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The proposals made here are intended to improve postgraduate education with little harm to undergraduate education and no extra cost. It is not intended to get the government off the hook when it comes to funding of either teaching or research. The recent Royal Society report, The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, makes it very clear that research funding in the UK is already low.

There is a good summary of the financial case at Science is Vital. Even before cuts the UK invested only 1.8% of its GDP in R&D in 2007. This is short of the UK’s own target of 2.5%, and further behind the EU target of 3.8%. If you haven’t already, sign their petition.

science is vital

The article reproduced here is the original 800-word version of proposals made already on this blog.

It was published today in The Times, in a 500 word version that was skilfully shortened by Times journalist, Robbie Millen [download web version, or print version] . It made the Thunderer column (page 22) It was written before I had seen the Browne report on University finance, Comments on that will be added in the follow-up.


Honours degrees have had their day

Universities have problems. The competition for research money is already intense in the extreme, and many excellent research applications get turned down.   Vice-chancellors want students to pay huge fees.  A financial crisis looms.  It is time for a rethink the entire university system.

The traditional honours degree has had its day

The UK’s honours degree system is a relic left over from the time when a tiny fraction of the population went to university.  The aim is now for half the population to get some sort of higher education, and the old system doesn’t work.  It tries to get children from school to the level where they can start research in only three years.  Even in its heyday it often failed to do that.  Now teachers in vastly bigger third year classes try to teach quite advanced stuff to students most of whom have long since decided that they don’t want to do research.  It’s just as well they decided that, because academia doesn’t have jobs for half the population.

The research funding system is strained to breaking point

Vince Cable’s cockup over the amount of money spent on mediocre science has long since been corrected   But despite the intense competition for research funds, anyone who listens to Radio 4’s Today Programme (I do), or reads the Daily Mail (I don’t) might get the impression that some pretty trivial research gets published.    One reason for this is that science reporters always prefer the simple and trivial to basic research.  But another reason is that the system places enormous pressure to publish vast amounts. Quantity matters more than quality.  The Research Assessment Exercise determines the funds that a university gets from government, and although started with the best of intentions, it has done more to reduce the quality of research than any other single change in the last 20 years. 

Promotion in universities is dependent on publication, and so is university funding.  Since 1992, when John Major’s government converted polytechnics into universities at a stroke of the pen, their staff too have been expected to publish to be promoted.  We need a lot of teachers to cope with 50 percent of the population, but there just aren’t enough good researchers to go round.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that advanced teaching should be done by people who are themselves doing research, but the numbers don’t add up. So what can be done?

Another way to organise higher education

The first essential is to abolish the honours degree (cue howls of outrage from the deeply conservative vice-chancellors).  It is simply too specialist for an age of mass education.  Rather, there should be more general first degrees. They should still, by and large, aim to produce critical thinking rather than being vocational, but cover a wider range of subjects to a lower level,

If this were done, the necessity to have the first degrees taught by active researchers would decrease.  Many of them could be taught in ‘teaching only’ institutions.  They could do it more cheaply too, if their staff were not under pressure to publish papers constantly.  It would take fewer people and less space.  It isn’t ideal, but I see no other way to increase the numbers in higher education without spending much more than we do now.

After the first degree, that modest fraction of students who had the ability and desire to get more specialist knowledge would go to graduate school.  There they could be taught at a rather higher level than the present third year of an honours degree, and be prepared for research, if that is what they wanted to do. 

Hang on though, isn’t it the case that UK Universities already have graduate schools?  Yes, but they are largely offshoots of HR that provide courses in advanced powerpoint and life-style psychobabble.  Vast amounts of money have been wasted in the “Roberts Agenda”.  What we need is real graduate schools that teach advanced stuff. Education not training.

There is another problem. It is very hard now for anyone in research to find time to think about their subject.  Most of their time is occupied writing grant applications (with 15% chance of success), churning out trivial papers and teaching.  If much of the lower level undergraduate teaching were to be done, more cheaply, in places that did little or no research, the saving would, with luck, fund the extra year for the minority who go on the graduate school.  The research intensive universities would do less undergraduate teaching. Their staff would have more time to do research and teach the graduate school.  They would turn into something more like Institutes of Advanced Studies. 

A lot of details would have to be worked out, and it isn’t ideal, just the least bad solution I can think of.  It has not escaped my attention that this system has some resemblance to that in the USA.  The USA does rather well in science.  Perhaps we should try it.

What we should not copy is the high fees charged in the USA.  Education is a public good, and the costs should be met by people paying according to their means. I think that is called income tax.


