Innovator of the Year 2015 – Winning Entries

Earlier this year we sought applications once again for the Innovator of the Year competition. As last year,  we have chosen to support two prizes, one for pedagogical research and one for Pure and Applied Research in Science or Engineering.

Once again the quality of the applications was very high, but ultimately the committee (comprising the three deans and the PVC) had to select a winner in each category.

Turning first to the pedagogical category, the winner is Dr. Sara Marsham, in a submission co-authored by Dr. Alison Graham, Dr. Christie Harner and Mr Jonathan Lamb.

The  aim of the project was to collaborate with students, academics and support staff in a re-design of assessment across Biology and Marine Science. They created a software program that visually maps existing assessments and submission/feedback deadlines for students and staff. The program allows one  to identify i) how students and staff perceive links between assessment activities within and across modules; and ii) purposes of different assessments and feedback types. This ultimately could lead to a re-design of assessment and feedback activities that are fit for purpose, engage students, link to future modules (both contemporaneous and future), and manage student and staff workloads.

They employed an MSc Computer Science student via the Careers Service work experience scheme to provide the specialist programming knowledge. After identifying the specification of the program, a prototype was created using assessment and feedback deadlines for Stage 1 to 3 Biology and Marine Science modules for a test year (2013/2014). Using module combinations, a visual map can be produced for either students or staff demonstrating periods of high workload on assessment or feedback. This is a unique program not available anywhere else within the University. It will allow Schools to better plan assessments within modules and across programmes and has applications for the Engineering Excellence project as well as other Faculty initiatives. The innovative step was not only creating the mapping software, but including academic and support colleagues at this early stage of the project. Valuable feedback was received from academic and administrative staff within the two Schools, and NUIT was involved prior to the first pilot. This ensures buy-in from users and a cohesive approach that will allow the project to successfully grow within SAgE.

The project has had impact on the programmes within Biology and Marine Sciences. Biology is seeking to streamline assessment across their modules, and Marine Science is consolidating changes implemented in 2014/2015. The student experience will improve with programmes mapped to best suit learning needs, including revisions not only to the types of assessments set and feedback received, but also to deadlines and feedback turnaround on specific assessments. The team is working with colleagues in NUIT, the eAssessment and Feedback group and the Engineering Excellence project and believe that the project will have a positive impact across Newcastle University as a model of curriculum re-design that considers student engagement.

In the Pure and Applied research category, the winner is Dr. Lidija Siller, in a submission co-authored by Mr. Xiao Han. Their work concerns aerogels, which are ultra-light materials with the highest porosity known to man. They have outstanding thermal insulation properties and are ideal  materials for use in buildings and for oil/gas wells and pipes.  The widespread use of these materials is still limited because current commercial methods of synthesis require high pressure and high temperature to dry the gel, which is energy intensive and therefore produces materials too expensive for all except highly specialised use. Ambient pressure drying of gels provides an alternative, less energy intensive route but commonly relies on replacing the original solvent used for gel preparation with organic solvents that are very costly. The  recent simple method utilised by the applicants eliminates the need for use of organic solvents (by inorganic solvent which is ~ 70 times cheaper) and has the potential to form the basis of sustainable, low cost manufacturing of aerogels and aerogel-based composites, including ‘smart’ materials.

Capillarity is the mechanism when silica gels, as the most common aerogel material, undergo the drying process. In the conventional ambient pressure drying method, low-surface-tension solvent (LTS) (hexane, heptane) in pores directly evaporates from the surface when gels are heated. In the new process, inorganic solvent, carbonate solution and catalyst produces carbon dioxide gas within the pores of gel. When carbon dioxide forms in the middle of a pore of the gel, the gas is incompressible and therefore the pore diameter is increased. From the Young-Laplace equation equation capillarity is reduced by enlarging the radius of the pore. This is the basis of new method. The idea came from studying the microstructure of dragonfly wings, which have aerogel microporous structure.

Europe imports half its energy requirements and consumes 1/5 of the Planet’s reserves . The manufacture of energy saving insulation materials with minimal production-related environmental impact is clearly highly desirable, and the new method of aerogel production can help to the UK to achieve national and European targets associated with energy use and carbon reduction. This method of low cost aerogel production could place the UK in the forefront of a new industry.

Many congratulations to both successful teams. Each team will receive £5000 to support their research activities.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Admissions 2015

It’s Undergraduate Admissions time again – sleepless nights for admissions teams and  Pro-Vice Chancellors!

Last year we did very well, managing to exceed our ‘ABB+’ numbers target. This year we have also done extremely well.  Numbers to date for SAgE suggest that we have exceeded our ‘ABB+’ target numbers by close on 100.  As I write we are within a whisker of our ‘core’ numbers as well. This means that in effect we have raised the bar on quality, which is of course one of our strategic aims.

By any measure this is a fantastic performance, and I’d like to congratulate all the admissions teams for their hard work and determination. As I mentioned last year, exceeding our target is particularly noteworthy because demographics  work against achieving our target, which in itself was greater than last year’s. Moreover, this year the cap on student numbers was removed completely, meaning that Universities can recruit as many students as they wish, resulting in increased competition.

Many will be aware that we have introduced an honours degree in Physics, or should I say re-introduced, following its closure in the last decade. Recruitment has been very strong, again exceeding target of ‘ABB+’ students. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but I feel there is a valuable lesson here, namely that one should think long and hard about closing down a discipline that is not profitable. Universities need their fundamental disciplines, so if things go awry then closure should be a very last resort. We will now need to focus our attention on building Physics as a standalone department. We don’t have plans to return Physics in the next REF, but we certainly should seriously consider doing so in any subsequent exercise. This will require building up staff numbers, which should not be problematic given the popularity of the degree programme.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Innovator of the Year 2015

Following the success of the ‘Innovator of the Year’ competition in recent years, I’d like to invite submissions for a similar prize this year.   As a reminder, the prize has been  awarded in previous years to the investigator who, in the opinion of the awards committee, has generated the most innovative research contribution (pure, applied or pedagogical) during the last academic year (2014-15 for the current round). Applications from groups of researchers are welcome, but must nominate a lead Principal Investigator (PI).

Again this year, we plan to offer a prize of £5,000 in each of two categories. The first category will comprise pure and applied research, and the second will comprise pedagogical research. This categorisation is not intended to imply that these activities are necessarily distinct, but nonetheless there is a concern that those engaged principally in pedagogical research are discouraged from applying.

In order to qualify, evidence must be provided that the innovative step was realised during the academic year in question. This may take the form of a patent application, research output, evidence of a novel teaching programme, or similar (at the discretion of the applicant) – such evidence must be appended to the application. Only one application will be entertained from each PI, except when she or he is named on a group submission, in which case one additional submission will be permitted.

Applications should be in the following format:

(a)          Importance of the research (100 words)

(b)          Brief description of the work leading up to the research (100 words)

(c)           The innovative step (200 words)

(d)          Impact or potential impact of the research (100 words)

(Word limits are indicatory but the total submission should not exceed 500 words)

The closing date for applications will be  Friday 31st July 2015 and the winning submission will be announced at the start of the academic session 2015-2016. The prize funds (£5000 for each category) will be transferred into a nominated university account, to be used to support the research programme of the successful applicant, at their discretion. Where the winning submission derives from a group of researchers, the lead PI will decide the appropriate split of funds.

Applications should be sent by e-mail to Barbara Graham ( by the closing date.

The awards committee will comprise PVC SAgE together with the Deans of Research & Innovation, Undergraduate Studies, Postgraduate Studies. The decision of the awards committee will be final.

The concept of innovation is particularly poignant this year, given that there is likely to be increased focus on the impact of our research. There is adequate evidence to support the notion that innovation forms the bedrock of impact. The latest issue of the THE has several articles concerning innovation, and draws attention to the report, ‘Lagging Behind: Are UK Universities Falling Behind in the Global Innovation Race?’. You can read that report here. Fifty Vice-Chancellors took part in a survey, and their responses contributed to the report. The report is uncomfortable reading – Universities are regarded as conservative places, where driving innovation is difficult. This is worrying, as innovation is likely to be essential for survival, a concept that is well understood in the private sector.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Teaching, Research and Election Day

Well it had to happen – during my brief and less than illustrious career as a blog writer, at some point antibodies were likely to be raised in response to something I wrote. And so it was with my last effort that summarised the outcome of the most recent FEB away-day. Apparently my statement that we need to untangle the concept of parity of esteem for research and teaching has caused concern is some quarters. So let me put the record straight. Firstly, anything written in the previous blog is not my view especially (although I fully endorse everything therein) – it summarises the collective thoughts arising from the Faculty Executive away-day.

To reiterate, the problem with the ‘parity of esteem’ concept is that it could lend weight to the notion that research and teaching are separate entities. It is clear however that they are inextricably linked. In my 30-odd years as an active researcher, I have taking pleasure in working on a number of ‘big’ problems that had the potential to change the world if I helped solved them (which was the case on precious few occasions!). In effect, by learning new techniques and concepts, I have been teaching myself. I also learned how to approach a difficult problem through logical thought process, how to deal with the many lows when something didn’t work – easily offset by the less frequent but much more powerful highs when a breakthrough was made – and so on. I also hopefully learned how to communicate my thoughts, ideas and results to peers worldwide.

As a Russell Group University, we strongly believe in the concept of research informed teaching. This is in effect an extension of the communication process, but to non-experts. However, it’s more than just communicating the most recent exciting results that haven’t made it into the textbooks – it’s about understanding how new knowledge is created, warts and all. That’s why, in the experimental sciences at least, a final-year laboratory project is critically important (and very expensive). As a result, our graduates will hopefully be highly skilled in problem-solving and communication, which are the two areas that employers frequently tell us are most important to them. It follows that the majority of our academics should be both practicing researchers as well as teachers. That’s not to say that we do not value the efforts of those who are exclusively focussed on learning and teaching, or indeed those focussed exclusively on research. A number of such academics is critical for the proper functioning of a modern University, but it’s hopefully clear that we need the majority of our staff to do both. Ultimately, we need to ensure that there is parity of esteem for those doing a good job in any aspect that contributes to the mission and vision of the organisation – and that includes more than just teaching or research.

Turning to a rather different matter, it’s election day! We wait with bated breath to find out who will be in government 24 hours from now (although there’s every likelihood that it might take longer than that to form a government). I don’t want to turn this into a Party Political piece (that would raise antibodies!) , but I must confess to being irritated by the way successive political parties use the education system as a political football. Assuming there is a change in Government of some description, you can bet that something will be tampered with. Having just recovered from the outcome of the Browne review and the new fees regime, we face the unwelcome prospect of further turmoil. Against this, there is unfortunately one likely certainty, namely a reduction in funding for research, irrespective of the successful party (or parties). We will need therefore to diversify our research income streams, including seeking them offshore. Therein lies a major project concerning our Singapore operation, about which I will hopefully be able to report in the next blog.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Raising the Bar

We held a Faculty Executive Board away-day last week to discuss the University ‘Raising the Bar’ agenda. Everyone will hopefully be aware of this initiative from the Vice-Chancellor’s presentation at a series of Town Hall meetings over recent months. Practically, it concerns how we might raise our game, particularly in research. Naturally this is  rather important following the results of the last REF as a checkpoint, and as we move towards the next exercise. Not that this outcome was particularly troublesome – as an organisation we did after all move up one position in the REF League Table, while a number of prominent peers headed downwards.  However, on a more critical note we have been in roughly this position for the last two RAEs. Clearly if we wish to improve further (and I hope no-one doubts the need to do that), then we need to do something different – enter the Raising the Bar agenda.

There exists a Raising the Bar Steering Group that is chaired by the FMS PVC (Professor Chris Day), and the SAgE and HaSS PVCs are also members. We meet weekly, and our remit initially is to report back to University Executive Board regarding the steps we can take to improve our position for the next REF. In this regard we thought it would be useful for SAgE FEB to hold an away-day so that we can crystallise thoughts to be fed into the Steering Group. Before I explain what we came up with I’d like to reflect for a moment on what Raising the Bar implies. It’s not meant to suggest that everyone is not working hard enough or that the University does not value everyone’s contribution. It’s true that there were undoubtedly some less positive outcomes from the REF, but we had some spectacular successes as well, and we can be proud of that. Rather, Raising the Bar reflects the need to raise ambition. For example, we need to think about publishing in the very best journals, even if this means reducing the total number of outputs (which it undoubtedly will, since publishing in the best journals takes a lot of time).

