won’t. That’s the point.

It’s well known that several universities, most of them post-1992 institutions, have been struggling financially for a considerable time. In the past, special procedures have always been implemented to protect organizations of this type that have been close to insolvency. This government has said that will do things differently, and that universities that go bust will now be allowed to fail. This may involve them closing altogether, or being taken over by private companies. If I were working in a university heavily dependent on income from arts, humanities and social science teaching, I would be extremely nervous about the future. I mean, more nervous than I am anyway, working as a scientist in an institution which is financially sound. And that  is already very nervous indeed.

The other side of this particularly nasty coin, is that more “prestigious” institutions specialising in non-STEM areas, such as the London School of Economics, are already considering the option of going private. If the government gives them no support directly, yet insists – as seems likely – in capping the fee students pay at a figure around £7K per annum as well as strangling them with yards of red tape as HEFCE is wont to do, then why not just withdraw from the system and set fees at whatever level they like? It’s unlikely that an institution with a strong science base will go down this road, as the taxpayer is going to continue supporting STEM subjects, but it seems to me that it would make sense for the LSE to opt out of a system whether the costs of membership exceed the benefits received.

In the longer term, the squeeze is set of continue. According again to the Times Higher, the net revenue from fees will only replace part of the funding withdrawn over the CSR period. It looks like five years of struggle during which many departments may go under. The more you think about it, the worse it looks.

However, perhaps a better question than the one I asked a couple of paragraphs ago is the following. Why is the government intent on slashing the budgets of HE institutions, when it appears to have  let Vodafone off without paying a bill for £6 billion tax?

That amount would have been more than enough to tide the HE sector over until the new fee stream came online…


Cardiff inSPIREs Willetts

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 9, 2010 by telescoper

The Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts’ important speech today at the Royal Institution in London has already attracted a considerable amount of comment and reaction. I haven’t really got time to comment on it in detail, but in between the expected warning of tough times ahead, it does contain a great deal of extremely interesting and thoughtful material, which I recommend you read if you’re interested in science policy.

Of particular interest to us here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University is that we get a specific mention for the wonderful work done by the Astronomical Instrumentation Group on the development of the SPIRE instrument on the Herschel Space Observatory.  Everyone’s chuffed about it, and delighted that the Minister chose to highlight this particular example of excellence.

In my speech at Birmingham University in May, I spoke of links between the academic and the vocational, the conceptual and the physical. We are not always good at this – we have world-class particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider but sadly not many British engineers helped to build it. But there are other areas where these links between British science and technology are stronger. We not only have distinguished astronomers, but it was scientists and engineers at Cardiff University who produced the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver for Herschel and Planck. This combination of scientific research and technological advance creates extraordinary dynamism, both intellectual and commercial. I see it as one of my tasks to strengthen these links.

OK, so I know SPIRE wasn’t for “Herschel and Planck” but the AIG was involved with instruments for both these missions so the point is well made anyway.

Universities Challenged

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on June 10, 2010 by telescoper

The news headlines over the last couple of days have been dominated by remarks made by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, who has called for a radical overhaul of the way UK universities are organized and funded. Predictably, his comments set alarm bells ringing about the savage cuts likely to be coming our way, but I hope it’s not just about slash-and-burn and that some imagination is applied to the problem of sorting out the mess the system has become. We’ll see.

According to a piece in the Guardian, for example, Willetts suggested that some students could study at smaller local colleges instead of going to a big university, but these colleges would teach courses designed and administered by the larger “elite” institutions, such as the University of London. This suggestion isn’t  exactly new because it’s actually how things used to work many years ago. In fact, Nottingham University, where I used to work used to be Nottingham University College and its degrees, along with those of a number of similar provincial universities, were University of London degrees. Nottingham University only got the power to award its own degrees in 1948. Of course, there wasn’t really such a thing as distance learning in those days, so there’s a possibility that a 21st Century revival of this basic idea could turn out very differently in terms of how things are actually taught.