The Browne report is a retrogressive disaster

As I understand it. the recommendations not only remove the cap on fees but also make it more expensive for most people to repay loans. It is the most retrogressive thing that has happened in education in my lifetime. According to an analysis cited in the Guardian

“Graduates earning between £35,000 and £60,000 a year are likely to have to pay back more in fees and interest than those earning more than £100,000”

That is far to the right of anything that Mrs Thatcher contemplated. If it were to be adopted, it would be a national disgrace.

The Lib Dems are our only hope to stop the recommendations being implemented. They must hold the line.

15 October 2010.

It is getting clearer now. Numbers from the Social Market Foundation (SMF) were quoted in the Financial Times as showing that the rich pay less than the poor for their degrees. At first the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) seemed to disagree. Now the IFS has rethought the analysis and there is little difference between the predictions of the liberal (SMF) and conservative predictions, There is, unsurprisingly, some difference in the spin. ISF says that you only pay less in the top two deciles of lifetime income, ie. the top 20 percent. That’s not quite the point though.

Both analyses agree that anyone above the median income pays back much the same (until it decreases for the top 20 percent). In other words, unless you earn less than around £22k. there is little or no progressive element whatsoever.

It is an ill thought-out disaster.

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31 Responses to How to save British science and improve education

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Colquhoun, Ian Hopkinson. Ian Hopkinson said: Agree partially From @david_colquhoun in The Times, university organisation and funding and teaching , free on the blog http://bit.ly/9VKtNw […]

  • […] Meanwhile, my friend Prof David Colquhoun has his own views on how UK University education could be reorganised. They are published in the Times today, but you can read them at slightly greater length on his blog. […]

  • Dr Aust says:

    Have you had many comments over at the Times, DC? As it’s paywalled I can’t see.

    Some details of how the amount repaid under the Browne proposals might pan out across different incomes can be found here.

    Not sure how I feel about the solution you suggest, though it has obvious selling points. I suspect my ambiguous feelings about it are because under your schema it is 95% certain I’d be in one of the teaching-only institutions.

    In the US they arguably have a three category (at least) system, with big basic sub-degree factories, research-intensive Univs (subcategorised) and the liberal arts colleges. I guess in that system I would probably be teaching science in a liberal arts college. If the Brit system were to shake out into three US-style sectors, one wonders which Univs would be in which bit?

  • @DrAust
    Given the rather controversial nature of some of the proposals, I’m a bit baffled by the poor response. There are only three comments at the Times, two of which are pretty incoherent and one of which, I’d guess, comes from someone involved in running the sort of courses that are given in what passes for graduate schools here. I suspect that the Times’ paywall has almost killed comments there.

    You say “Not sure how I feel about the solution you suggest.” Neither am I actually. There would be a lot of details to iron out. At the moment I just can’t see any other affordable way to get proper graduate schools. Here is a quotation from the reply I gave to “Emma Kennedy” on the Times site.

    “You don’t mention your subject area. I was talking primarily about science. Specific examples might help. For most sorts of science you need mathematics, but in biological sciences at least, you can guarantee that you student rating will drop a notch for every equation you include. It has become increasingly difficult to teach, say, the exponential probability density function, or the diffusion equation, to large third year classes who don’t need that amount of detail, and are certainly not interested in it. But they are needed for research, and they are the sorts of thing that would more appropriately taught in a graduate school, to people who actually wanted to know about it.”

    The Browne proposals will, inevitably, lead to an even greater class divide than we have at present. My proposals might ameliorate that harm, insofar as first degrees could be much cheaper, and most people would start that way, regardless of social background. After three years those from poorer backgrounds would have had time to recover from their backgrounds and would stand a better chance of going on to graduate school, and research if that’s what they wanted, than they have at present.

    From the research point of view, we can’t speculate much until we get numbers, but we can say that any cut in research funds would end the UK’s hopes of retaining any sort of pre-eminence. We already spend a good deal less than other European countries. One of our best recent postdocs nor works in Berlin. Germany invests more in research and in education than we do. Private schools are almost unknown there, whereas Browne is pushing us towards privatising universities too. That’s where I’d be looking if I were starting off today.

  • andyrussell says:

    Were courses like MPhys and MChem (i.e. 4 year UG degrees) supposed to do something like you are suggesting? Could your proposal, for science at least, be implemented by broadening years 1-3 of an MXXX degree and then offering proper specialism in year 4 (i.e. like an MSc and not just another year of UG study)?

    Not sure I entirely agree about the “Roberts” money being a waste though. When I was a postdoc at Manchester we had an excellent faculty Researcher Development person. But I agree that its a fudge to avoid coming up with a real solution.