So what did FEB conclude. Well it’s not rocket science, but here are the three areas on which we feel we need to focus:

  • Recruitment and retention: an organisation is only as good as the people that work in it, so it follows that we need to pull out all the stops to attract and retain the very best people in our respective fields. Wide advertising helps, but the very best people are likely to be well looked after in their present institution, and are unlikely to be browsing the classifieds. So we all need to be potential recruiters – speak to individuals, see if you can ‘talent spot’ at conferences.
  • From the above narrative it’s not surprising that we feel there needs to be a renewed focus on quality of outputs. However, we agreed it’s actually quite hard to define what a ‘4*’ paper actually is. Metrics can help, but only tell part of the story and if used blindly can be hopelessly misleading. You will recall that in the run-up to REF we did not plan to submit any 2* outputs, except under special circumstances. Yet we ended up with 40% 2* in one of our submissions. Each potential UoA for the next REF will therefore be looking closely at what constitutes 4*. It follows that we need to be publishing work of that quality with regularity. If every member of staff returns to REF with one 4* paper, we’d be well on the way to achieving our objective.
  • Finally, we see the need to untangle the concept of ‘parity of esteem for research and teaching’. At a basic level this statement is unhelpful, since it implies that there are two different work-streams. As we grow the quality of our research this needs to be seamlessly integrated into teaching. To put it another way, the majority of our academic staff need to be engaged in both activities.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Impact of Impact

An interesting article appeared in the latest issue of the THE (19-25 February), which analysed the contribution of impact to REF 2014. From the REF outcome it is immediately possible to determine that the rank order of institutions has not been altered dramatically by the inclusion of impact – generally, institutions that had  a good score for outputs also had a good score for impact. Moreover, impact scored highly across the exercise, with an overall GPA of 3.24 compared with 2.9 for outputs. One interpretation of this latter outcome is that the concept of impact was scored more leniently, although a number of UoA panellists that contributed to the THE article argued otherwise.

What is clear however is that most institutions have recognised the huge significance of the quality of each impact case study submitted. There is indeed  a heavy weight assigned to impact, given that on the order of one case study was required for every ten academics submitted. This explains the significant number of REF submissions that contain staff numbers just below the threshold for submitting an extra case study. While this degree of ‘game-playing’ is perhaps inevitable, it is at the same time very unfortunate, since one must presume that in some instances  ‘REFable’ staff have been excluded on the basis of insufficient case studies. Unlike outputs which, again through a degree of game-playing, can be ‘bought-in’ by attracting research stars – reminiscent of the professional football transfer window – impact case studies need to be ‘home-grown’, and don’t transfer with the individual. Indeed, given the permitted time-window for recording impact, in a number of cases the driving mind behind the study may no longer be on the payroll of the institution.

It’s enlightening to assess how impact has influenced the outcome of the UoA submissions at NU. A key aspect of our mission is to be a ‘Civic University’. This expression is actually often misunderstood in UK circles to mean a University that is principally focussed on the city and region. However, the Vice-Chancellor is clear that the concept of a Civic University lies in the arena of responding to the challenges facing civil society. As such, our reach must be worldwide. With this notion, one would therefore expect that, all things being equal, that NU would score relatively highly in terms of impact. Is this true? Unfortunately, we can’t glean much from the ranking of NU in terms of overall GPA compared with impact – we are =26th and 26th respectively. However, if we drill down to individual SAgE UoAs, a different picture emerges. If we take our top unit (UoA11, Computing Science) for overall GPA ranking from REF 2014 (taking into account the number of submissions) this is ranked 9th by GPA and is in first position by impact. Our worst performer was UoA13 (Electrical and Electronic Engineering), achieving 16th position by GPA but 29th position by impact. This however, was very heavily influenced by the fact that one of the impact case studies submitted was not categorised due to the underlying research, although we understand that the case study itself was highly scored.

This is not a rigorous analysis of course – we’d really need to ask how our competitors  fared in a similar comparison (but by definition in UoA11 the comparison must have been less favourable!). Nonetheless, we would have been shaking our heads if impact was not a significant contributor to our overall score. The challenge will be to ensure that we have sufficient case-studies for the next REF, meaning they need to be in a good state of development now. The Dean for Research & Innovation is on the case (or should I say on the cases) in this regard. Without sufficient impact case studies, we face the prospect of being unable to include certain outputs at 3* and above, so in many respects impact becomes as important as maximising 4* outputs. Of course, it’s not unthinkable that we will be required to return all academic staff on research contracts in the next REF. Personally, I would welcome this development – it would largely (but not entirely) eliminate the ridiculous game-playing that is frankly farcical since everyone can see through it, and would reduce inevitable angst arising from those that are deemed REFable versus those that are not.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Athena Swan Charter

Many will hopefully be aware that the Athena Swan Charter recognises commitment to advancing women’s careers in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, Medicine) employment in higher education and research. In fact its scope is even wider – quoting from the website, it covers:

  • women in academic roles
  • progression of students into academia
  • working environment for all staff

As the University Executive Board member with responsibility for Athena Swan, I’d like to engender a strong commitment to this initiative during 2015 and beyond. Everyone will hopefully be aware that the University, having attained Bronze status, will be submitting an application for Silver in November of this year.

Kirsty Steed drew my attention to a very interesting blog article about a recent conference at Swansea University. I won’t reiterate the details – you can read the blog here – but there are some salient features that are worth noting. Of particular relevance was a discussion regarding the award of Gold status to Imperial College’s Chemistry Department. The blog highlights seven ‘tips for success’, in summary:

1. Be welcoming: Say good morning and good night! To everyone.

2. Cut out hierarchies: e.g. academic and non-academic staff, postdocs vs faculty.

3. Be social: Have more parties that are inclusive

4. The little things matter: Senior staff/Heads of Departments need to set these standards by spending time with all staff and students, investing in everyone, not just the powerful. Make new staff feel welcomed, valued and integrated.

5. Be inclusive: It’s not about a list of ‘women’, ‘foreign students’, ‘support staff’ – you’re either inclusive or not.

6. Prioritise help for the ‘majority in need’: It might be new mums, but equally it might be new dads! Help these people get back on track – nothing costs more than a member of staff who doesn’t write grants: allow your returning staff the space to do this by funding a postdoc/technician to help them out for a few months so the staff member can focus on their grant writing.

7. Be honest: Expose the humanity of your department so you know what the problems are, and work out how to improve. Determine where unconscious bias is creeping in – we all do it! Personal bias results in bad decision making.

I hope you will agree that our working environment would be a much better place if we followed these guidelines. I would argue that we are already working on some of these, but with regard to point 2, a particular hobby-horse’ of mine is the attitude of academic staff to administrators. I have lost count of the number of times during my career that I have heard (and indeed seen in print) disparaging remarks about support staff from academics. This is surely unprofessional and pointless. If we are truly committed to Athena Swan, we need to ‘walk the talk’.

Having noted all this, in a faculty such as SAgE the focus must be on women’s careers, since as we know there is huge gender inequality in the majority of our schools. So what can we do? Having chaired close on 100 academic appointing panels since arriving in Newcastle about 3 years ago, I have constantly been struck by the small numbers of women applying for roles. We can shrug our shoulders and suggest that the problem arises further down the chain – not enough girls taking STEMM subjects at school and so on, but that’s missing the point. In short, we need to take positive action. However, we must be careful to distinguish this from positive discrimination. To illustrate, if we advertised a role for women only (or indeed for a particular ethnic group), then this would be illegal. I would also argue that it is undesirable, since in  a meritocracy surely the best person for the role should get the job. However, if we advertised a role that is geared for someone who has taken, or may need to take, a career break, then this would be positive action rather than positive discrimination. Moreover, it is perfectly acceptable, and in my view very desirable, to highlight opportunities to under-represented genders and convince them to apply for the role.

These are just a couple of ways in which we can address the imbalance. I’m sure there are many more. I’d welcome thoughts from anyone – I will be organising a series of events over the coming year to discuss possibilities and opportunities, with the aim of creating a culture of positive action.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

REF2014 Outcome

So, the sleepless nights are now over (for a while anyway) as the outcome of REF2014 is published. We are still analysing the results, but overall the outcome for both the institution and the faculty is positive. The headline is that as an institution we have moved up one place with respect to overall grade-point-average from 27th to =26th. Perhaps  a better measure of our performance is research power, where we move from 17th to 16th. I would say that wouldn’t I, but seriously research power is a better measure because, if an institution returned just one individual with four  guaranteed 4* outputs, then they would top the table in terms of the GPA for outputs. This is an extreme example but hopefully you can see what I mean.

This overall result does however hide some spectacular successes at UoA level. Top of the class this time in SAgE is computing sciences, who have risen to 9th of 89 submissions. Mathematics has also done extremely well, achieving =11th from 53 submissions. Moreover, electrical engineering has also performed well rising to 16th from 37 submissions. The performance of computing science is particularly pleasing – I’ve often highlighted on these pages our aspirations for Science Central, involving an investment of some £50M of University funds. Computing Science will be anchor tenant of this operation, so if their performance had dropped I might have anticipated collecting my P45. The performance of electrical engineering and mathematics is also of significant relevance as the driving schools behind the rebirth of our new Physics programme (which is progressing very well by the way).

So was an increase of one place worth all the effort? Of course – you need to be in it to win it! It’s early days, but from cursory inspection it looks as though, with few exceptions, there has not been much movement across the sector (although I note that some significant ‘competitors’ seem to be below us). This would suggest that, while our performance has obviously improved, so has that of many others. At the risk of repeating myself it’s a Darwinian world out there.

Of course, given notable successes, there have been some falls in a  couple of UoAs within SAgE. No need to panic – we’ll take the time to think through what went wrong and devise a strategy to improve for the next REF. As all will hopefully know, our main strategic focus in SAgE has been the next REF, and today’s outcome is a very solid basis for this. A heartfelt thanks to everyone involved in the exercise.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Future in Singapore

Having recently returned from an extended visit to Singapore (see previous blog), I thought I’d share some general thoughts.

I always enjoy visiting Singapore – apart from the weather (It’s close to freezing with severe gales here in the UK as I write this), I’m amazed by the friendliness and openness of the people, and the ‘can-do’ attitude. A new building seems to have appeared literally every time I visit. I’m convinced that it is an excellent environment in which to do business, and there is much business that can be done.

As a general observation, from Singapore NU seems an awful long way from NUIS. This is stating the obvious of course, and the reverse is true, but my point is that I don’t believe that our two operations (that are in reality one operation) are as effectively joined-up as they should be. The time difference doesn’t help of course – I found myself spending most evenings responding to the many e-mails that start to arrive at 5pm Singapore time. But with a little thought we can overcome these issues. As a reminder, NU does not franchise, so a strong academic link between NU and NUIS is paramount. I was surprised, for example, to find that some members of staff at NUIS are not members of research groups within their parent schools in NU. We need to fix this and a number of others problems derived from the perceived time and distance barriers with some haste. Fortunately the solutions are not difficult.

As as second observation, it was pleasing to see the breadth and depth of the talent pool at NUIS. This is not just a ‘teaching operation’ – 8 Million Singapore Dollars (ca. £4M) of research awards have been raised to date (in many respects against the odds) and recently the first Nature paper arose from Singapore. We need to build on this, and the opportunities for doing so in Singapore are very significant. In a world where the availability of research funding in the UK continues to drop in real terms, we need to look offshore in order effectively to grow our activities in a number of areas. Marine Technology is but one example, and it was pleasing to find a number of opportunities for growth following discussions with appropriate parties.

So what of the future? At the risk of boringly repeating myself, our vision is of a sustainable presence in Singapore in teaching, research and engagement. Nothing that I experienced during my visit suggested that this would be unachievable – quite the reverse. The critical tasks that we now need to undertake to achieve our vision seem to me to be straightforward, although I won’t share them on this open blog. Suffice to say that we will be compiling a written strategy over the next six month or so, and we will be seeking input from various stakeholders as we go through this process.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Visit to Singapore

Greetings from a very hot, humid Singapore. I’m here for the month of November, partly to understand better the challenges of operating a campus 11,000 km from home, and partly to develop a future strategy for our presence in Singapore.

Our vision for Singapore is a sustainable presence in research, teaching and engagement. NU has been operating here for a good number of years (long before I joined the organisation) and it is fair to say that we have been very successful. We particularly welcome our on-going collaboration with Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), with whom we have delivered a successful series of degree programmes. Indeed, next year will see the graduation of our 1,000th student.

Times change however, and it is time to look at how we wish to operate in the future. On the one hand, SIT has recently gained status as an autonomous University in Singapore. This will mean ultimately that our relationship with them will change, as they formulate and deliver their own strategy as an independent unit. On the other hand, we need to look carefully at what we are trying to achieve here. Despite our success in delivering teaching in Singapore, it is a fact that this has had little impact on our standing in international league tables. Indeed, in my view delivering teaching programmes alone worldwide will never improve our rankings – without wishing to belittle our teaching effort, international ranking in the main is based on research profile – one only need look at the drivers for the various league tables to see that this must be the case.  So a significant aspect of my task over the next month is to determine how we can grow our research presence here. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this is not straightforward (otherwise we would have done it already!). There are after all two world-class Universities here already, namely the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). I will be visiting them both during my stay and indeed have already paid a first visit to NTU.

I am heartened by the fact that a significant driver for research in Singapore is impact. In a  country with few natural resources the knowledge economy is very important, and research funding is heavily directed to work that is of direct relevance to the prosperity and sustainability of Singapore. This fits perfectly with the NU  Civic University philosophy and closely parallels our vision for Science Central – ‘Digitally Enabled Urban Sustainability’. At the time of the Industrial Revolution, Newcastle and the region was a powerhouse of innovation (that has declined and subsequently rediscovered itself), whereas Singapore is ‘on the way up’. I’m sure there is some interesting work to be done in comparing the two.

