Science base rocked to core

April 19, 1996

As the academies warn that research capability is under threat, Tony Trinci puts flesh on the bones they rattle. The November 1995 Budget represents a defining moment for university education and research. Despite claims to the contrary by Gillian Shephard and Eric Forth, the standard of United Kingdom first degrees has been declining for years. University staff realise that the cuts planned for 1996/97 and beyond will inevitably result in a further decline.

Individual vice chancellors have been reluctant to inform the public of the effects of previous cuts on degree standards because statements to this effect would adversely affect applications, particularly from overseas. However, it is more difficult to explain, or indeed excuse, the Committee for Vice Chancellors and Principals' silence on this issue. This has allowed the Government to achieve its aim of drastically reducing the unit of teaching resource.

By artificially increasing postgraduate student numbers (there was a 19.1 per cent increase in 1994/95 for English universities), some vice chancellors have actually brought about a similar reduction in the unit of resource for these students. Although the policy of expanding graduate numbers achieved a short-term financial gain for a few universities, it was at the expense of long-term impoverishment of the system as a whole.

Before the budget, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry wrote in response to the Office of Science and Technology consultative document on a new structure for postgraduate research training supported by the research council: "There is also much concern within the pharmaceutical industry regarding the experimental ability of many new graduate scientists.

"This is due to a number of factors: science is progressing at an expanding rate resulting in additional course material; emphasis is being placed on a range of personal transferable skills, such as word processing literacy, while the weight of increasing Health and Safety Executive legislation is leading to supervisory and cost issues with laboratory- based experimental work. Some estimates of the time spent on practical work indicate this is now about one third of what it was 20 years ago. Employers are increasingly being expected to make good experimental deficiencies in graduate scientists."

Thus, a professional body representing one of the UK's most successful industries recognises that past funding cuts have seriously eroded practical training for students studying science subjects. The worry is that if multinational companies are unable to recruit skilled labour in the UK, they may decide to move their research and development elsewhere, and, indeed, some have already done so. Our European colleagues are beginning to question the standard of UK degrees. For example, the Germans are now conviced that UK first degrees are equivalent to a Fachhochschule diploma rather than first degrees. When challenged over falling standards, ministers often quote the percentage rise in first and second class honours degrees as evidence to the contrary. This is a basic misunderstanding of the system since universities can only examine what they teach, not what they should teach (the same argument applies to the assessment of university teaching by the Higher Education Funding Council for England). In such a labour-intensive profession, how could anyone imagine that standards could be maintained in the face of draconian cuts in the unit of teaching resource (a 65 per cent real cut per student in the period 1972 to 1995 and a 44 per cent cut for the ten years to 1999).

Nevertheless, Eric Forth insists (The THES, March 15) that there is no causal relationship between funding and quality, but offers no explanation for the decrease in standards identified by industry and our European colleagues.

The universities and Government must recognise that the UK lacks the resources (and/or the will) both to maintain first degree standards and have a participation rate of 30 per cent of the age group (compared with just 5 per cent in 1960!) Consequently, both should recognise the inevitable, accept that reduced standards for first degrees are irreversible, and consider how the introduction of the research masters (MRes) degree could be accelerated to improve the situation.

In the 1993 Science White Paper Realising our Potential, the MRes was proposed as a degree in its own right and as a stepping stone to a three-year PhD. If 1 to 2 per cent of the age group take the MRes (on trial in selected universities), they would receive a level of practical training in line with that provided in continental Europe and the United States and this would ensure that at least some UK MRes and PhD graduates would have sufficient experimental and other skills to meet the needs of industry. This is certainly not provided by the present system.

A further blow to the science base was announced in the budget, viz a 47 per cent reduction in the universities' capital grant by 1997/98. The inadequacy of equipment funding for science subjects is compounded by the growing demand for computer equipment from social science, arts and humanities departments as well as the estimated Pounds 100 million required by universities to meet new health and safety requirements. In making the 1996/97 equipment cuts, the Civil Service and the minister were apparently unaware that more than 90 per cent of this "capital" grant is used not for buildings, but to replace obsolescent equipment, to repair equipment or to buy new equipment for teaching and research.

It is difficult to imagine how the Government can seriously expect universities to make good the deficit via the Private Finance Initiative, particularly as there is no example of this scheme having been used to buy equipment. The Wellcome Trust recently warned the Government that it will not pay for university infrastructure such as laboratories or major equipment (including central computing facilities) because it believes that it is the Government's responsibility to provide these basic facilities.

In January the science minister Ian Taylor claimed research should not suffer through lack of access to equipment, despite the fact that it is generally recognised that shortage of modern equipment has been a major constraining factor on university research. The minister's claims are in stark contrast to those held by the universities. Bob Boucher, principal of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, said after the budget: "If this capital cut is not reversed in next year's funding round, the Government will be signalling the United Kingdom's withdrawal from international competition in science and engineering.

The UK's tally of Nobel Prize-winners is in decline. Up to 1985, the UK averaged around ten per decade but in the last ten years there has been only one: Sir James Black.

It is essential that the capital grant be restored to its 1995/96 value and ring-fenced; it should certainly not be merged (as is the Government's intention) with recurrent grant as this will inevitably mean that the 1996/97 cuts will be most detrimental to science, engineering and medicine.

The response of political parties to the problems confronting universities is interesting. The Liberal Democrats have published The Key to Lifelong Learning, which represents an honest attempt to face up to the problems. However, by agreeing to set up the Dearing review of higher education, the Conservatives and New Labour have neatly sidestepped the issue and effectively removed it as a pre-election topic. Dearing is not due to report before the summer of 1997, by which time appreciable and possibly irreversible damage will have been inflicted on the universities and the science base.

If, as expected, Dearing recommends a graduate tax or any non-central Government source for increasing university funding, this would not be operational before about 2001. What are universities expected to do in the intervening five years? Do Parliament and government need reminding that . . . "the understanding and application of science are fundamental to the fortunes of modern nations . . ."? (Government White Paper, A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology, May 1993)

Tony Trinci is pro vice chancellor for research at the University of Manchester and president of the society for general microbiology.

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