Sustainability of the Higher Education Sector Inquiry (2006)

RAS highlights concerns about over-reliance on student choice to determine higher education provision and about the international competitiveness of UK PhD degrees.

The House of Commons Education and Skills Committee is investigating the future sustainability of the higher education sector in England and the impact of the Bologna Process viz.

'Higher education institutions (HEIs) are semi-autonomous institutions which largely define their own purpose or purposes. Nevertheless, it is appropriate for a government spending over £7.5 billion on HE to clearly identify what it wants from universities in return for this level of public investment. In moving further towards a high-skill economy, an increasingly international HE sector, an era of mass-participation in HE, and a possible future market in fees after 2009, this inquiry will investigate questions of first principles in HE: what is the role of universities, what should the principles of funding be, and what should the structure of the HE sector look like or be shaped by?'

In tackling these issues the Committee will consider, among others, the following questions :
- What do students want from universities?
- What do employers want from graduates?
- What should the government, and society more broadly, want from HE?
- Is the current funding system fit for purpose? Is the purpose clear? What are the principles on which university funding should be based?
- Should central funding be used as a lever to achieve government policy aims?
- Is the government’s role one of planning, steering, or allowing the market to operate? Should there be areas of government planning within HE – e.g. for strategic subjects?
- What are the implications of the Bologna process for the UK Higher Education sector?

The RAS submission makes the following points

- unless there is a reversal in the significant falls in the numbers of students opting for physics, mathematics, chemistry and engineering, attempts to improve the UK’s productivity and competitiveness could be undermined.

- the decline in the number of physics departments, and in the number of geophysics courses offered by other departments, shows that to rely on current student choices to determine the long-term supply of qualified scientists needed by the UK economy could prove costly

-only the government can afford to take a long term view and ensure the survival of strategically important subjects until such times as other measures have reversed the decline in secondary school students studying science

- the short duration of UK PhD training could be undermining the ability of UK PhD graduates in physics and astronomy to compete scientifically with their peers from other countries

The full RAS submission can be read here