I’ll be reporting back on my findings to Executive Board in early December, in the expectation that we will be able to clarify our future strategy in Singapore early in the New Year.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

League tables (yet again)

It’s league table season once again, and the annual THE rankings arrived on my desk last week.  Once again it’s not the best news – we have fallen from 180th position in 2012 to 198th in 2013 to below 200 in 2014. As I mentioned last year, such a fall is unlikely to be statistically significant (especially this time being only four places), but nonetheless our fall to outside the top 200, in common with a couple of other UK institutions, has certainly attracted media attention.

Unlike last year, inspection of our scores does not immediately show where we have lost ground. Our total score is determined by performance in five areas. These are as follows for 2014, with the 2012 and 2013 scores in brackets (in that order): teaching 30.3 (37.9,29.7); international outlook 73.8 (74.4,76.3); industrial income 35.0 (37.4,36.9); research 29.6 (30.5,28.3); citations 70.3 (72.1,68.1). Overall it looks as though we have in essence ‘held our ground’, and this is the key point – others appear to have overtaken us.

I use the word ‘appear’ advisedly. The THE article, that runs to 66 pages, undertakes an in-depth analysis of the ‘ups and downs’ compared to previous years. My gripe is that this analysis is predicated on the fact that these data are an accurate reflection of reality – whereas most likely they are not! Many might argue that I would say that, wouldn’t I (sour grapes and all that), but I suggest you read an interesting article entitled ‘Debating the role of metrics in research assessment’ by Professor Stephen Curry at Imperial College – in a 9th ranked institution one can hardly claim that he has an axe to grind. Moreover, looking at the raw data exposes some dramatic inconsistencies – Tokyo Metropolitan University, in the 226-250 ranked group, apparently scores 100.0 for citations, higher than the first-placed university (Caltech), yet only manages 9.8 for research.

To illustrate the idiosyncrasies of the rankings process, let’s take the ranking of Civil and Structural Engineering  in the QS league tables (in which NU fares considerably better than in the THE league table by the way). Imperial college is ranked 9th in the world for this discipline in the QS league table for this year, and NU is ranked in the 151-200 range. Yet, in the last research assessment exercise, NU was placed in the top 3 institutions based on research power, just behind Imperial. I don’t think anyone would argue with the rigour of the research assessment exercise, and given that league tables typically have a strong research bias, on the face of it these data are difficult to reconcile.

So on one level I’m not losing any sleep over our fall in the latest THE league table. But on another it is very important – like it or not many influential people and organisations take these data at face value. To paraphrase Stephen Curry, the apparent objectivity of numbers is very seductive. Nonetheless, few would argue with the notion that the top 20 (or so) institutions in the most prominent league tables really are the best in the world, but to argue that there is any significant difference between say, the 100-150th ranked institutions is rather missing the point. This doesn’t mean of course that we should abandon our vision to improve our international reputation, but our latest fall in the league tables is not an indication that we are focussing on the wrong issues.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Innovator of the Year 2014

Earlier this year we sought applications once again for the Innovator of the Year competition. This year we chose to support two prizes, one for pedagogical research and one for Pure and Applied Research in Science or Engineering. In the event we received a number of applications in each category. All were very worthy, but ultimately one was chosen as being particularly innovative in each category.

Turning first to Pure and Applied Research, after much deliberation we chose the submission in Marine Biotechnology from Prof. Grant Burgess entitled ‘A marine endonuclease for enhanced biofilm dispersal: a new weapon in the fight against bacteria’. Biofilms are slimey layers of microbes that grow on surfaces. These are a serious problem for medicine and industry, since they can protect harmful and infectious bacteria from attack by antibiotics. Biofilms are also a major factor in fouling and corrosion of sea vessels for example, and are a major cause of complications following implantations such as artificial hip surgery. Biofilms are very difficult and costly to remove, suggesting that a new approach is urgently needed. Prof. Burgess and his team have addressed this need using a biofilm dispersing compound secreted from a bacterium known as Bacillus lichenoformis. The innovative step involved the recognition that the dispersing compound is a small protein molecule (enzyme) known as an endonuclease, abbreviated NucB. NucB degrades extracellular DNA, which is an essential component of biofilms, thus disrupting the structure of the biofilm rendering it susceptible to antibiotics and biocides. Having made this discovery, Prof. Burgess and his team assembled a cross-faculty team of experts in SAgE and FMS to carry out toxicity testing to verify the safety of NucB in this application, and to allow defence of their patent applications by showing that NucB could effectively remove biofilms from a range of surfaces such as glass and stainless steel. In December 2013 NucB was successfully licensed to a reagents company and has received international interest from commercial partners for applications in other clinical, industrial and domestic applications.

In the pedagogical research section, again after much deliberation we chose the submission by Drs. Christie Harner, Alison Graham and Sara Marsham for their work on feedback and assessment. Their aim was to improve the clarity of marking criteria and link feedback comments more explicitly to the criteria, with a focus on comments that would improve student performance on future assessments. Additionally, they wanted to produce a system that created equity between marks and feedback comments even if the work was marked by different assessors.

Using GradeMark as an electronic marking platform, they developed libraries of feedback comments specific to a particular assessment and its marking criteria. This enabled  questions to be posed to students to improve their understanding of content and skills for future assessments and provide positive feedback. Using a bank of feedback comments improves consistency between markers and allows for a dialogue to take place that is not heavily reliant on staff time. Electronic marking also complements online submission, eliminating the physical retention of coursework and allowing for more efficient marking.

The innovative step was not simply about using an electronic platform but also about engaging students in the whole marking process, starting with talking through the marking criteria before the submission deadline and using tailored comments and rubrics to show students how they performed in each of the criteria. The latter can help to reinforce the importance of key transferable skills that students often undervalue.

The project has had an impact on our students, improving their engagement with the feedback process and satisfaction with the feedback provided. Funding was obtained from the Higher Education Academy to host a workshop on assessment and student dialogue in November 2013 – a direct result of success with GradeMark and an opportunity to engage the wider community. The 2013/14 academic year also saw key evidence of impact as several  colleagues agreed to adopt the software and embed workshops about marking criteria into additional modules. ULTSEC has also agreed to fund a number of additional pilots across the University, each influenced by the approach of using GradeMark and pre-submission workshops to engage students in the feedback process.

So many congratulations to the successful applicants. Many thanks also to those who submitted excellent proposals but were not successful on this occasion – keep innovating!







Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Undergraduate Admissions 2014

Welcome back to those who have been on vacation during August – I trust you had a relaxing break. It’s Undergraduate Admissions time once again – a period of frantic activity for admissions teams and sleepless nights for Pro-Vice Chancellors!

You will recall that we did very well last year, managing to exceed our ‘ABB+’ numbers target. So how did we do this year? In short, even better! Numbers to date suggest that we have exceeded our ‘ABB+’ target numbers by a very substantial margin. Given that this is an open blog I won’t mention numbers, but there has been a very strong performance across the Faculty. I should particularly draw attention to Mechanical Engineering and Chemistry, who together have amassed the lion’s share of the additional numbers. As I write we are within a whisker of our ‘core’ numbers as well.

This is an outstanding performance, and I’d like to congratulate all the admissions teams for their hard work and determination. The outcome is particularly meritorious given that demographics and the much publicised drop in grades works against achieving our target, which in itself is greater than last year’s. These factors will continue to work against us of course, so we must not be complacent – it will always be hard work to convince the very best students to study with us.

Next year promises to be the first when student number controls will be lifted. While there might be a temptation to increase student numbers still further, we need to give this a great deal of thought. As we enter the annual planning round with schools toward the end of this year and early next, we need to consider the aspirations of the school and the overall strategy. This might involve expansion of undergraduate student numbers but equally it might not. The student experience is paramount of course, but we need to ensure also that academic staff are given sufficient time to focus on research and scholarly activities. Moreover, there needs to be a healthy balance between undergraduate and postgraduate numbers. We also need to consider what are aspirations are in the longer term. This will almost certainly involve significant investment in new facilities. The Science Central project is moving along rather nicely, but we will likely need additional facilities to satisfy our long-term vision. On that note there is another exciting project ‘on the boil’, which I hope to report on during the next academic session.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A month is a long time in Politics!

As we approach the final stages of the undergraduate admissions process for 2104-15 it is worth noting the outcome of the deliberations of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee tasked with examining the student loans system (see report here). They argue that a record of inaccurate debt forecasting and failure effectively to collect student loans threatens the continued existence of the current student loans model. I mentioned in the last blog that the  Chancellor has removed the cap on student numbers for 2015-16 and beyond. This was a very welcome development for Universities since in effect we are able to recruit as many students as we are able to attract, thus allowing us to grow certain disciplines strategically. However, the report questions whether the current loans policy is affordable, and may result in a multi-billion budget gap. So barely a month later I’m writing this blog in the knowledge that the concept of uncapped numbers might be under threat.

Under the present system for students resident in England, the Government loses around 45p on every £1 it lends. The Committee supports the removal of the student numbers cap as a worthy aspiration but raises concerns that the Chancellor’s linking of this policy to income raised from the much publicised sale of the ‘student loan book’ could result in an additional burden on the tax-payer. Given the uncertainty around how much could be realised through this sale – the Government’s own commissioned analysis indicates that the sale would only raise £2bn rather than £12bn originally forecast – the Committee has asked the Government to show how the £5.5bn required between now and 2018-19 will be raised.

On the face of it this is a worrying development. There is no sign (to date) that the Government will back-track on its plans to remove the cap on student numbers, but the question remains how the gap in funding will be made up. There is concern that this will be achieved by raiding other income streams, such as the research budget. This would be a very unwelcome development that ‘robs Peter to pay Paul’. The research budget is effectively reducing year-on-year through erosion by inflation, and any further reduction, which would be dramatic to make up the shortfall, would seriously jeopardise the world status of the UK research base.

Then there is the possible impact of a general election in 2015 on education policy. If student fees are lowered, the question arises from where this additional shortfall would derive. Of course, lower fees would mean a lower level of debt, but there is no guarantee that any reduction in fees would be matched by a larger block-grant. The tripling of student fees a few years ago was, and remains, deeply unpopular with undergraduates. It is not always appreciated however that the increase in fees was matched by a dramatic decline in the level of block-grant support, so Universities did not suddenly become cash-rich.

So we need to proceed with caution. Dave Ramsey, our Faculty Management Accountant, has developed a tool to allow us to undertake ‘sensitivity analyses’ of student numbers (amongst other things). This will allow us to analyse the risks of failing to meet our planned student cohort for the forseeable future due to circumstances that are not under our control (and most circumstances seem to fall into this bracket!). We won’t be taking any unnecessary risks until the external environment becomes more certain.

This will be the last blog for this academic year – happy holidays everyone!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

All change for student admissions (again)

The decision earlier in the year by the current government to remove the cap on undergraduate student numbers from 2015 was the subject of an article in The Guardian yesterday. This decision in effect means that universities can recruit as many undergraduates as they choose. I think it’s fair to say that this policy caught everyone in the sector by surprise, because the media focus at the time was largely on the affordability (or rather the non-affordability) of the student loan-book. Despite this policy change, the system can hardly be described as a free market since the fee cap remains at £9000. Moreover, the vast majority of universities are charging the maximum fee (only ten institutions will charge less in 2014/15), resulting in a clustering at the top end of the fee scale.

At one level, the removal of the cap on student numbers will be welcomed by organisations such as ourselves, because we can set our own quota. However, at another level it is likely dramatically to introduce more competition in the system. We are already seeing an increase in unconditional offers by some institutions in an effort to get ahead of the pack. Indeed, in SAgE we have trialled this for entry into computational sciences this year. The key point is that every organisation needs to differentiate itself from the competition. There will clearly be winners and losers – since the total pool of undergraduate numbers is fixed, if one institution decides to grow student numbers then another must lose market share. According to the article, some universities have expanded numbers by 35%, whereas others, such as a number of post-1992 institutions, have seen entrants drop by more than 20%. There is every possibility that the discrepancy will be more pronounced as the student numbers controls are relaxed. With a general election around the corner, it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds. Will the fee cap be remove completely? Possibly, although a Labour government has pledged to reduce fees to £6k.

