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Science Education (Universities)

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010

I met university vice-chancellors on Tuesday and I reaffirm the Department’s commitment, made in “Higher Ambitions”, to science and engineering.

On 3 November, the Minister denounced as a caricature that he did not recognise the question I put to him here on the disconnection between school and university science, which was leading to remedial courses for undergraduates who were inadequately prepared at school for university. Has he since had a chance to see the remarks of Dr. Richard Pike, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, who has made this far from novel or original point yet again, concluding with the phrase:

“Until we get to grips with this fiasco… this country risks sliding down the road to mediocrity”?

If the Minister will not recognise my description of the problem, perhaps he will recognise Dr. Pike’s.

What I recognise are the figures published today, which confirm that there has been a 12 per cent. rise in A-level entries for maths and further maths and a 3.8 per cent. rise for physics, as well as a 3 per cent. rise in undergraduates taking science subjects and a 7 per cent. rise in postgraduates doing so. I suggest the hon. Gentleman goes back to the very foundation of science: the evidence. He should look at the figures for what young people are doing and recognise that there have been massive advances for science subjects as a result of funding from this Government.

When vice-chancellors are under financial pressure, they find that the greatest savings in universities can be made by closing science and engineering departments. That is what has happened in the past, and that is what is beginning to happen this year. Will my right hon. Friend keep a very close eye on the way in which vice-chancellors make their savings?

I hope my hon. Friend recognises that we have sought to ensure that the money is in place, particularly to prioritise science, technology, engineering and maths. We set that out most recently in “Higher Ambitions”. Our university science departments are key to our “New industry, new jobs” agenda for sectors such as the life sciences, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing, which will have to be centre stage to our economic recovery. I recognise that this is an important issue, therefore, notwithstanding the research and assessment exercise results, which might lead some vice-chancellors to decide to withdraw from certain areas and prioritise others.

The largest research council, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, has already been forced to cut research grants by 10 per cent. and fellowships by 25 per cent. and to withdraw from 27 significant projects. The Government have allocated no money whatever to their ring-fenced science budget beyond this year, yet last night the science Minister confirmed—this has been confirmed again here this morning—that £600 million will be cut from the science budget over the next two years. Can the Minister explain how a specific sum—this £600 million—can be cut from a budget that has nothing in it?

The hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong, which is unusual. It is not £600 million from the science budget; it is £600 million up to 2013 from the entirety of the just under £13 billion higher education budget from which we have asked savings to be found. We are committed to the science ring fence and the 10-year framework for science, and it is wrong to caricature the STFC, to which we gave £40 million just last year, in that way.