The suggestion that promoting more women and ethnic minorities to senior university positions amounts to “dumbing down” is ludicrous, universities and science minister Greg Clark has said.
Speaking at a Campaign for Science and Engineering pre-election debate on 14 January, Mr Clark said that one of the things that had “most shocked” him since taking up his role last year was to see how “un-diverse” the “highest echelons” of universities, research institutes and learned societies were. He said it was imperative for the sector to “challenge itself and make progress” in a way that “other parts of society” already had.
Mr Clark said that when he had made the diversity point to institutions, there had sometimes “been a vague insinuation that I am encouraging them to dumb down”.
“That elicits a furious response from me. When you are looking for one or two people to serve at a very high level, the idea that among the millions of women or other under-represented groups there aren’t people just as talented as the usual suspects that might have been rounded up to apply [is ridiculous]. People need to literally tap them on the shoulder and say: ‘You would be fantastic at this.”
Mr Clark’s Labour Party shadow, Liam Byrne, echoed the point, arguing that failures to create a “proper meritocracy” should no longer be tolerated.
“Asking yourself whether an institution has good systems for genuinely promoting merit, as evidenced by far more diversity at senior levels, has got to be a more influential factor when you are making funding decisions in the future,” he said.
“I know we have to be terribly careful about that, but if we are serious about rewarding excellence then we can’t ignore institutions that don’t appear to be operating a genuine promotion of talent.”
On the science budget, neither Mr Clark nor Mr Byrne was willing to make spending commitments until after the post-election spending review. However, Mr Clark said that all the science capital allocations the coalition government had made in successive budgets and autumn statements underscored its “recognition that this is an investment that the future of our country depends on. I don’t think you will see anyone turning turtle on that.”
Mr Byrne said Labour’s slower planned pace of debt reduction and its intention to keep capital spending outside its plans for balancing the UK’s budget meant “we don’t have to look at the budget for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and say that if we protect the research councils we will need to cut the rest of the department by 44 per cent. We know if that happened you would destroy the pipeline of skills funding the Royal Society and others have said is so important.” He also committed to a 10-year framework for spending on both science revenue and capital.
He warned that the predicted level of student loan write-offs made the current system of funding undergraduate teaching unsustainable.
“The best way of putting the university system on a long-term sustainable footing is a shift to a graduate tax [but] that is not something you can do quickly. You have to do it quite carefully,” he said.
The Liberal Democrats’ science spokesman, Julian Huppert, restated his party’s commitment to growing science spending by 3 per cent above inflation for the next 15 years. He said that this length of time was important because it would encourage people to undertake academic careers, and would convince academics thinking of going abroad to remain in the UK.
He also warned that new initiatives should not rely on a politician’s “interest being grabbed by the latest exciting thing”, and called for more grass-roots engagement in some spending decisions on science.
“There is a problem with how much [the research councils] are seen to be centrally controlled. We have to separate the areas where there is perfectly sensible interest in the government saying ‘we need research done in this’ from the ideas that may not make sense to people in the political world,” he said.
Mr Byrne warned that although many of the decisions announced in the recent science and innovation strategy were “wise and smart”, there was a “lack of transparency” about how some had been arrived at.
Sector figures have been particularly critical of the decision, announced in December’s autumn statement, to award £235 million for the Sir Henry Royce institute for advanced materials in Manchester without an open bidding process.
Mr Byrne also warned that the new review of the research councils, announced in the science and innovation strategy, risked miring the research councils in “permanent review land”, coming less than a year after their most recent Triennial Review.
Mr Clark said the Triennial Review had recommended that there should be a review of the structures to support interdisciplinary research, which it made sense to carry out at the beginning rather than in the middle of the science strategy.
He also said that all the capital allocations in the strategy had arisen out of the government’s capital consultation: “I didn’t have to change anything.”
Meanwhile, Mr Byrne called for a big push for young people on a “vocational path” to study to degree level.
“If you want to become a more innovative country you need to train more people to think independently. We do a simply hopeless job of getting those on the apprenticeship track to university…sending 2 per cent of apprentices to university is simply not good enough for a country competing in a 21st-century global economy,” he said.