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.
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.
What is missing as Augar returns?
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.
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.