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The Future of Higher Education

The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s report on the Future of Higher Education was published on 10 November 2011. You can download a PDF of the report below, and read the terms of reference for the inquiry at The Geological Society made a written submission.

House of Commons BIS Committee’s report on the future of higher education 

Submission to House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee inquiry: the future of higher education

Submitted 13 July 2011

  1. The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for Earth sciences, with 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and Government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-technical audiences.

  2. The main points raised in this memorandum are:

    - Significant numbers of trained geologists (Earth scientists) in a wide range of specialisms will be needed to ensure future wealth generation and economic innovation, the delivery of resources and services to the UK population, and to meet known policy challenges over the next generation, particularly as we seek to decarbonise the energy system and the economy.

    - The Geological Society is concerned that the ability of the UK Higher Education system to meet these vital national skills needs may be severely jeopardised by policy decisions now being made regarding the allocation of funding for university teaching, in the context of global undersupply of trained personnel.

    - Geology is a relatively costly subject to teach, with fieldwork at the heart of the discipline, alongside laboratory and classroom teaching.

    - As the Geological Society works with others to encourage talented young people to study geology and to pursue a career in Earth science, we urge Government to ensure that students are not deterred from doing so and that universities are not disincentivised from offering Earth science courses, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

  3. Earth science underpins the provision of most of the resources on which the UK population depends, including energy, minerals, water and food. A wide range of vital services depend on Earth science, including management of the waste we produce; geotechnical engineering for the construction of buildings, roads and other large infrastructure projects; predicting, understanding and mitigating the effects of natural hazards; and remediation of many environmental problems.

  4. Delivery of these resources and services generates considerable national wealth. Industries which depend primarily on the Earth sciences (extraction of oil, gas, coal, limestone, clay, aggregates and other minerals; groundwater; and landfill) generated around £48 billion in 2007 – that is, 13% of the UK’s non-service GDP of £380 billion, compared with total GDP of £1395 billion. Other industries in which Earth science plays a vital role, such as the construction industry, are also major contributors to GPD. The value to the UK of North Sea oil and gas alone is £3000 billion since 1970, about half of which passed to Government as tax. Major energy and minerals companies make up a substantial part of the FTSE index (oil and gas sector: £300 billion; mining sector: £250 billion).

  5. In the coming decades, Earth science will also be essential in addressing key policy challenges, especially in relation to energy and the environment. It has been fundamental in establishing the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and evidence from the geological record is now transforming our understanding of its impacts on human timescales. This new understanding promises to improve models of future climate change, and inform policy-making for adaptation to our changing environment. We know that we will continue to depend on fossil fuels for several decades. Exploration and production of these resources depends on the skills of petroleum geologists. These skills will also be vital for delivery of carbon capture and storage (CCS) at scale – an objective to which the Government is committed, and which is an essential element of rapidly reducing our carbon emissions while continuing to use fossil fuels. Development of domestic UK fossil fuel resources, including unconventional gas and cleaner coal technologies, has the potential to contribute significantly to our energy security. Whether or not new nuclear power stations are built, the siting, construction and subsequent monitoring of a geological disposal facility, within the UK Government’s Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) programme, currently in its early stages, will constitute a major infrastructure project over unprecedentedly long timescales, drawing on a broad range of disciplines from geology and geophysics to hydrogeology and radionuclide geochemistry. Renewable energy sources and ‘green technologies’ such as those used in hybrid vehicles will also depend on geologists for the supply of resources, as well as in construction and infrastructure planning.

  6. Significant numbers of skilled Earth scientists in a wide range of specialisms will be needed to address these challenges, to continue to deliver products and services to the UK population, and for wealth generation. Considering petroleum geoscience alone, the UK will need the skills of the thousands of Earth scientists for provision of a secure supply of essential hydrocarbons for many years to come. Thousands more will need to be trained to provide the essential technical skills required for CCS.

  7. Already there are identified areas of shortage. The UK Border Agency’s revised March 2011 Shortage Occupations List includes geoscientist, geophysicist, hydrogeologist, engineering geologist and a range of related Earth science and engineering specialisms. Applicants in these occupations for Tier 2 migrant status are to be assigned high priority under the new immigration regulations. However, we cannot rely on importing these skills. Despite the large number of Earth scientists being produced in emerging economies, there is not expected to be any surplus. China is undersupplied by 30% in comparison to its projected needs, for example, and India is neither importing nor exporting trained Earth scientists. It is therefore essential that we ensure sufficient domestic supply of Earth scientists. Anecdotal evidence from industry suggests that recruiting suitably skilled graduates is increasingly difficult.