It’s difficult to know how best to plan under the circumstances, but we must clearly be vigilant. As I’ve noted previously, the key to our future success is quality, quality, quality. But we also need to be clear about the distinctiveness of our offering. We must explain with crystal clarity why, for example, an undergraduate should choose to study Chemistry at NU rather than another local university. While we have had a very successful recruitment campaign in recent years, we mustn’t become complacent and assume that the same will be true going forwards. As we develop a new vision for the faculty to coincide with the outcome of REF 2014, we need to ensure that we focus on what it is we are really good at, and how this sets us apart from the competition. Any input into our thinking on this would be very welcome.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Open access and the next REF

Many will be aware that research funding bodies (research councils and charities) have, over the past few years, increasingly insisted that the outcomes of research that they fund are available in the public domain. For example, any publications arising from funded research need to be ‘open access’. For those unfamiliar with scientific publishing, let me explain that in the recent past an academic would submit a piece of research in the form of a manuscript to  a particular learned journal. Following peer-review, if the paper is accepted for publication, it would appear in hard-copy printed form in a future edition of the journal – sometimes as long as 6 months or a year after acceptance. In order to access and read that work, it is necessary to purchase a subscription to the journal, either as an individual or as an organisation. The cost of the subscription can be significant, and if an individual or organisation cannot afford same, then it is not possible to access or read the work. Funding bodies, some of whom are in effect the keepers of public money (i.e. research councils) have argued that this is not an appropriate use of public funds – they quite rightly require public funded research to be accessible publically. The digital revolution doesn’t change anything by the way – while we can routinely access almost any journal from our desks at NU, this comes at very significant expense in the form of subscriptions paid to the publishers by our organisation.   One should also remember that academics do not typically receive any payment for publishing an article in journals – in fact we are often require to pay ‘page charges’ to offset the cost of publication. Moreover, we are frequently asked to peer review the submissions of others, again without payment – a situation we all accept since otherwise the system would break down.

The problem with open access is that the publishers are in effect being asked to make publications available to anyone with access to the internet, without charge. Publishers are businesses like any other, and thus need revenue to stay in business. Since the ‘reader’ does not pay, the only other means to raise revenue is to charge the author for open access. Again, this is a significant amount of money.  The outcome however is that anyone logging on to the journal webpage can click on a link and download the publication. This is known as “gold open access” as recommended in the Finch report. An alternative, much cheaper mechanism is “green access” where the final, accepted version of the manuscript (not the typeset version) is available on a  local publication repository – such as we have at NU.

A very important recent development is the publication of a policy on open access by HEFCE which will have dramatic implications for the next REF. You can read the full document here, but here are the key points:

  • To be eligible for submission to the post-2014 REF, authors’ final peer reviewed manuscripts must have been deposited in an institutional or subject repository (i.e. minimum “green access”) on acceptance for publication – note the date of acceptance rather than the date of publication!
  • The policy allows repositories to respect embargo periods set by publications, but closed deposits must be discoverable to anyone with an internet connection before the full text becomes available for read and download.
  • There are a number of exceptions to this policy but it clear that the vast majority of outputs from SAgE will need to comply.

Fortunately, the policy will only apply to journal articles and conference proceedings accepted for publication after 1st April 2016. There is no immediate issue therefore, but we need to get our act together rather quickly nonetheless. The Dean of Research will be working with the Research Committee to figure out the best way to ensure compliance with this policy well before the deadline.

Finally, the University does receive funds to support gold access. These will be insufficient to allow every publication from SAgE to have gold access. Again the Dean of Research will devise a policy regarding which outputs should be afforded this level of access, and will report back in due course.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

SAgE draft vision and mission

In January I noted that a major project this year will be to renew the SAgE vision. The current vision is now several years old, and the world has moved on apace since that time. Moreover, the results of REF2014 will be known later this year, so it is a good time to think about whether our vision and strategy are fit for purpose. We will thus be looking at the overall University strategy early next year once the REF results are known. Hence we have the best part of  a year to firm up on the SAgE vision so that it dovetails with the overall institututional vision as we update our ‘Vision 2021’ document.

Faculty Executive Board met for an away-day in late March to discuss and debate our new vision, assisted by Craig Smith from Flint Consulting ( Our aim was to produce a brief draft document that outlined our initial thoughts on where we want to be ten years hence. The result, on a single side of A4,  can be found here. The key statement is the BHAG or ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’, originally proposed by James Collins and Jerry Porras. It is a single medium-long term goal that is likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible.

Consonant with the BHAG, we spent some time thinking about our core ideology, namely our core values and purpose. Our core values define what we are really passionate about, rather than what we write in the glossy brochures! Finally, we unpack the BHAG by providing a more vivid description of our envisioned future.

So what do you think? It is important to note that this is very much the starting point rather than the finished product. We want everyone in the faculty to contribute to the process, and to this end Heads of School and Heads of Unit will be ensuring that these thoughts are shared and discussed widely within academic units over the summer. The plan is to continue these discussions through to the start of the autumn semester, and then to hone our thinking with a finished product in time for the calendar year-end.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Innovator of the Year 2014

Following the success of the ‘Innovator of the Year’ competition in 2012 and 2013, we’d like to run the competition once again this year. As a reminder, the prize has been  awarded in previous years to the investigator who, in the opinion of the awards committee, has generated the most innovative research contribution (pure, applied or pedagogical) during the academic year in question (i.e. 2013-2014 for the current competition). Applications from groups of researchers are welcome, but must nominate a lead Principal Investigator (PI).

This year we plan to offer a prize in each of two categories. The first category will comprise pure and applied research, and the second will comprise pedagogical research. This categorisation is not intended to imply that these activities are necessarily distinct (indeed, I have previously argued that they are part of a continuum), but nonetheless there is a concern that those engaged principally in pedagogical research are discouraged from applying.

In order to qualify, evidence must be provided that the innovative step was realised during the academic year in question. This may take the form of a patent application, research output, evidence of a novel teaching programme, or similar (at the discretion of the applicant) – such evidence must be appended to the application. Only one application will be entertained from each PI, except when she or he is named on a group submission, in which case one additional submission will be permitted.

The closing date for applications will be  31st July 2014 and the winning submission will be announced at the start of the academic session 2014-2015. The prize funds (£5000 for each category) will be transferred into a nominated university account, to be used to support the research programme of the successful applicant, at their discretion. Where the winning submission derives from a group of researchers, the lead PI will decide the appropriate split of funds.

Applications should be sent by e-mail to Barbara Graham ( by the closing date.

The awards committee will comprise PVC SAgE, Deans of Research & Innovation, Undergraduate Studies, Postgraduate Studies. The decision of the awards committee will be final.

Good luck everyone – keep innovating!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Transformational Teaching

Recently our Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Chris Phillips, organised a leadership forum session on transformational teaching. As we move inexorably towards a free-market in student education, our offering in learning and teaching will increasingly determine how successful we are at student recruitment. It’s clear from that workshop that we need to move from transactional teaching towards transformational teaching.

Transactional teaching concerns the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. An example would be an ‘old fashioned’ lecture. Students are expected to assimilate and analyse the new knowledge themselves. Transformational teaching on the other hand, concerns inquiry, critical thinking and higher order learning and communication skills. When we speak to potential employers, they tell us that they value both the ability to solve problems together with excellent communication skills. Hence the transformational approach would appear to offer our graduates a much better skill-set for the future.

I remember being seated amongst linear rows of fellow students during my undergraduate days and being subjected to transactional teaching – the lecturer would typically drone on about matters that, at the time, seemed not particularly related to the printed syllabus. And there were no learning objectives by the way.  I was however lucky enough to have weekly one-to-one tutorials with my personal tutor – a much more effective means of teaching, but I suspect no more to all intents and purposes due to the burgeoning numbers of students that are now in the higher education system. Don’t get me wrong – I welcome an inclusive education system rather than one set up for the elite – but we need to ask whether traditional teaching methods are still fit for purpose.

One of the most inspirational moments in my life was the opportunity to attend a short course at a US University. I was in a class of about 80, but what was most significant about the course was its interactive nature. Firstly, the lecture theatre was not organised in linear rows but had an ‘amphitheatre’ format. This served the dual purpose of creating a more convivial learning environment, but also, importantly, ensured that everyone could see each other. The lecturer stood in the middle of the amphitheatre, and after a few minutes’ by way of brief introduction (using a chalk-board – no powerpoint!), proceeded to grill the audience (apparently) randomly with searching questions – but no-one escaped being challenged! Again, the amphitheatre format allowed her/him to engage directly eye-to-eye, which would have been impossible in a conventional linear format, and the rest of the audience could watch the proceedings and feel directly involved.

As we begin to build at Science Central or indeed on the main campus, I think we need to consider what the next innovative step in teaching and learning is likely to be. Whether it is for example a variant on ‘flip teaching’ or the Moore method, we need to ensure that we have the correct infrastructure in place. This will likely not be a linear lecture format, nor perhaps will it be an amphitheatre. Given the rapid developments in IT, perhaps it will be centred around social space – a group of leather sofas with teaching material on tablets (or whatever will replace them in 3 years’ time). Or perhaps we need space that can be easily reconfigured between a conventional raked auditorium to flat open-plan configuration. Please share your thoughts as we start the plan the first University building at Science Central.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Bigger is better?

California Institute of Technology (CalTech) is currently the world’s first ranked University according to the THE World University Rankings. Given the current importance of league tables (despite their obvious shortcomings) it’s worth thinking about how CalTech managed to achieve this. A recent article in THE provides some clues (see here).

First, however, it’s worth looking at size. If one looks at the  Russell Group of Universities, there is clearly a correlation between size and league table position as shown below.

New Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (2)One must of course bear in mind the principle of causality, i.e. does size breed excellence or does excellence breed size, but nonetheless the principle that the ‘big’ universities occupy prominent positions in the league tables generally holds, despite some notable outliers.

So back to CalTech – the surprise is that it is tiny compared with the majority of Universities, including those in the Russell Group. What is the secret of its success? Crucially, its small size means interdisciplinarity is an absolute must. In order to compete with places like MIT, which has some 7-8 times more academic staff in engineering and applied science, for example, it is necessary for CalTech to focus on areas that interact if they are to make a big impact. As one might imagine, social interaction between staff across multiple disciplines forms a significant part of this strategy. Another factor in Caltech’s success is careful attention to academic recruitment. Given the limited number of faculty members, there is no room for error – every academic hire must really count, so they go to extraordinary lengths when hiring staff and there is a full commitment to staff once they are in post.

So why don’t we generally employ the model of “small is beautiful” in academic institutions in the UK? In some senses we do – a number of the outliers in the figure above are high quality universities. But here’s the point – CalTech has enormous wealth at its disposal, with an endowment estimated at $1.8 billion . This means that significant levels of investment can be directed to leverage ‘excellence’ in almost any area of choice. In the UK, where endowment income is a tiny fraction of that seen in the US, if we want to be able to create financial headroom to leverage activity then we need to do it in a different way. One obvious mechanism is to be a larger institution – for a given surplus as a fraction of turnover, more money will be available in larger institutions.

Despite the size argument, there are a couple of lessons we could usefully learn from CalTech. First, the need for interdisciplinary working is clearly critical, and NU should hopefully be in good shape here given our plans for Science Central – the first university building will certainly include facilities for social interactions between staff from multiple disciplines from academia and industry. The second lesson we can perhaps learn is that if a field has been around for a while, CalTech disfavours doing it, because they should be inventing the next fields. I’m not suggesting that we will routinely be in a position to do this, but more thinking outside the box rather than incremental research must surely pay dividends.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Building on our success

The past couple of years have seen a dramatic change in fortunes within SAgE. We have rapidly moved from a faculty that was endeavouring to minimise an annual deficit, to one where we are enjoying a significant surplus. Of course, the external environment has had  a lot to do with this, but it’s important to acknowledge that it would not have been possible without tremendous hard work on behalf of  staff at all grades throughout the Faculty.

 Given this favourable state of affairs, it is an opportune time to look at how we can make this favourable financial position work to deliver on our aspirations. We discussed this issue at Faculty Executive Board this week. Mindful of the need to further strengthen our research in preparation for the next REF exercise, there was strong support for investment in a number of PhD studentships across the Faculty. Our finances are such that we should be in a   position to invest in 25 such studentships annually, and assuming that these will be for up to four years, this will result in a steady-state cohort of 100, four years from now.

 The proposal is to invest these studentships in the nine research themes that Faculty Executive Board identified last summer (see here), in which we either already have research quality and critical mass, or are in the process of building such. These will be in addition to the ‘DTG’ studentships that we allocate to support EPSRC funded projects, or studentships that are currently funded within schools. The Postgraduate Dean will be consulting with Heads of School over the next month to figure out the best mechanism to ensure that we recruit students of the highest quality. A substantial advantage in funding them ourselves is that there are no strings attached – we can search world-wide for the very best.

On a different note, Times Higher Education last week reported on ‘The Best University Workplace 2014’. It’s pleasing to report that with regard to recommending NU as a good place to work we came 4th, and we are also in the top 5 with regard to various other measures (see THE page 43). As I’ve said before if, in reaching for the stars, NU becomes an awful place to work, we will have failed. While we need to be careful about league tables (the sample size looks to be quite small from the limited data provided) this result suggests that we are continuing to move in the right direction.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A New Faculty Vision

When I first arrived in Newcastle just over two years ago, I was struck by the Faculty vision. Why? Because it is so unmemorable! Can you remember what it is? I must confess that I can’t recall it from memory easily. Here it is: 

“To be a faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering with a global reputation  for academic excellence in its areas of strength, that provides leadership to the University and region in Sustainability, and that contributes substantially to all the University’s Societal Challenge themes.”

