Select Committee on Science and Technology

No.37 of Session 2005-06 4 May 2006



The Science and Technology Committee has warned there is a fundamental disconnect between the Government’s desire to preserve core undergraduate subjects  such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and its desire to preserve the autonomy of universities.

The Committee’s Report, Strategic Science Provision in English Universities: A follow-up, warns that this lack of strategic vision could severely restrict the future supply of home grown STEM personnel.

The Committee has already published a report expressing concern about a string of chemistry department closures at the universities of Exeter, King’s, Queen Mary and Swansea. Now it warns proposed changes at the University of Sussex, which could result in the closure of its chemistry department, indicate that Government efforts to address the issue proved inadequate.

 The Report is extremely critical of senior management at the University for handling a “seriously flawed” process “particularly ineptly”. However, it accepts that any internal changes are ultimately a decision for the institution itself.

The Committee drew attention to the weakness of existing safeguards to protect STEM subjects. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), is supposed to identify and address instances where the individual interests of universities do not coincide with national interest. But in the case of the University of Sussex it was able to engage in last minute damage limitation rather than strategic planning.

The Government has been exposed as having no effective lever to control its strategic science policy in terms of undergraduate provision. In practice, HEFCE does not have “the teeth, the tools, nor the will to do this effectively”, the Committee asserts.

 The Committee believes that this must change. It recommends that is should be mandatory for universities to alert HEFCE to proposed departmental closures in STEM subjects not less than 18 months before the changes in provision are due to come into effect.

Committee Chairman Phil Willis said: “The Government rightly recognises the need to protect the provision of STEM subjects but by leaving the autonomy of universities unfettered, while pursuing a market driven education policy, it has left itself with no credible way of doing so. Without effective tools with which to intervene, we can see that the Government’s fine words about the commitment to STEM provision cut no ice with universities.”

The Report, Strategic Science Provision in English Universities: A Follow-up will be published at 0001 on Thursday 4 May 2006 as HC 1011; the text of the Report will be available via the Committee’s internet homepage: from the time of publication. Copies can also be obtained from TSO outlets and from the Parliamentary Bookshop, 12 Bridge Street, Parliament Square, London SW1A 2JX (020 7219 3890) by quoting the appropriate HC number from the day of publication.

For media inquiries please call Laura Kibby on 020 7219 0718. For any other information please call Ana Ferreira, on 020 7219 2793.

Notes to editors:

• Under the terms of Standing Order No. 152 the Science and Technology Committee is empowered to examine the “expenditure, policy and administration of the Office of Science and Technology and its associated public bodies”. The Committee was appointed on 19 July 2005.

• The Committee held an evidence session with the Vice Chancellor, Professor Alasdair Smith, the Head of the Chemistry Department, Dr Gerry Lawless and the Acting Head of HEFCE, Mr Steve Egan on Monday 27 March .

Membership of the Committee

Mr Phil Willis (Lib Dem, Harrogate and Knaresborough)(Chairman)
Adam Afriyie (Con, Windsor)
Mr Robert Flello (Lab, Stoke-on-Trent South)
Mr Jim Devine (Lab, Livingston)
Dr Evan Harris (Lib Dem, Oxford West & Abingdon)
Dr Brian Iddon (Lab, Bolton South East)
Margaret Moran (Lab, Luton South)
Mr Brooks Newmark (Con, Braintree)
Anne Snelgrove (Lab/Co-op, South Swindon)
Bob Spink (Con, Castle Point)
Dr Desmond Turner (Lab, Brighton Kemptown)