On the up side of this suggestion is the fact that it would be a lot easier to maintain standards, if examinations were set by a common body. On the down side is the fact that the distinctive flavour of speciality courses taught in different colleges, which is a strength of research-led teaching, would be lost. In between these positives and negatives there is a huge grey area of questions, such as where the funding would go, precisely which universities should administer the changes and so on. A lot of thinking and planning will be  needed before anything like this could be implemented.

Let me add two more specific comments to this. First, I think Willetts’ suggestion would make a lot of sense here in Wales where it could be easily implemented by returning to the old University of Wales.  As I’ve mentioned before, as well as suffering from many of the problems besetting the English university system, the Principality has a few extra ones all its own. Among the most pressing is the proliferation of small colleges and the consequent duplication of administrative systems. I think a great deal of money could be saved and teaching quality improved by cutting out the unnecessary bureaucracy and having the smaller places administered by a larger central University (as Willetts imagined with the University of London).

My other comment is specific to my own subject, physics (and astronomy). The problem with this – and other laboratory based STEM subjects – is that it’s very difficult to imagine how they can actually be taught at all at degree level without access to research laboratories for, e.g., project work. This is why physics is only taught in 40-0dd of the 131 universities and colleges around the UK. You can call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t think it’s either possible or desirable to separate teaching from research in science subjects in the way this plan seems to suggest. I know some colleagues of mine disagree strongly with this, but there you go.

Behind this proposal is the issue of student funding, as it is at least partly motivated by the suggestion that students could stay at home and study at a local college instead of moving to a university further away, which would necessitate them taking out student loans which the Treasury has to pay out. 

There’s also the issue of fees. At the moment students in England are expected to pay a flat-rate annual fee of £3225. In addition to this the government pays to the University concerned an amount called the “Unit of Resource”. Last year, in England, the basic amount was around £4K but there is multiplier for more expensive courses. Clinical medicine, for example, attracts four times the basic rate. Subjects like physics and chemistry get a multiplier of 1.7 (so each student comes with around £6.7K of funding). Subjects with no laboratory component, i.e. most Arts and Humanities courses,  just get the bog-standard amount.

I think there’s an obvious problem with this system, namely that physics (and other science subjects) are  much more expensive to teach than the formula allows for. The total income per student for an arts subject would be about £7.2K, while that for physics is about £10K. Why bother with all that expensive laboratory space and shiny new kit when the funding differential is so small. That’s another reason why so many universities have scrapped their physics departments in favour of cheaper disciplines that generate a profit much more easily.

Coincidentally I attended a lunch yesterday with some of our soon-to-be-graduating students. I’ve been a member of a committee working on updating our Physics courses and we wanted to discuss the proposed changes with them. One of the group was a mature student who had already done an English degree (at another university). She said that a physics drgee was much harder work, but was impressed at how much more contact she had with staff. Like most physics department, virtually all our teaching is done by permanent academic staff. Students doing  Physics at Cardiff get about three times as many contact hours with staff as students doing English. It’s unfair to compare apples with oranges, but I’m convinced the funding model is stacked against STEM subjects.

The awful financial climate we’re in has led to a general sense of resignation that the government contribution to university education (the Unit of Resource) is going to decrease and the student contribution go up to compensate. However, there’s a Catch-22 here for the Treasury. If the tuition fee goes up students will have to borrow more, and the Treasury doesn’t want to take on more  subsidised student loans. It seems much more likely to me that the cuts will be achieved by simply reducing the number of funded places. However, in the light of what I argued above, I think this is a great opportunity to think about what is the correct Unit of Resource for different subjects. If we all agree the country needs more scientists and engineers, not less, I’d argue that funded places elsewhere should be cut, and that the difference between arts and science units of resource also be substantially increased.

I’d even go so far as to suggest that there should be zero-rated courses, i.e. those which students are welcome to take if they pay the full cost but to which the government will not contribute at all. That should put an end to the Mickey Mouse end of Higher Education provision once and for all.

PS. A review of the tuition fee system is currently taking place but isn’t due to report until the autumn. It is led by Lord Browne who was formerly the boss of BP. I wonder if there’ll be any leaks?