So what’s wrong with it? First, it uses words such as ‘global reputation’ and ‘academic excellence’. What do these actually mean? What is academic excellence, and how will we know when we’ve got it? Second, it’s not very specific – what does ‘substantially’ mean? Do we really want to provide leadership only to the University and the region in Sustainability, or are our aspirations more global? I’m being deliberately glib but I hope you can see what I mean. Now that we have all hopefully recovered from the exhaustion (literally) of the REF exercise, it seems like a good time to think about refreshing the vision. After all, much water has passed under the bridge since the original vision was formulated – continuously changing student number controls, impact statements and the like.

It’s important to have  a clear and specific vision, because if we are to enjoy more success we need to work as a team. Moreover, we need to work towards a common goal. If 100 people have a different opinion of what ‘excellence’ means, then we will all carve different paths to what we believe is that goal, whereas in fact we will be diluting our efforts.

While I’m on the subject it’s worth mentioning the difference between a vision statement and a mission statement. A vision statement outlines where we want to be, and communicates both our purpose and values. A mission statement talks about how we will get there. It defines  the purpose and primary objectives related to our customer needs and team values. It follows that a mission statement concerns the present and a vision statement concerns the future.

Here’s a good vision statement from Amazon:

“Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online”.

You are left in no doubt that Amazon intends to be the best in the world at what it does – and the vision is memorable!

Over the next few months Faculty Executive Board will be discussing a renewed vision for SAgE, followed by an away-day in March to crystallise our thoughts. I’ll also be visiting each school during that time to hear your own thoughts about where you would like us to be by 2020. It’s very important that we create the vision from the bottom up so that everyone buys in to the direction of travel, so please share your thoughts – innovative ideas particularly welcome!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Bolt from the Blue

The announcement in the recent government Autumn Statement rather caught the sector by surprise. The complete abolition of student number controls flies in the face of Treasury rhetoric which suggested that the current student loans system is unsustainable financially. The abolition of number controls from 2015, on the face of it, further puts pressure on sustainability.

For those who have not been following the change in student number controls over recent years, let me explain that it is currently based on the ‘core’ and ‘margin’ system. Until recently, student numbers at a given institution were strictly controlled by an applied ‘quota’, with significant financial penalties for exceeding that quota. More recently, Government relaxed these controls somewhat by allowing eligible institutions to accept as many students with A-level grades of ‘AAB’ or equivalent (‘the margin’) concomitant with a reduction in the quota (‘the core’, meaning students with grades below AAB). Last year, the margin criterion was relaxed further to ‘ABB’, with a further reduction in core. The general expectation was that this would remain the status quo, or perhaps even a further relaxation of the margin to BBB.

One can only guess why Government has chosen this option now. The Chancellor indicated that the relaxation of controls, which in effect is an open cheque book for student loan numbers, will be funded by the sale of the ‘loan book’, i.e. to put this under the control of a non-Governmental organisation, meaning it disappears from the Government’s books. However, recent press reports suggest that the Chancellor has conceded that this will be insufficient to fund the shortfall. Perhaps the announcement is a prelude to a root-and-branch review of higher education funding. Irrespective, in a stroke we move closer to a ‘free-market’ in education provision.

It’s difficult to judge what this might mean for NU. On the one hand, 60,000 students failed to gain places this academic year, and the abolition of controls will presumably mean that this will not be the case in the future. On the other hand, it is likely that the majority of these candidates do not have qualifications at ABB or higher, because otherwise they would likely have secured a place given the lack of number controls. As a Russell Group institution, we are typically seeking ABB qualifications or better, and hence it is unlikely that there will be a dramatic increase in student numbers from this cohort. However, it does give us the opportunity to expand significantly in certain areas should we choose to do so, provided of course that we can compete effectively with our peer group institutions who might be interested in doing likewise. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the key to future success once again comes back to the quality of our offering – competition just ratched up a notch.

That’s about it for this year. Best wishes to all for Christmas and the New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Research and Learning & Teaching

An article appeared in The Times on November 21st (page 38) regarding the purpose of a university, arguing that in the future teaching will have to become as important as research.  Hasn’t that always been the case? As a sector we seem to have been drawn into a culture where learning & teaching and research are seen as something separate. Personally I have always seen them as part of the same continuum. Looking back over 30 years as a reasonably successful researcher, it’s clear that what excited me about research was teaching myself – learning new concepts and skills, and communicating the outcome in the best possible journals for the benefit of all. Surely ‘learning & teaching’ is a further step along that continuum.

As a Russell Group University we claim to be good at research informed teaching. From this it follows that first and foremost we must have a very strong research base. This does not mean that research is more important than teaching – but from the concept, learning & teaching must chronologically follow. In this context it’s worth reflecting on what research informed teaching is. Surely it’s about incorporating the latest research results ‘hot from the lab’ in ones teaching material, but I suggest it’s much more than that. Fundamentally it’s about communicating how knowledge is created. It’s about the fact that progress is “99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”, the euphoria of an important result and the despair when things don’t work quite so well. Moreover it’s about the thought processes required to determine the appropriate approach to solve a particular problem, the importance of teamwork and the skills required to communicate to a non-specialist audience. Finally, it’s about sifting through the burgeoning amount of data which are now available and developing the skills to see the wood from the trees.

I suspect the view that teaching has been perceived as less important than research derives from the fact that, in the past, academic staff whose research activities began to wane would be given more teaching duties. This was seen as a penalty, rather than the reality that each of us needs to contribute fully to the overall mission of the organisation in order to earn our salaries. Having said that, it is a reality that it has been more difficult in the past to secure promotion on the basis of teaching & scholarship versus research. I hope that we have now addressed that imbalance at NU. I am however not  a fan of the notion of  ‘parity of esteem for research and teaching’ – in my view this once again implies that each of these activities is distinct. I’d rather think of it as ‘parity of esteem for those who do  an excellent job’.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

REF 2014

So the REF 2014 submission date is almost upon us, and doubtless everyone will breathe a sigh of relief (at least for a while) once the VC presses the submit button. From the perspective of a senior manager, the process has felt like a roller-coaster. From the perspective of many members of academic staff I suspect it has felt a lot worse.

At one level, REF is not about people. It is about submitting the best return we can for the University across all disciplines – but how do we define ‘best’? At one extreme, we could have played the volume game, whereby we include as many people as possible to maximise income. At the other extreme, we could have played the quality game, where we are very selective regarding which outputs we return. We all know how we have in fact played the exercise, which for obvious reasons I won’t reiterate in an open blog, at least not before the final submission date. Irrespective of how it is played, the outcome will, inter alia, be  a grade point average for each UoA and for the organisation as a whole. Importantly, the scores for individuals will never be made public, so one will never know who is a ‘4*’ or a ‘3*’ researcher for sure – we can only surmise based on our own internal assessment, which hopefully will not be so different from the assessment of the panels.

At another level, it is of course all about people. Those who were judged not to have outputs of the requisite quality for inclusion in REF will doubtless feel concerned and angry. Unfortunately, however one plays the game, there will be a line above which people will be included, and a line below which they will not, and the line must be drawn somewhere. Unless the rules are changed so that everyone on a research contract must be included (which I would personally support for subsequent exercises), there will be a cohort of disillusioned staff. To these staff I would say please have faith – the ‘bar to entry’ is now very high, and some very good research will not be included. In concert with the ‘raising the bar’ initiative,  we will need to work with colleagues who didn’t quite make the submission, in order to ensure that they can be returned by the next REF.

As I’ve stated in a previous blog, the REF is perhaps the most rigorous means to assess the quality of research across the sector. However, there is still a significant element of game playing – we hear of one University that has recruited a cohort of staff on 20% contracts  – who are they kidding! The stakes are however very high, because the financial reward and the kudos that comes with a good league table position lives with us until the next REF. So it’s very important that we do our best to get it right and balance quantity versus quality using our best judgement on what every other organisation will be doing.

Have we got it right? Only time will tell – all I can tell you at this stage is that we have given it our best shot.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

League Tables (again)

Lest I am accused of publishing only good news on these pages, this week I can report that NU has dropped significantly following publication of the 2013 THE World University Rankings.To be precise, we have fallen from 180th position in 2012 to 198th in 2013.
The quantitative scientists and engineers amongst us will immediately be aware that such a fall may not be statistically significant – ie it is ‘in the noise’ – but that is unfortunately not the point. The general populus, in these days of soundbites and social media seem unconcerned by such details, and indeed international governments are increasingly using league tables (including THE) to determine where they will (and will not) send their students. A drop to 198th place is a really big deal for us since the cut-off is typically 200th place.

Inspection of our score shows where we have lost ground. Our total score is determined by performance in five areas. These are as follows for 2013, with the 2012 score in brackets: teaching 29.7 (37.9); international outlook 76.3 (74.4); industrial income 36.9 (37.4); research 28.3 (30.5); citations 68.1 (72.1); overall score 44.5 (48.6). It is clear from these data that we have performed worse in every area except international since last year. So what can we do about it? Cynically, we could devise a strategy aimed at improving our scores in each of these areas by addressing them directly. In my view this would not be a sensible approach, for the simple reason that the methodology is likely to change in the future. Several universities have endeavoured to build a vision on the concept of being top n‘th in the world league tables, only to find that they have in fact dropped when the methodology changed. Does this make them lesser universities overnight? Of course not.

A much more sensible approach in my opinion is to focus on excellence in all we do, and let the league tables take care of themselves. In fact the lion’s share of the score in the THE methodology derives from research related performance, and as I have boringly repeated in this blog in the past, our research performance is somewhat off the pace of many of our peers. As we approach the REF 2014 census date, dare I say that we need to maintain the momentum in preparing for the next REF, with the aim of securing an exceptional result. To that end, Faculty Executive Board will soon discuss the ways in which we can accelerate our research performance, with a particular emphasis on the barriers to doing so in individual schools.

Here’s a final thought. Another aspect of the THE methodology concerns a ‘reputation survey’. A random group of peers who are listed in The Web of Science  are asked to rank the top 15 institutions in a particular discipline, and these opinions  contribute 33% of the score. Last year  16,000 academics responded to the survey. Why not try this for yourself – think of the top 15 universities for your discipline, then think about why you chose them. When I try this for my discipline (loosely, chemistry) I conclude that it is ‘impression marking’, based on historic reputation than any tangible metric. I hope I’m in the minority.

How can we get NU into the top 15 of our peers’ rankings? Answers on a postcard please.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Innovator of the Year 2013

Once again we have received a number of high quality applications for the award of ‘Innovator of the Year’. The decision was particularly difficult this year, but ultimately there can be only one winner, namely Wenping Cao, together with Bing Ji and Volker Pickert, for their submission entitled “Intelligent Gate Drive Design for High-Reliability Power Electronic Devices”.

Power devices are a critical aspect of modern technology. These devices are typically used to control electrical power delivery (voltage and current) to modern electronic and electrical units. The device itself is in effect a special type of electronic switch – a transistor – that is capable of handling the substantial electrical power levels required by many modern units. Typically these power devices are in turn controlled by an electronic circuit called a ‘gate drive’. Existing gate drive units are effective in providing on/off functions that switch the power device to provide the control, but are unable to provide fault detection and prognostic functions for the power device – in short, they do not ‘know’ if the power device has failed. Without such protection, the power control is vulnerable for safety-critical applications such as aerospace and electric vehicles, since traditional power electronic devices are prone to failure. Wenping and co-workers have thus developed a new invention to incorporate a smart condition monitoring circuit into the gate drive unit of the power switch, and to measure the failure precursor parameters in situ for reasoning, life consumption prediction, and decision making. They name it the “Intelligent Gate Drive”, and is the world’s first of its kind in power electronics and has started to show significant impacts on the research and practice community as well as potential economic benefits.

Their innovation will have profound impact over the next 10-50 years in the power electronics industry. Academics, designers, and engineers can directly benefit by gaining a better understanding of failure mechanisms of electronic devices, enabling them to develop new materials, new devices, new topologies, new designs and new manufacturing techniques. The UK’s electronics manufacturers will gain competitive advantages by validating their product models generated by numerical, analytical and empirical methods and reducing their research and development risks. Ultimately, because the majority of electricity used in industry is controlled by power electronic switches, improvements in their reliability and efficiency will reduce maintenance costs and energy demand.

So congratulations Wenping, Bing and Volker – an excellent example of innovative thinking. We’ll be offering the prize again next year, so everyone please keep innovating!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Undergraduate Admissions 2013

It’s once again the time of year that both Faculty and certain cross-cutting PVCs experience sleepless nights, as ‘admissions’ is upon us again. While we greet this period with a certain trepidation, at the same time there is a degree of excitement about it – I dropped by the Herschel building early last Thursday to see the admissions process in action, and the energy was literally oozing from the walls!

As many will know, NU received a ca. 16% increase in applications for undergraduate courses this year, and while this provided some confidence in a positive outcome for the admissions process, we were not counting our chickens. A reminder that the system changed again this year, such that universities are permitted to recruit as many students with ABB+ grades, compared with AAB+ last year. In concert,  the number of ‘core’ places (which are strictly controlled)  reduced from last year. Recruiting the permitted number of core students is a fine art, which carries penalties if we get it wrong. If we recruit substantially above our core quota then we risk financial penalties, whereas if we under-recruit then we risk being allocated a smaller quota in subsequent years.

