How to save UK university science

Politicians suggest focusing research in regional hubs to stem tide of department closures

Apr 7, 2005
Stephen Pincock(

England needs to rethink its system of funding university science in order to safeguard the provision of core subjects like chemistry and physics, an influential committee of politicians said today (April 7). Their report, which urges greater cooperation among institutions, got a mixed response from the science and university communities.

Prompted by a spate of high-profile department closures, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has been investigating university science teaching since last December. Their report notes that universities are suffering from falling student demand for science, compounded by a funding system that concentrates research in a small number of departments.

In place of a winner-takes-all system in which all of England's 130 universities compete for research and teaching funds, each university should be encouraged to play to its strengths, the report suggests. The politicians propose a "hub and spokes" model in which each region has at least one major research center for each discipline, with other departments given the freedom to focus on research, teaching, or knowledge transfer.

"There have already been too many closures of university science departments," said Ian Gibson, chair of the committee, in a statement. "The government needs to bang the heads of vice chancellors together until they start looking beyond their own doorsteps to the wider national interest."

But the university lecturers union, NATFHE, warned that the suggestion could result in a harmful separation of research and teaching. "The committee's proposal could become another step towards teaching-only universities, which NATFHE strongly resists," said union official Liz Allen. "Not every lecturer needs to be engaged in research, but we firmly believe that all higher education teaching should take place in a research-active environment."

Roger Klein, head of the universities section of NATFHE, told The Scientist: "Our concerns are in the context of wider moves to concentrate university research that are already going on."

"People are already nervous that the majority of students will be taught in an environment where there's no interaction between those teaching science, those being taught, and the cutting edge of research," Klein said.

The lobby group Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE) welcomed the proposals, while acknowledging that maintaining the link between teaching and research was vital.

"I strongly feel that people doing science in higher education need some exposure to real research," CASE's director Peter Cotgreave told The Scientist. "That's what makes it higher."

"But every course is simply not going to be taught by people who are doing world-class research. That's not going to happen," Cotgreave said. "It is possible though to give people exposure to that sort of this without every university doing it."

Cotgreave said the committee's plan faced the realities of education funding. "Taxpayers' cash is a finite resource, and the public purse is not suddenly going to find the billions of pounds needed to fund what the universities are expected to do," he said. "So we need to look at other ways of bringing in new money and at making the resources we already have work harder."

The Royal Society stressed the importance of maintaining an international research base in English universities. A spokeswoman for the society told The Scientist that while not all teachers in a department need to carry out their own research, the presence of research in a department contributes to a stimulating learning environment and encourages scholarship.

"Under the model proposed by the Science and Technology Committee, university departments carrying out little or no research would have to find alternative ways of keeping their faculty up-to-date with the developments at the forefront of their fields," the spokeswoman said.