  • @andyrussell

    Yes a high level taught MSc would be very much the same as I had in mind. In fact it would have the advantage that people who wanted to leave after one graduate year would have some letters after their name to show for it It would also have the advantage that it would be run by (all) departments, not by some central bureaucracy.

    There are some such courses already of course, but they are used as a way of earning money rather than as a standard part of the education system. The numbers are still quite small.

    I’d be interested to hear more about good experiences with Roberts’ agenda. It can’t all have been spent on courses about Brain Gym or self-hypnosis. I keep asking, but mostly what I hear is sighs from exasperated postdocs who are forced to spend valuable time listening to lifestyle rubbish.

  • Dr Aust says:

    The science communication PG 2-day course that you came and did a lecture for us on – remember the “homeopathy Debate”? – was one of the Roberts’ agenda ones, DC.

    Our experience has been that you can make them worthwhile, but they have to be devised and run by academics, with academic priorities, and the administrators doing the organisational work reporting to academics, and not to other administrators. Interestingly, the ones that are done this way have worked so well that they are being “rolled out” (or copied) in other Faculties.

    The not terribly surprising conclusion being that academics have a much better idea which skills and training students will find useful than the HR Dept. do.

  • andyrussell says:

    Here are a few examples of things Manchester Researcher Development do: they get postdocs to organise a conference every year for Manchester postdocs; they’ve been running a Researchers into Management course that runs over 4 months, so it gets a bit meaty; career interviews with senior academics; and quite a bit on public engagement and developing skills for and from that. There’s some fluff in there too (“Co-active coaching” anyone? “Working to the strengths of your personality”?) but overall I found that if you got in touch with them about anything they’d be able/willing to help.

    None of the courses were compulsory.

    I’m not saying its the best use of the money but I certainly didn’t think it was all wasted.

  • @Dr Aust
    Yes exactly. Grad school/Masters degrees would be run by academics, not HR. The present wasteful mess, I’d argue, is at least partly a result of the relentless disempowerment of academics by vice-chancellors who don’t really seem to understand education.

    I blame too may leadership course, not enough science.

  • andyrussell says:

    @Dr Aust
    I thought the point of Roberts money was to prepare postdocs/PGs for the day that they leave academia. In that respect, surely those of us that have never left are not in a great position to decide what those who leave should be trained in.

  • @andyrussell
    Thanks for that. The things you describe sound more useful than many I’ve heard about. But they are not science (or advanced studies in other subjects). If, as I advocate, you change the first degree you need formal teaching in the more difficult parts of science. Even with our present “honours” system that is needed. I notice that @dr_andy_russell tweeted today

    “First lecture finished! I was amazed at the level of resistance to a little maths problem. Oh well, I’ll try again next week!”

    That’s exactly the sort of problem that my proposal is intended to ameliorate.

  • andyrussell says:

    Aren’t these two seperate problems though:

    1) UGs aren’t and/or dont need to be prepared for PG research
    2) Not all PGs can have research careers so there is a duty to prepare them for another career

    Roberts money tackles the second point.

  • You are quite right when you say that “the point of Roberts money was to prepare postdocs/PGs for the day that they leave academia”. The course you mention might do that. Courses about Brain Gym and self-hypnosis don’t prepare you for much except becoming a lifestyle consultant or quack.

    I guess it would be possible to have after the first degree, as an alternative to grad school/masters, vocational training along Roberts lines, though I suspect that would be better be learned on the job, from people who are actually doing the job.

  • martinbudden says:

    While I agree with your statement that it’s time to rethink the entire university system, I’m not sure I agree with your proposal to abolish the honours degree. I’m not sure I disagree with it either, but I think the making such a proposal moves the discussion prematurely away from the fundamentals. More time is required in problem space before entering solution space.

    I have some thoughts of my own on some of the reforms that are required (and I will write a blog post at some time in the future), but in this comment I’m going to constrain myself to making observations about our educational system. While most of what I say is obvious, it seems not to be discussed when describing improvements to the system.

    My observations:

    i) Our education system has evolved – it was not designed from scratch. Incremental improvements over time have led to a situation where our educational system, while functional, has many mismatches with the needs students, academics, employers and society in general. While any changes to the system necessarily have to be incremental, we need to step back and take a wide perspective to plan those changes. Since changes are incremental we may have to take a step back to move forward (we may have to climb down from our local maximum to move towards a global maximum).

    ii) From the student’s perspective, our university system has three broad purposes: learning, qualification and selection. Learning is self explanatory. By qualification I mean certain degree courses form the basis of professional qualifications (medicine, law, engineering, architecture, etc). By selection, I mean that university degrees are now part of the selection process for many jobs. Selection is the elephant in the room: it has come to dominate raison d’être of our university system. Many people embark on university degrees solely because it is a prerequisite for getting a good job. Not because the job requires the knowledge gained at university, but because employers use the university degree as a means of selecting applicants. We should not be requiring our young people to tie up years of their lives just to get a foot on the job ladder. In the US the situation is worse: PhDs and MBAs are becoming entry criteria for certain jobs. As well as tying up people’s lives this selection system can actually reduce social mobility – I imagine the days when one could rise from shelf-stacker to head of Tesco, or from lugging furniture around in the storeroom to head of Christie’s are gone.