So how did we do? In short, spectacularly well. SAgE has managed to recruit well in excess of its aspirational number of ABB+ students for the faculty as a whole, with some subjects having done extraordinarily well. The clearing process is formally not quite complete as I write, but ‘final’ figures will be available towards the end of the month. As in previous years, the final census date for student numbers is in December. Clearly, this is an outstanding outcome for both SAgE and the university, and I’d like to congratulate all those involved in the admissions process for their dedication and very hard work.

While on the the subject of good news, I can also reveal that NU has broken into the ‘top 50’ (46th) in the European rankings for EU FP7 funding. Again, an excellent result – congratulations to those academic staff who have contributed to this success, and many thanks to the EU funding team for their support.

So all in all it’s shaping up to be an outstandingly successful year. Is this an indication that our strategy is working? – you bet!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Update on NUIS

It’s been a while since I wrote about our operations in Singapore, and having had an NUIS Board Meeting this morning which included an impressive report from Ehsan Mesbahi, the NUIS Chief Executive Officer, it seems an appropriate moment to highlight achievements over the last year.

For those unfamiliar with our Singapore operations, currently five of our schools have staff permanently based there – MAST and CEAM are based at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP), whereas AFRD and MSE (and most recently EEE) are based at Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP). Our presence there is through a collaboration with Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), with whom we have developed an excellent working relationship. It’s fair to say that the operation has grown beyond our expectations. Starting with an intake of 68 students in 2009/10, we are expecting 612 students in 2013/14 with a target of 724 in 2014/15. In 2009/10 we had 4 academic staff based in Singapore, whereas for the academic year 2013/14 we will have 45 staff, comprising 31 academic and 14 support staff. We currently offer seven degree programmes, with a new programme in power engineering coming on stream this year, and another in the pipeline.

As a Russell Group institution, in an ideal world we would build our research activities in parallel with teaching. Practicalities have meant that we needed to introduce and consolidate our teaching programmes first, but we are now well on the way to bringing our research up to strength as well. For example, 12 students are currently being registered for PhD study, and the list of research grants in the last twelve months is very impressive, as shown in the table below.


This is an impressive performance by any standards, particularly when one considers that success rates with research funders in Singapore are no higher than in the UK, and in many respects are even more competitive. Despite this, I would encourage Principal Investigators in Newcastle to discuss research collaborations with their counterparts in Singapore, since the funding opportunities there are very different from our own.

So all in all a very remarkable success story. This however would not have been possible without our colleagues in Singapore, who in many respects have had to pioneer the creation of an offshore campus. On a personal note I’d like to thank you all and look forward to further successes. Thanks are also due to SIT and our colleagues at NP and NYP for working so effectively with us as we build up to full strength.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Government Spending Review 2015-16

So, the long awaited Government Spending Review was published last week. This review is only for the period 2015-16, up to the next General Election. A further Spending review is anticipated in 2015 with a new Government. For those who have not had the time or the energy to sift through the details, here are the headlines that will impact directly on universities:

  • Much of our funding derives from the  Department for Business Innovation and skills (BIS).The BIS DEL budget (DEL meaning the ‘Departmental Expenditure Limit’) will be cut by 5.9% in 2015/16. This is a substantially smaller cut than  feared, given that  BIS is one of  the big, non-protected departments (in contrast to the health and schools budgets for example which are protected).
  • HEFCE  will be asked to make savings of ‘at least’ £45 million within the teaching budget – details are still to be determined, but this almost certainly means that the teaching element of the ‘block grant’ allocated to universities will shrink. We will thus be even more dependent on student fees and our ability to attract the best students.
  • The science budget to be maintained in cash terms at £4.6 billion. This is largely good news since it means that the Research Councils budgets will be preserved – although taking inflation into account this will be a cut in real terms.
  • Capital budget will increase from £0.6 billion in 2012-13 to £1.1 billion in 2015/16 and will increase in real terms in every year to 2020-21. Again this is good news since you will recall that there was a dramatic cut in capital spending when the economic crisis took hold. We don’t know yet how this funding will be apportioned.
  • Within this the government will extend the Research Partnership Investment Fund (RPIF) to 2016-17, making available £160 million per year of match funding to leverage private funding for scientific infrastructure. RPIF is a fund designed to support investment in higher education research facilities. It is adminstered by HEFCE – further details are here
  • Student maintenance grants will be maintained in cash terms in 2015-16, saving £60m.
  • The Government will refocus the National Scholarship Programme to support postgraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The £50 million fund will be administered by HEFCE, and allocated on a competitive and matched-funded basis. The news here is mixed – on the one hand support for postgraduate students is very welcome, since this cohort seems largely to have been forgotten during the fees upheaval. On the other hand these funds have come from the £150M National Scholarship Programme (NSP – i.e. support for undergraduates) which will be phased out. I believe the thinking here is that applications from undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds have not fallen despite the hike in fees (remembering that a university education is still ‘free’ at source).
  • The government is not going to shift medical research or education out of BIS ‘because they are working well where they are’. Although we don’t receive large amounts of MRC money in SAgE, this is a welcome relief since the MRC budget remains a large slice of the BIS budget, rather than a small slice of a very much larger budget, where there is a risk it could be swallowed.
  • Technology Strategy Board to receive and additional £185m to support innovation, including Catapult Centres and the Biomedical Catalyst. This will involve the establishment of new Innovation Platforms to tackle societal challenges, in the following areas:

                                i.             Energy Systems

                               ii.             Future Cities

                              iii.             Health and Care

                              iv.             Transport Systems

                               v.             Expansion of Sustainable Agri-Food Innovation Platform

      Many of these are familiar to us which is again very good news.

  • £50m savings from BIS admin budgets.
  • Single Local Growth fund will be £2 billion a year. LEPs can bid for this funding. At £10 billion over the next five years, this is substantially less than the £50 billion proposed by Lord Heseltine in his review. This is very important for us – LEPs (Local Enterprise Partnerships) will have money, so we need to be ready to bid for these funds when the details emerge.
  • £260m will be cut from the BIS budget for FE.

The overall message from the Government is to ensure the UK remains a world leader in science and research. Overall the outcome is much better than we had feared, and nothing in the review will derail our current strategy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Research Aspirations

We held another Faculty Executive Board away-day on Wednesday, to discuss our research aspirations. We discussed the research vision for the faculty and each of the constituent schools, with a particular emphasis on REF 2020. As everyone will know, we are in the middle of our ‘IQA3’ internal quality exercise. As an open blog, this is not the place to discuss the outcome of this exercise (which in any case is not complete), but while we must focus on our REF2014 submission, it is also very important to begin preparation for the next exercise – from my experience with other institutions there is a tendency to take one’s foot off the pedal once the submission is complete. We must resist the temptation to do this.

One outcome of the away-day was a view on where we hope each school will aim to position itself in 2020. This is summarised in the table below. This table shows the GPA score for each unit at RAE2008, the percentage 4* research activity for that unit, the position (in terms of raw GPA), the number of submissions to that unit, the top-scoring GPA in that unit, and the ambition for 2020. You can see that we are aiming very high.

Sage Research StrategyOf course, declaring one’s ambition is the easy part – working out how to get there is a very different matter. We shared some thoughts about this – again, these are not for an open blog, but your school management team will discuss these with you in due course.

We also discussed the research landscape at Faculty level, focussing on inter-disciplinary research activity between schools, and indeed between faculties. The purpose was to identify cross-cutting themes or ‘nodes’, where a significant critical mass currently exists or is growing. The result (which is a little complex!) is shown in the diagram below. Here, the red text shows areas which we believe already have critical mass, and the orange text shows areas that are emerging. The solid arrows indicate the input from schools and their research groups, whereas the dotted arrows indicate contributions that are either being developed or ought to exist. Apart from providing a  convenient map of research interactions across the Faculty (bearing in mind that we can’t possibly capture them all – only the major ones), this diagram helps us figure out where the next strategic appointments need to be made. It is from these inter-disciplinary research areas that we are likely to see growth in our research activity. Once again, we have asked Heads of School to discuss this more fully within parent schools.


Themes marked ‘*’ are those that will be involved in the first phase of the Science Central development.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

EPSRC Successes

At certain times of the year, there is much anxiety amongst Principal Investigators as they await the outcome of Research Council funding rounds. I’m delighted to report that, following the latest EPSRC funding rounding, NU has enjoyed considerable success. Total EPSRC funding for the first quarter of this calendar year is ca. £15M. The breakdown across the Faculty is shown in the table, although  in many instances this must be taken with a pinch of salt because the larger proposals represent the efforts of many investigators across SAgE and beyond. While the total sum will in some cases be shared with other institutions, these awards nonetheless take our success rate with EPSRC to greater than 80% which is a fantastic achievement,  and we are on-track to exceed our new awards target for this year. Many congratulations and a heartfelt thanks to all involved.


Number of Proposals Funded

Value of Proposals Funded (£)

CEAM 1 265,896
CEG 3 9,154,950
CS 3 1,807,055
EEE 1 2,041,122
IoN 1 564,971
Maths and Stats 1 101,116
MSE 1 61,118
NIReS 1 746,938
Chemistry 1 114,969
TOTAL 13 14,858,136

 I am aware of a number of additional awards ‘in the works’ – these have yet to be announced and those in the table above are strictly those that have been formally announced – so the news will get even better.

Time and space do not permit a detailed narrative on all of these awards, but I will highlight a few. The largest award of ca. £5.5M, coordinated by Professor Tom Curtis (CEG), will exploit biological systems to address in a sustainable way the numerous challenges facing societies such as waste, energy, water, healthcare, new chemicals and materials, and agriculture. One of the greatest limitations in biology is taking what is possible in the test-tube and making it a reality in the reactor or environment. In this project, the investigators seek to use the best scientific principles and theories to develop a suite of universal principles and models for the scalable simulation of open biological systems. These models will allow the engineering design of new functionalities offered by natural or synthetic organisms addressing a range of different challenges for the benefit of mankind.

Another large award in CEG (ca. £3.5M) is coordinated by Professor Richard Dawson, which concerns our national infrastructure.  Systems of networks (e.g. energy, water, transport, waste, ICT) that support services such as healthcare, education, emergency response and thereby ensure our social, economic and environmental wellbeing – face a multitude of challenges. A growing population, modern economy and proliferation of new technologies have placed increased and new demands on infrastructure services and made infrastructure networks increasingly inter-connected. Meanwhile, investment has not kept up with the pace of change leaving many components at the end of their life. Moreover, global environmental change necessitates reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved resilience to extreme events, implying major reconfigurations of these infrastructure systems. Addressing these challenges is further complicated by fragmented, often reactive, regulation and governance arrangements. The project, termed ‘i-BUILD’,  will bring together researchers across three UK Universities with world-leading track records in engineering, economics and social sciences, and the research vision and capacity to deliver a multi-disciplinary analysis of innovative business models around infrastructure interdependencies.

A third large award (ca. £1.3M) coordinated by Professor Peter Wright (COMP) aims to develop and test through real-world research, a digital platform and toolkit that will enable members of the public to engage with local councils and other organisations more effectively in the research, planning and design of the urban environment. The specific focus will concern people’s experiences of mobility and access to the urban environment, and how this changes with age. The project is a collaboration with City Councils in the Northeast Region, and Newcastle’s’ Age Friendly city initiative. The investigators will design and develop a toolkit of digital sensors to capture evidence and experiences from older people’s journeys through and social interactions within the city centre. They will also develop a participatory design platform which will allow members of the general public to access, comment, and vote on design issues, and to add their own experiences of access and the built environment.

All in all, very exciting and innovative ideas. Best of luck to the coordinators and their colleagues for a successful series of projects. We look forward to a number of excellent impact outcomes.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

School Reviews

As part of the new planning process in SAgE, the Faculty Management Team has recently completed a review of each of the ten schools. We’d like to thank the Schools and their Management Teams for the significant work involved in compiling their annual strategic plans, and for taking the time to meet with us at each of the planning meetings.

The Faculty Management Team is impressed by the quality of activity that is ongoing in the Faculty, particularly at this critical time as we approach the REF cenus date. If there is a common thread that runs through the review of a number of Schools, it is however the concept of ‘excellence’. Clearly if we are to aspire to excellence in our research and teaching, we need to have a common understanding of what this means, otherwise different parts of the Faculty will be chasing different targets.

Nowhere is the concept of excellence more important than in research. Ultimately, like it or not, our position on the world stage will principally be determined by research quality. Take league-tables for example – much as their statistical basis might irritate and be  impossible to defend, they are used as a proxy for perceived quality. Indeed, typically 33% or more of the league table ‘score’ comes from others’ perception of us – the league table compilers typically consult a cross-section of the academic community and ask them to rank the top universities, in their opinion. Now, what do you think that opinion is based on? Quality of teaching? Quality of engagement? Or quality of research? Probably all three, but I would suggest that  the latter is highly prominent. Take a look at the top UK performers in the league tables. Is it an accident that they came top (on average) in recent RAE exercises?

In these days of higher student fees and NSS scores, some might feel that this view is heretical. Yet I would argue that it is not. The fallacy is in thinking of teaching versus research, whereas in the top universities the two exist in complete harmony. Disagree? – then consider those same top-ranked universities. Are they selectors or recruiters of the best students? What do their graduate employability statistics look like? How do their NSS scores compare? Of course one can find outliers, but in general the best, most research intensive universities turn out the best graduates and score most highly in the league tables.

