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Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? New University and Science Minster(s)

As this posting is written, the new cabinet of ministers is meeting in London. The confusion surrounding the announcements yesterday has been the subject of much media attention. But hiding in the wings is uncertainty and speculation about who the universities or science minister(s) might be. The lack of a formal announcement may signal two possibilities. Either universities and science are of little consequence to the government or are they simply scared of the challenge and are not sure what to do or who to trust? The latter indecision is more likely as the primary advisor at No 10, Dominic Cummings presses for radical change from a more cautious government. Reports that the Government is exerting more control from No 10 does not sit well with many people.

Despite the uncertainty, Times Higher Education announced late last night that Michelle Donelan was to replace the outgoing Chris Skidmore. On the face of it, an Oxford graduate in History was being replaced by a History and Politics graduate from the University of York. So much of the same might be expected. However, Times Higher Education has indicated that the combination of universities and science minister across the Department for Education (DfE) the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was to change. However, this has not been translated into further media reports. The current arrangement started in 2010 with the coalition government and perhaps now the government will revert to the type of ministerial arrangement prevalent during the Labour government from 1997.

New Science Minister?

Donelan is tipped to cover both Higher and Further Education within the DfE. The position of Science Minister is assumed to be a separate appointment, presumably as part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. At the time of writing this position has not been announced. The new business minister at the helm is Alok Sharma who will also be the minister responsible for the Glasgow COP26 climate summit in November. Although his primary work experience is in accountancy and banking, he is also a graduate in Applied Physics from the University of Salford. The Prime minister himself put him forward as chair of the Glasgow COP26 climate summit in November. This puts him in a key position regarding science policy in the UK. It would seem logical that a minister covering the climate emergency strategy also links to an investment strategy in a time of crisis. If the government is uncertain who to choose as a Science Minister then the Campaign for Science and Engineering provides a list of 57 potential candidates with some STEM background.

An incoming Science Minister would have a difficult task. He or she would have to exude enough credibility to work across many departments. Such a person would occupy a key role across government at a time of great technological change. The minister would also have to navigate the aspirations of Dominic Cummings who wants a shake-up of the established order. A key responsibility would be to work with Patrick Vallance as Chief Scientific Advisor who leads a team of scientific advisors across government departments. He reports to the Government Office for Science that is based in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. In turn, it funds research at universities through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This activity is expected to increase fast as EU science funding dissipates. There is also a plan to increase science funding for emerging fields of research and technology through an initiative similar to that of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Originally laid out in the Queen’s Speech in October as a new “funding agency” it was announced by the outgoing Science minister in October and may be called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

The danger is that much of the high-level funding for science is now controlled at the centre of government and by government advisors. This would probably mean the direction of funding moving toward a concentration of effort across a limited number of university centres. The idea of saving money by cutting back on peer review of science through the long-established Haldane Principle may take hold. This set out the idea that scientists make decisions on research direction and not the politicians or indeed their advisors. There is considerable disquiet about a large chunk of funding being allocated separately from UKRI as explained in Times Higher Education las November with ‘Why shouldn’t the UK’s Darpa be within UKRI?’

The future of universities in the UK.

The future planning within universities couldn’t be more uncertain and this is not a recipe for success. The consequence of a concentration of research funding into ever-larger centres is that they become detached from the training of science and engineering graduates. Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute provided some insight this week into how universities might move into the future. In a speech at Queen Mary University, The Future of Higher Education and the Implications for Students, he also queried the science policy direction and noted that “we don’t know the future landscape of research funding bodies, given the signals about a new ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), or even who is to head up UKRI”. This is still the position today.