    The university straightjacket/sausage machine is also failing many of our youth. The career prospects of someone who doesn’t fit the university straightjacket are much reduced (and this is not sour grapes – I fitted the straightjacket very well and did well out of the university system). I have seen this many times in my own field (computer software) – I have worked with many individuals who did not do well at school and did not go to university (or failed to graduate) who have done very well in the computer software industry.

    iii) Our education system has become increasingly front loaded. We have effectively raised the school leaving age to 18, without any meaningful national debate. The system coerces people into taking their higher education in their youth, rather than encouraging flexibility. We have sandwich courses and gap years, but there is no serious option, for most people, of say working for 5 or 10 years and then taking their degree. And why should a degree be 3 years at about the age of twenty? Why not two years at 20, and another year at 30 (possibly in a different subject). For many people (myself included) it would be a very sensible option to say do two years of a “technical subject” (physics, engineering or computer science, say) at 20, and then do a year of something business related (say business, management or law) at 30 or 35 when they had progressed into a management role in their career. And if a degree was not required to get onto the job ladder, we might see more people entering the workplace and then taking degrees as mature students when they had a much better idea of what they wanted to do with their lives.

    iv) Our examination system is out of step with reality. Passing examinations relies on three things: understanding how the exam system works, understanding the subject, and ability to memorise things. Unfortunately it’s difficult to test understanding, and in an age where facts are almost immediately available testing students ability to memorise seems increasingly futile (with some notable exceptions, for example a doctor will always need to memorise anatomy etc). Exams have always tested the ability to pass exams, but that ability has become more and more divorced from anything required in real life.

  • charlestonjigger says:

    Just happened to listen to Dave Spikey interviewed on the radio the other day. He left school aged 16 and rose to become the chief biomedical scientist at the hospital he worked in in Bolton. Would that be possible now? Would a degree have made him better at his job?

    If we are suggesting that people go to study science at university to gain a ‘good job’ in the pharmaceutical industry or similar, then that needs to be exposed as something of a myth. From where I am standing opportunities haven’t exactly been forthcoming, and maybe the private sector has abdicated some responsibility in training people themselves.

    If we are suggesting there is merit in studying for the sake of it then fine, but I think you have to think about cost and what the numbers would be if you removed the ‘good job’ myth from young peoples choices.

    You can educate till the cows come home, but I think we have bigger problems.

  • Dr Aust says:


    “I thought the point of Roberts money was to prepare postdocs/PGs for the day that they leave academia. In that respect, surely those of us that have never left are not in a great position to decide what those who leave should be trained in.”

    It tends to be done in consultation with people in science-related industries, Andy. After all, most bioscience academics know plenty of people who work in Pharma/ medical writing/ clinical science/ biotech/ IP/science admin. So they can usually find people willing to come and talk about alternative careers done by scientists, and to give some sort of steer on the skills that are useful. In contrast, I have never heard the HR or “generic skills” folk say anything useful beyond the most basic “transferable skills” platitudes that students now get taught at A-level.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Colquhoun, Alan Henness. Alan Henness said: RT @david_colquhoun: @jiulianhuppert Even Inst for Fiscal Studies now says there is no progressive element on Browne proposals above £22k http://bit.ly/9CNDgO […]

  • Muscleman says:

    The only real criticism of your scheme I can think of is how are students to know if they fancy a career in research or postgrad study? Are those educated in teaching only institutions to acquire the desire by osmosis?

    I agree that the expansion of degrees has made the idea of everyone doing a research project into a nonsense (there were 7 in my 4th year honours class in NZ).

    I am saddened about your comment over introducing equations. We got the diffusion equation, Nernst and GHK early in 2nd year and it didn’t kill us.

  • @Muscleman
    The virtue of my scheme is that the decision about just how far to take a subject would be postponed. By the third year people would have a much better idea about whether they want to go to a more advanced level than they do at 18.

    Furthermore, if they suffer from a disadvantageous social background, of the sort that makes it hard to get into a prestigious university at the moment. they’d have had time to throw off the background. If they turned out to have a talent for the subject, they’d have a much better chance of getting into a posh place for their advanced work than they would at 18.