Turning to NU, we must relentlessly pursue excellence in our research, first and foremost. This does not demote learning & teaching for reasons noted above. So, in planning for our future we must always ask whether and how a given action will improve the quality of our research, in the broadest sense. If the answer is that it does not, then we need to question whether this is a sensible part of our strategy. It may turn out that it does make sense, but we must ask the question.

In June we will be convening a Faculty Executive away-day, where the Heads of each School and the Faculty Management Team will discuss the outcome of the School Reviews and to consider how each piece of the jigsaw fits together. Our aim will be to produce a blueprint for how research is configured across the Faculty, with a particular focus on areas of activity that are developing between traditionally distinct disciplines. It is from these areas that new disciplines are formed, and from which growth in volume and quality of research activity can ensue. I’ll be reporting on the outcome of our deliberations through these pages in due course.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Innovator of the Year

Time flies – it seems only  a few months ago that I announced the annual ‘Innovator of the Year’ competition for 2012. You might recall that the winner last year was Prof. Alex Yakovlev and his team. The competition attracted much interest, and thus we propose to continue with this for 2013 and beyond. You can find the details for this years’ competition here. The prize of £5000 will be transferred into a nominated university account, to be used to support the research programme of the successful applicant, at their discretion.

On the issue of innovation, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has just produced a report, Bridging valley of death: improving the commercialisation of research. You can read all 281 pages at your leisure, but for now here’s a summary of the findings detailed in the report.

The ‘valley of death’ to which the title refers is the apparent block in the progress of science from the laboratory bench to a commercially successful business or product. The success of the UK economy could (and should) be transformed by translating world-class science into new businesses, jobs and wealth. While the UK science base is demonstrably world-leading in many areas, many technology companies in the UK are apparently acquired by foreign owners, resulting in new jobs and wealth creation outside the UK. The Committee argue that there are several reasons for this. Foremost amongst these is the fact that such businesses take time to develop and become profitable in an environment where financing is focussing more on quick returns and less risky investments.  They also expressed concern about how universities interact with the commercialisation of research. For example, they would like to see how changes in the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) improve commercialisation activity, and whether more money should be made available for proof-of-concept studies. They also question whether institutions should be more accommodating to non-traditional backgrounds amongst academic staff, and whether driving the innovation agenda too aggresively through universities may risk damaging academic resarch that is working well.

Ultimately, they argue, it is crucial that Government has a coherent plan regarding the engagement of the research base (people, facilities and intellectual property) with the innovation agenda, such that there is a commercial demand for university engagement to which we are already  primed to respond. Finally, there is a need for a clear vision from the Government to provide business confidence to make R&D investments, by making definite commitments about which sectors it intends to fund.

So, how can the Government best engage us with the innovation agenda – thoughts anyone? We have been thinking about this ourselves in the context of the Science Central development – details will appear here soon.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Synthetic Biology

Last week, Senate approved the creation of a new Centre for Synthetic Biology. This is an exciting emerging area of science in which Newcastle University has an excellent opportunity to excel. In order to understand what synthetic biology is and why it is important, it is worthwhile looking at the field from an historic perspective.

For many years, scientific research has relied upon the so-called reductionist approach. In essence, this involves breaking down a given problem into its component parts. If we take a simple example such as understanding how a transistor radio works, for example, the reductionist would take the radio apart and find out what each component does. We would for example discover that a transistor is a special kind of electronic switch that has the ability to amplify signals on the basis of the electronic current that flows through it. Similarly, we could analyse all the other components and then discover how the complete unit works by considering how each piece interacts.

In recent times however, a new discipline called systems biology has arisen, whose philosophy is very different from the reductionist approach. Instead, as the name suggests, the idea is to understand the system as a whole. Thus, in the case of the transistor radio analogy, we would model the system in its entirety. We would not examine in detail how a transistor works, but instead we would model it as part of the network of current flow in the radio circuit. In the same way, systems biology considers complete biosynthetic pathways rather than focussing on the individual molecules that comprise them. The advantage of this approach is that one can ask what will happen to the pathway when one of the molecules is removed or changed in some way – by modelling the pathway, it is possible to determine the flux of the metabolites.

In practice this modelling is done by solving systems of differential equations, and the number of such equations for even a modest biosynthetic pathway is such that significant computer power is required, together with novel computational techniques to handle both the required volume and complexity of the data. A ‘Holy-Grail’ of systems biology is the ‘virtual cell’, where all the processes and interactions in a biological cell are modelled correctly  in silico. One could then interrogate the system to find out how the cell responds to a molecule that inhibits a given pathway, for example. This technology will however not be available sometime soon!

Synthetic biology represents the logical next-step from systems biology. The idea is to design or redesign biological systems for useful purposes. In Newcastle, the Centre will principally focus on the world-class expertise that exists in microbiology in the Faculty of Medical Sciences, together with expertise in the School of Computing Sciences within SAgE. Synthetic biology fits squarely within the Sustainability Grand Challenge. For example, in the USA, scientists have modified micro-organisms to produce butanol, which is both an important raw material for the chemical industry and is also a biofuel. It is very easy and inexpensive to culture micro-organisms in large fermenters to produce very large quantities of butanol in a sustainable way. In theory, we can also produce pharmaceuticals, thus reducing the multi-step chemical syntheses that are very inefficient and consume significant quantities of waste organic solvents.

Synthetic biology is a truly interdisciplinary field that will involve not only microbiologists and computer scientists, but also physicists and engineers. Indeed, there have been publications that demonstrate the implementation of electronic logic gates using biological components. Other promising uses include waste detection and water toxicity removal. In fact the possibilities are endless and no doubt we will be hearing a lot more about the developments in this field as the Centre builds in momentum over the next few years.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

REF in Europe

As we approach the REF2013 census date, it’s enlighteneing to look at how other european countries are approaching the problem of ‘measuring’ the excellence of their research base. The UK has for many years relied on the dual-funding system, where a proportion of the funds that we spend on research derive from the so-called ‘QR’ stream. In effect this is a block grant system, where HEFCE allocates public funds according to the number and quality of staff returned in the REF exercise. These funds are awarded to universities annually, typically using the same or a similar funding model each year, until the next research exercise. This is why universities are so concerned about the outcome of the REF – the block funding you receive will be apportioned according to your overall REF score for a number of years following the REF, which amounts to a considerable sum of money. The second public income stream is of course the money that is distributed to the research councils, which is awarded by funding panels (comprised of peer-group academics) in response to research grant applications. Alas, success rates are not very high – typically 20% or so.

I was interested to read how Germany proposes to assess research quality. As noted in the THE this week, the ‘Forschungsrating’ will not be tied to funding at all. Apparently the German Council of Science and Humanities did not believe it sensible to identify institutions that historically have been relatively strong and to put the lion’s share of money in those. On the face of it, this sounds like the ‘funding excellence wherever it is found’ mantra prior to RAE2008. The view of the German Council is that research is very much a question of luck and diversity, so funding on an historic basis does not make sense to them.

Instead, the expectation is that university leaders will use the ratings to better assess the standing of research in each area and to develop strategies accordingly, without the ‘pain’ or ‘gain’ of of REF. Interestingly, the parameters used to assess univesrities and institutes included research quality, promotion of young researchers and transfer of research into society. The latter is presumably akin to the ‘impact’ scorings that we will receive post REF2013, although these are seen by Germany as leading to uncertaintly and increased workloads. The German system will develop detailed criteria for the activities that are relevant in specific subject areas.

Would this system work better for the UK? – maybe. Interestingly, however, the League of European Research Universities apparently views the UK’s success in increasing research quality through RAE/REF with envious eyes. Many countries, it seems, would like to move to a system similar to ours, but they aren’t there yet. However, as one who bears the scars of all seven RAE/REF exercises (including many hundreds of hours of meetings), I can’t help thinking that the bureacratic load and thus cost of REF is becoming out of proportion to its original aims. What would be wrong, for example, with passing all funding to the Research Councils, and distributing it using the conventional peer review process. Sure, it would make planning more difficult because we would not be guaranteed a block grant every year, but the turmoil of the last couple of years has hardly been helpful in that regard. Nonetheless, we have managed to adapt and survive.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Workload Models

In my experience, at Universities there are two issues that are guaranteed to generate heated debate. The first is car-parking, and the second is workload models. We have had a single workloads model in SAgE that each school has been using (theoretically at least), and when it was introduced (before I relocated to Newcastle) it was agreed that we would review the model 12 months hence. Thus we felt that a review of the model was overdue, and we discussed it at the last Faculty Executive Board (FEB).

Before I decsribe the outcome of our deliberations, it is worthwhile discussing the purpose of workload models. In essence, they are simply as they are named, i.e. a means to ensure that every member of academic staff has an equitable and manageable workload. That’s not to say that the workload should be completely prescriptive. It should be only a guide to workloads – a management tool. Everyone has different skills, and if we used a workloads model to prescribe and assign work in a purely arithmetic manner, we end up with ‘management by spreadsheet’. For this reason a workloads model cannot be particularly accurate, and indeed during our discussions it was suggested that we would be lucky if they are accurate to more than a week or two at best per annum. Hence, arguing about a few hours here or there is rather missing the point.

I’d like to suggest that, given the dramatic changes in the sector over the last couple of years, workloads models increasingly serve a second purpose. Not so many years ago there was much less ‘management’of academic staff time. Universities enjoyed substantial block funding from the Government for teaching, and in the pre-RAE days we weren’t required to justify the quality of our research to such levels that we see currently. Halycon days? – maybe. Irrespective, this is gone forever, and we are relentlessly moving towards an environment that is dominated by market forces, and the need (quite rightly) to justify spending from the public purse. In this regard, now more than ever a University needs to work as a coherent, well-oiled machine that has a clear vision and purpose – hence Vision 2021. The price of failure is very high. It follows that we need to manage our time so that we are doing the things that are important for the organisation, within the scope of academic freedom of course that we all rightly cherish.

Isn’t this what Performance Development Reviews (PDR) are all about, I hear you ask. Indeed, and that brings me to our discussions last week. While the current workloads model has served some schools very well in the past year, it is quite complex. In particular, it requires significant staff time to input the data for every member of staff, and we are in danger of propagating a Cottage Industry. The general consensus at FEB is that we should simplify the model, recognising that its is impossible to capture everything. We agreed therefore to trial such a simplified model. Specifically, we aim to capture everyone’s workload data on a single sheet of A4 paper. As usual there will be the conventional drivers converting e.g. ‘contact hours’ to ‘workload hours’, and allocations for administrative duties and the like. Many of these will be adjustable locally, in recognition of the fact that in a Faculty as heterogeneous as SAgE, it is impossible to regularise these drivers across disciplines. In the background, there will also be a mechanism to report on workloads across various ‘TRAC like’ activities, such as research and teaching administration. These data will be available at both school and faculty level, for reporting to external agencies as and when needed. Our thinking is that the workloads data can be made available for each individual’s PDR, so that the reviewer and the reviewee can see workloads at a glance.

Dr. John Appleby has kindly agreed to undertake the job of coding this model, and we anticipate that it will be ready around Easter. It is our intention to create a simple, reasonably robust model that will stand the test of time.

Here’s a final thought – should everyone’s workload data be shared and visible to all members of a  given unit (e.g. School)?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

New Year, New Rules

Firstly, a belated Happy New Year to all – I trust you had an enjoyable and relaxing break. In my experience, the autumn semester is always very exhausting – just about everything seems to be crammed between October-December, but at least one can take a break over Christmas and the New Year in the expectation that you won’t return to several hundred e-mails.

The breaking news this week is that the annual grant letter from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to HEFCE has been published (see grant_letter_2013). This letter confirms the level of funding that will be distributed across the sector, and contains some interesting snippets of government thinking. For those who do not wish to pore over some 14 pages of dense prose, here are some highlights:

  • Confirmation that the A-level grade threshold above which universities will be able to recruit unlimited numbers of students will be ABB.
  • The pattern of recruitment in 2012-2013 (where a smaller number of students than expected went to university) has enabled the government to apply student number controls less rigidly in 2013-2014.
  • 5,000 places will be distributed to ‘cheaper providers’ (those that charge less than £9000) as was widely anticipated, but HEFCE has ben advised that these can now be provided without cutting existing places.
  • HEFCE is advised that these places should be allocated flexibly taking into account evidence of student institutional demand.
  • Acknowledging that most universities adopt a cautious approach to recruitment to avoid significant over-recruitment penalties, institutions will be allowed to recruit up to 3% above their total recruitment of HEFCE fundable students.
  • Looking forward to 2014/15, the Government wants HEFCE to consider increasing the flexibility for those institutions that have shown strong recruitment patterns in 2013/14 and taper this away from institutions enjoying less demand.

So it’s very clear that in the future ‘the system’ will be geared in favour of those institutions that are popular with students, at the expense of those that are not. This is of course good news for NU which, as highlighted in the Sunday Times last weekend, has seen one of the highest increases in undergraduate applications across the country this year. However clearly we must not be complacent – this good news will be worth nothing if we cannot convince our applicants to study here.