  8. The Geological Society recognises its role, working with schools, academia, industry and Government, in ensuring the supply of Earth science skills throughout the training ‘pipeline’, from promoting the subject in schools and accreditation of degree programmes, to awarding Chartered Geologist status and supporting other aspects of professional development. We have recently established a Geoscience Skills Forum, bringing together academics and industry representatives, to gather evidence about current and future national skills needs and to help ensure these needs are addressed. These efforts can only be successful if students are not deterred from studying Earth science at undergraduate or postgraduate level, and universities are not disincentivised from offering Earth science courses, as the unintended consequence of policy decisions now being made about the allocation of funding for university teaching.

  9. Geology is relatively expensive to teach, because of the need for high contact hours, high staff-to-student ratios, laboratory work and fieldwork (which is an essential part of the subject). In common with most other science subjects, geology (classified under the broad heading of ‘Earth, marine and environmental sciences’) has hitherto been classified by HEFCE in Band B, attracting a higher level of funding per student than other subjects (with the exception of Band A clinical medicine subjects).

  10. As Government seeks to fill the funding gap which has arisen as universities have set student fees close to the £9,000 ceiling rather than the £7,500 average it anticipated, a potential concern is that it will reduce further HEFCE’s teaching budget to help meet the increased costs of providing student loans. This would be likely to result in reduced support for STEM subjects, since this constitutes most of the remaining HEFCE grant. This unwelcome possibility was flagged in evidence given to the BIS Select Committee on 10 May 2011 by Bahram Bekhradnia (Director, Higher Education Policy Institute), and also by Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, speaking on the Today programme on 7 June. The recent Higher Education White Paper did not cast light on this matter, other than to indicate that HEFCE had been asked to consult on priorities for allocation of the teaching budget. The Geological Society will respond shortly to the HEFCE consultation. Particular concerns expressed by the academic Earth science community include the possibility that the range of subjects included in Band B may be narrowed, or that the differential between the Band B teaching allocation and lower bands may be eroded.

  11. Since student fees are set by individual universities, and generally do not vary by subject, it is the universities which bear the higher costs of teaching some subjects, over and above what they receive in student fees and in the block grant from HEFCE. If the funding allocation does not recognise the true costs of teaching geology and other strategically important subjects, in order to redress budget shortfalls, universities are likely to favour subjects with lower teaching costs, which is likely to result in the closure of departments and reduced numbers of graduates in these subjects, to the detriment of future national skills needs.

  12. Fieldwork is an essential part of the training of Earth scientists, as mentioned above, and its inclusion as a mandatory element of undergraduate programmes is a requirement for the accreditation of degree programmes by the Geological Society. Already, many university departments require students to meet some or all of the costs of field trips themselves, meaning that the total cost to students of studying geology is often higher than that of other subjects. This trend is likely to continue with increasing pressure on departmental budgets. Furthermore, the fact that fieldwork usually takes place during vacations makes it more difficult for students to secure paid employment to subsidise their costs.

  13. Most employers in industry seeking to recruit Earth scientists require applicants to have an MSc in an area of applied geoscience (such as petroleum geology, engineering geology or hydrogeology). Public funding to support the delivery of taught MSc courses has historically delivered through the Research Councils. This is rapidly being withdrawn, with the abolition of NERC MSc studentships from 2011, and the phasing out of EPSRC Collaborative Training Accounts by 2013. Again, little attention is paid to this in the recent White Paper. Many MSc students are already funded by industrial sponsors, predominantly large companies. However, there is concern that the loss of public funding is not likely to be substituted by further funding from industry. Individual graduates may not be retained in employment by their sponsoring company for long enough to justify the investment. This risk is relatively greater for smaller companies, for which the loss of investment in one employee is relatively greater, and which in addition do not benefit from the smoothing effect of employing more graduates. The Geological Society and others will use our best efforts to stimulate more collaborative industry funding, but this is unlikely to meet the shortfall. Many students will only be able to complete an applied Masters course if they fund it themselves, usually through a commercial bank loan (since student loans are not available for postgraduate study), on top of increased debts for undergraduate degrees. A number of MSc courses are already closing, and this is likely to continue. Numerically small specialisms which are nonetheless vital to industry (for example, micropalaeontology which is essential in locating hydrocarbon resources) are particularly vulnerable – while even large oil companies will only employ a few micropalaeontologists, their community represents a valuable element of national capability.

  14. We would be pleased to discuss further any of the points raised in this submission, or to provide further information.