The funding of science has far-reaching consequences. This is one of the most important competing factors that are most likely to steer the future of universities in the UK. Regardless of science initiatives, access to funding is likely to be top of the list. It would seem that the government is also intent upon putting more emphasis on value for money. This does not necessarily mean value for money for students. It is more likely to mean value for money for the government and the taxpayer. Simply put, it seems that the expansion of loans for fees and maintenance has gone too far with a significant proportion unlikely to be repaid; currently, this sits at an unsustainable level (latest DfE forecast of RAB charge now up to 47%). One way to do this is to set student number quotas across the universities. Another way is to restrict loans to so-called ‘high value’ courses. The data needed to achieve this resides in finding out the salaries of those who graduate. Indeed, this is the intention of the Department of Education. If loans are restricted to courses that lead to higher salaries, then there is more chance of loans being repaid. The result is a capping of numbers by limiting access to loans. Of course, this would not affect those families that can afford the fees.

What is missing as Augar returns?

A common missing link in viewing universities is obscured by the myopia of those watching. Government observers, advisors and the rest of us simply see different things when looking at a university. Arts and Humanities experienced people view it very differently to those from Science, Engineering or Biomedical backgrounds. The social worth of a university is thus also viewed differently. Add to this a tendency for those commenting to see it from a middle-class background and we have misperceptions all around us. In the middle of this, a new universities minister will need to grapple with the rising cost of loans and the suggestions from Augar that fees should be cut. This will mean that institutions will change strategy and levy differential fees. The idea of £9,250 fees for arts and humanities students cross-subsidising science education will reach its terminus. Indeed, the University of Sunderland and the University of London SOAS have jumped the gun by closing courses and shifting to a “career-focused” curriculum (see Times Higher Education from January ‘Sunderland and SOAS cuts expose market dangers, say scholars’). This strategy will no doubt spread if fees are cut. However, the implications for STEM provision are profound if not addressed (see TEFS 11th June 2019 ‘Augar Under the Microscope: STEMing the Tide’). The supply of science and engineering graduates will have to continue and even increase. The likely outcome is that fees will drop for all students. But a substantial funding top-up will have to be offered to institutions offering approved STEM degrees. Another side of this might be a need to look again at the contact time and study hours expected of courses known as ‘teaching intensity’. This has declined over recent years and should be addressed (see TEFS January 4th 2019 ‘Is teaching intensity the Achilles heel of our universities?’)

Science and engineering student numbers are likely to be capped and subject to a sector demand and supply regime where loans are also limited in number. Another outcome will be that those that can afford the lower fees will pay anyway and universities will compete for these students along with foreign students. The downside is that many students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will have to compete for fewer funded places and have less time to devote to part-time jobs.

The future of university teaching.

If science research is to become more concentrated into a smaller number of centres, the expertise will follow as night follows day. This means that HE teaching provision across the UK will tend to be separated from the main research efforts. This is generally a bad thing if the teaching mission becomes a trivial pursuit (See TEFS June 29th 2018 ‘Research and Teaching: The price of researchers not teaching’)

However, in most Russell Group universities, this is already happening as more teaching is relegated to temporary staff on teaching contracts. This trend will accelerate with STEM places capped. However, advances in communications will open up more scope for institutions collaborating. Imagine students across the UK viewing lectures from the most advanced research laboratories online. Back at their own institutions, they attend tutorials on the topics under study to analyse the ideas in more detail. Then they attend practical classes locally and on occasions attend more advanced classes at larger centres. This will tend to distribute the learning task across the UK in a manner not too dissimilar to the Open University. If managed carefully, this should open our universities to more people who are in employment.

The task of universities to retain and expand teaching laboratories and improve practical training will become more important. In recent years, I had to fight hard to retain such provision in Microbiology and Biochemistry against management pressure to cut technical costs and drop practical classes in favour of “videos”. Nothing could be more damaging to the professionalism needed for future graduates. I have also conducted tutorials discussing recent research papers and then contacted the authors (in the USA usually) by email to answer questions from the group. It generally worked well when we got past the incredulity of the scientists at the other end of the email. This is perhaps the way forward in fostering more critical thinking from our graduates.

In his recent offering on the ‘The Future of Higher Education and the Implications for Students’ HEPI Director Nick Hillman describes with fondness his experience at Queen Mary University as a Master’s student in History and Politics. It shows care was taken to provide practical experience in the real political world. It is the way to go across many subjects. Hopefully, such a model will emerge across the whole sector as a new era of provision emerges.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics


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