    I’m impressed that you’d done the diffusion equation in second year. What sort of degree was it? Did that include solving the equation? My worst ever report from students arose after I’d been asked to give two lectures on diffusion to biologists. The first could be pretty qualitative, but in the second I tried to take them through the simplest of all solutions, an infinite plane source giving a Gaussian for concentration vs distance. Despite my best efforts, one of the students said I’d be better off teaching Welsh in a Japanese university. It hurts to this day. That should be graduate school stuff.

  • Dr Aust says:

    We give students the Nernst and GHK Equations, usually in the 1st &/or 2nd year depending on the particular course – but we don’t teach them how to derive the equations or solve them. The Nernst Eqn is usually presented as an empirical relationship that describes the equivalence between concentration and electrical driving forces for ions moving across membranes, and enables you to define an equilbrium potential; using the GHK to give the membrane potential is then treated as a kind of “weighted average” (weighted by relative permeability) of the Nernstian contributions when you have more than one permeant ion. I tend to teach both largely by emphasizing “go to a website calculator, plug in the numbers and try and get a feel for it” – very much empirical rather than theoretical.

    I don’t know where and if we actually teach diffusion equations, though Fick’s Law still appears in 1st/2nd yr teaching, and we still TRY (!) and get the medical students to use the diffusion equation to understand alveolar gas exchange. But again, the actual maths is downplayed, so there would be no mathematical transformations or solutions of equations.

    So anyway, in DC’s terms we are dodging the question by bypassing the mathematical bits – we “jump” forward to the solutions, and give students the formulae (solutions) as useful means to do simple calculations or as mnemonics.

    Sometimes we tell students that, if they are mathematically inclined, they can find descriptions of how the equations are derived in textbooks. But I would be surprised if many places still take students through the actual maths. Actually I rather doubt there would be many teaching staff left who could do the maths themselves.

    Incidentally, I seem to recall reading in an obituary of one elderly physiologist that in the late 60s “appalled by the declining standards of mathematical literacy among his students, Dr X wrote a short textbook of maths for biologists”. I recall wondering what the said author would have thought of the mathematical skills of the current student crop…!

    The one module in the 1st yr of undergraduate life science courses that still tends to contain some quite serious maths is population genetics. In keeping with DC’s Dictum on Equations, this module is often spectacularly unpopular with students of non-mathematical bent.

  • stephenemoss says:

    Can’t help but think that the massive cuts to the science budget, which come on top of the savings announced by Mandelson earlier this year, are bound to reduce the numbers of students wanting to take science degrees. I have always enthused about science to any kids willing to listen, but I think I’d find it difficult now to put hand on heart and unreservedly advise taking a science degree. Jobs in science are going to be hard to find, and what student is going to want to pay £25,000 for a degree that won’t get them a job?

  • @stephenemoss
    Sadly I have to agree. If there are cuts in research budgets too a system that is often cruel already wil become unbearable.

    I don’t think that people outside science have any idea just what hard, insecure work ir is for most people.

  • […] sc_project=233721; sc_invisible=0; sc_partition=0; sc_security=""; ← How to save British science and improve education […]

  • Dr Aust says:


    “Sadly I have to agree. If there are cuts in research budgets too a system that is often cruel already wil become unbearable. ”

    And today we hear the Research Councils preferred solutions are ..to give out less but larger grants to the Big Fish… a measure which will inevitably lead to a reduction in the number of academic research scientists. So even less chance than now of getting a University job at the end of the slog.

    As you say, who’d be a University scientist?

  • […] about some concrete proposals in the Times Thunderer column. This is available without pay wall on this blog. (this was  on October 11th, before the Browne report was published). .I immediately contacted […]

  • […] should have in the future, I also suggested some possible changes along the lines of those proposed in the Times in […]

  • […] should have in the future, I also suggested some possible changes along the lines of those proposed in the Times in […]

  • […] where students take a broad spectrum of courses. This is something my friend Prof David Colquhoun has been writing about recently as a possible part solution here in the […]

  • […] adapt to present circumstances, e.g by abolishing honours degrees, as I suggested recently in the Times?   Disgracefully, the government has rushed headlong into changes in funding without waiting to […]

  • […] that should have been decided was what sort of university system we want. It is arguable that the honours degree system is quite unsuited to an age when half the population get higher education. A general first degree, at a teaching-only […]

  • […] the following much shortened version of the blog appeared. And in the Thunderer column, no less (again). Two of the most irritating things about writing for papers are the lack of links, and the often […]

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