On research, the letter indicates that Research Funding will increase from £1.900 billion in 2012-2013 to £1.973 billion in 2014-2015. This is made up of the so-called recurrent grant which is ring-fenced, the HEIF (Higher Education Innovation Fund) which will be maintained at a mimimum of £150 million, and capital expenditure which is not ring-fenced, and reduces from £111 million in 2012-13 to £55m in 2014-2015. The recurrent grant funds the so-called ‘QR’ income, which is distributed to institutions on the basis of performance in the last RAE, whereas HEIF funding is intended to support innovative research leading to spin-outs and the like, and again is distributed in a formulaic manner. While in real terms, taking inflation into account, there is likely to be a fall in these funding sources rather than an increase, given the current state of the public purse the news could have been much worse.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

First Year in Newcastle

We’re nearly at the year-end, and I can’t believe it’s almost 12 months since I’ve been in the job. It has been a long and difficult year in many ways, with a number of external factors that have threatened to spoil the party, such as the new student fee regime, changes in our undergraduate quota allocation, and tightening of UK Border Controls to name but a few. I can’t think of a profession that is currently more tested, prodded, perturbed or regulated than ours, yet we have managed to traverse these obstacles. So looking back over the year, how have we done?

When I arrived I introduced the concept of ‘Strategy into Action’, in the hope of demonstrating that unless we understand and undertake the critical tasks that are needed to get us from where we are now to where we need to be, our strategy is a pointless, lifeless document. Is it working? – I think there is ample evidence that it is. For example, despite a number of sleepless nights in early August for Faculty PVCs, we managed to increase the number of high quality students across the University following the change to the ‘core’ and ‘margin’ undergraduate entrance scheme.  Sure, some schools have done better than others – such ‘lumpiness’ will be  a natural process moving forwards (for various reasons), and a major purpose of the Faculty is to smooth out these inconsistencies.

On the research front things are also looking good – we have managed to maintain a buoyant research grant income portfolio throughout this turmoil, and our postgraduate student numbers are very respectable too. Remarkably, as we discussed at the leadership forum yesterday, undergraduate applications have improved substantially in comparison with this time last year, and we appear to be well ahead of our competitors. Moreover, our operations in Singapore continue to thrive and expand.  Earlier in the year I suggested that with change comes opportunity, and we have certainly grasped this concept with vigour. Everyone has played a part in this, so a heartfelt thanks to all.

Looking forward, it’s worth thinking about the challenges for next year. First and foremost, we must not be complacent. We have buoyant undergraduate applications as noted above, but critically we must turn these applications into acceptances. Visit days will be critical, as will personal contact with prospective students. We must put students at the heart of the system and show that we really mean it – it’s a Darwinian world out there and our competitors will be only too pleased to relieve us of our best applicants, who as we know are a discerning bunch.

Equally important will be the run-up to REF 2014. These exercises come and go, and our strategy is much longer term. However, it is important that we achieve a very good outcome from this exercise as a basis to improve even further. So it’s time to bash the keyboard and get that last high quality publications out of the door. 

Finally, there are some exciting projects that will come on stream in 2013. This week Executive Board approved the move forward to the next stage of the Science Central development. It’s not often that we have the opportunity to create something literally from the ground up, and I’ll be chairing a working group that I will convene early in the New Year to make this happen. In addition there are possibilities to expand our activities into exciting new areas, both here and in Singapore. These activities are commercially sensitive so I’ll say no more in an open blog. If we decide to progress them, they promise to transform a  number of disciplines here at NU. Some people will have heard about them already, but if not you will hear more next year.

I think that’s it for this year.  In January I could not have dreamed that we would have achieved so much in 12 months, so once again many, many thanks for your hard work and determination. It’s almost time for all of us to take a well-earned break, so it just remains for me to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Planning 2012-2013

Many thanks to those who rose to the challenge posed in my last blog regarding the appropriate KPI for research outputs. We discussed the comments that were posted, plus a number of others that people suggested verbally, at the Faculty Executive Board meeting yesterday. We concluded that the most easily measurable and most useful metric is ‘percentage of staff publishing at least one output in a top quartile journal’, where journal is interpreted loosely – it could mean an output from a conference in some disciplines for example. The notion of top quartile is also subject specific of course. The exact wording might need some tweaking, but we believe this to be a useful metric since, inter alia, it will enable us to plot our progress towards the next REF exercise after 2014. Granted, it is nothing like as rigorous as our IQA2 process, but then the latter consumed a great deal of time and we don’t want to do this every year. In essence, we are using the quartile ranking of the journal as a proxy for quality – dangerous is some instances perhaps, but in the main there is likely to be a good correlation.

So how will we use this and other KPIs? Firstly, this is an open blog and our KPIs and targets are rather sensitive information. Therefore the complete list of Faculty KPIs and targets will be posted on the intranet in due course. Each School Management Team in SAgE already has these together with historic performance data over the past few years. We have asked them to consider this information and figure out what the targets for each school should be, over the next two years (that is, the academic year 2013-2014 and 2014-2015). We expect that schools will meet or exceed certain targets, but will not be able to achieve others. That’s fine in a Faculty as heterogeneous as SAgE – the important point is that when combined we can meet the strategic aspirations of the Faculty and hence NU.

The Faculty Management Team will discuss targets with the schools at the annual planning meetings in February/March next year. Once the new planning process gets into full swing, the annual planning meetings will provide the opportunity for schools to review how well they did against the previous year’s targets, and to use this information in planning future strategy. Remember that, however well we try to stick to plan in meeting these targets, the external environment is likely to change in unexpected ways (no change there!), so it’s very likely that we will need to make regular adjustments to our strategy. That’s the purpose of the KPIs and targets – to ensure that we remain on track and are not de-railed by unexpected events.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Wisdom of Crowds

I have recently returned from one of the Faculty open meetings that we have organised to explain our Vision 2021 strategy to staff, and to take questions on same. One question/comment that arose is that much of the strategic thinking seems to be ‘top-down’ rather than ‘bottom-up’. This is an interesting point. In one sense a strategy needs to be top-down to ensure that the organisation moves forward in a coherent manner – this would be difficult with a multitude of locally driven strategies, and NU is too large and complex to have any hope of deriving a strategy from scratch by incorporating every view. Nonetheless, we are on shaky ground if we are unable to explain effectively what our strategy is, why we need it, and what we need to do to deliver it. This is one reason why we organised the series of Faculty open meetings. Moreover, none of us knows all the answers (especially me!), and the faculty management team would welcome your thoughts and ideas. Indeed, I am reminded of an excellent book that I read a while ago by James Surowiecki entitled ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ – I can highly recommend it, and to provide a precis here would not do it justice.

So, how can everyone help? Interestingly, we are looking at a ‘problem’ associated with the formulation of KPIs and targets to ‘measure’ our research performance. If you are unfamiliar with KPIs I have written about them in previous blogs. Typical measures of research performance widely used in the sector are such as ‘research income per fte’, ‘value of new awards per fte’ or ‘number of postgrads per fte’. These are all fine KPIs which will help measure the buoyancy of our research but, as we discussed at Faculty Executive Board recently, they are input measures. What we also need are output measures since, to take an extreme example, £1M of research income and 5 PDRAs is not a good measure if no publications result, or if any resulting publications are of questionable quality. Herein lies the problem – in order to measure outputs we need to count the number of publications produced (as just one example of outputs), and to assess their quality. We have recently done just this in preparation for REF2014 through our internal ‘IQA2’ process. Those involved in this process (for which very many thanks by the way), will know that it takes a great deal of time and energy. I doubt that anyone would willingly do this annually for KPI purposes.

It will be critically important to measure the state of health of our research endeavours not only in the run-up to REF2014, but also in the critical years immediately past this exercise as we lay the foundations for the next one. So, here’s the challenge – what is the simplest, most effective way to measure our research outputs annually for KPI purposes? Please post your answers here and let’s see ‘crowd intelligence’ in action!

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Undergraduate Admissions Update

Now that the dust has settled on the undergraduate admissions process for 2012, it is worth reflecting where we are as a sector, and where NU sits in the pecking order.

First, some numbers. Figures from UCAS on 11th September showed that the number of students accepting places at English institutions reduced by 7.4% compared with the same point last year. In actual student numbers this represents a reduction of 30,076. It is estimated that this will cost the sector more than £700M in lost funding over three years. Why the shortfall? It’s difficult to say for sure but several factors are likely to be involved. First, a lower-than-expected number of students attained AAB grades, which is likely due in large part to the much publicised ‘tightening-up’ of grades. Second, it would appear that high fees have deterred students from accepting places. Third, a higher number of students deferred entry until next year in tandem with a lower number that deferred last year.

The impact on individual institutions has been hard to predict. One Russell Group university has indicated that it was 600 short of predictions. Moreover, I am hearing anecdotally that significant numbers of students are failing to register having accepted places, so the real position could be worse. Perhaps, when the potential financial commitment becomes a reality, these candidates have had second thoughts. Given that all universities depend to a greater of lesser part on undergraduate fee income, any reduction in student numbers compared with target has the potential to throw financial plans into turmoil. I suspect I don’t need to remind everyone that the increase in undergraduate fees is concomitant with a reduction in direct financial support from the government.

So what of NU? As noted on these pages a few weeks ago, we managed to recruit very much according to plan. There have been a few decreases here and there, but other units have exceeded target, so the overall picture is where we expected to be, or thereabouts. This is excellent news indeed – but we must not be complacent. We know that the off-quota cohort will be ABB next year (with a further reduction in sub-ABB quota), and we also know know that it will remain there for the following year – a further reduction to BBB has been ruled out. The good news is therefore that there will potentially be some stability in the system. The bad news is that recruiting to target is unlikely to become easier. It seems we managed to buck the trend with respect to many of our peers, and they will be working even harder to improve their market share – at our expense. As I’ve said before, we operate very much in a Darwinian environment, and the organisation that adapts most quickly and most effectively to this rapidly changing environment will come out on top. I hope that organisation can be NU. We are, after all, working from an excellent base.

To succeed, it is plainly obvious that we need to put students at the heart of the system (to use the government’s words). This means we need to give our fullest attention to visit days, the student experience and NSS. We must engage with this and mean it. I suggest however that this may not be enough to guarantee our place at the top table. As a colleague at an institution where I worked one said, the three things that will protect us from these changes are quality, quality and quality. Hence the need to focus relentlessly on our Vision 2021 aspirations.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Newcastle University International Singapore

These pages have been silent for a couple of weeks since I have been visiting our campus in Singapore. I spent the time visting not only our operations in Ngee-Ann and Nanyang Polytechnics, but also a number of government agencies. Thanks are due to the excellent negotiating powers of our Dean in Singapore, Ehsan Mesbahi, who managed to convince these agencies to give us some time. I should also mention his driving skills in a country where the roads seem like the Tyne Bridge in the rush-hour, but 24/7!

At Ngee-Ann Polytechnic the Marine and Chemical Engineering degree programmes are now well-established. At Nanyang Polytechnic, the programmes in Mechanical Engineering and Food And Human Nutrition are gaining momentum, and will be complemented by new programmes from 2013. While facilities at both sites are good, the complexity of setting up and running these programmes in excess of 6000 miles from Newcastle, while at the same time preserving the ‘Newcastle Experience’, should not be underestimated. I’d like to thank everyone in Singapore for their Herculean efforts in making NUIS the success story that it now is. There will remain challenges in communication between the Newcastle and Singapore sites, especially given the time difference, but we must all remember we are part of the same organisation and put the geographical and temporal differences to the back of our minds as far as possible.

So what of the future? Having visited organisations such as ‘A-Star’, the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) and the National Research Foundation (NRF), I’m very impressed how well these units interface with universities in order to help drive the economy. The WDA, for example, constantly seeks to ensure that the skills of the population are aligned with economic needs. A simple concept, but very effective. The NRF has available some 16 billion Singapore Dollars (that’s about £9 billion) to invest in science and engineering. That does not sound particularly impressive when RCUK spends about £11 billion, but remember Singapore is a country roughly the size of the Isle of Wight with a population a tenth the size of the UK. Moreover, much of this funding is highly targetted into areas that are critical for Singapore, such as water and clean energy, interactive digital media, biomedical sciences, and marine/offshore engineering. Interestingly, these areas overlap very nicely with our own activities in SAgE. The door is very much open for us to collaborate with our Singaporean colleagues, and as a research intensive organisation it makes perfect sense for us to grow our research activity in the region. Indeed, we have already started to do this by co-funding a number of PhD studentships for the coming year, and further developments will soon follow.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Innovator of The Year 2012

We received a number of very interesting submissions for ‘Innovator of the Year’ (2012). Unfortunately there can be only one winner, and after much deliberation the awards committee chose the submission  entitled ‘Energy-modulated computing: a new paradigm for designing circuits and systems in energy-constrained environments’ by Prof. Alex Yakovlev and his team (Alex Bystrov, Terrence Mak, Delong Shang, Fei Xia, Andrey Mokhov, Danil Sokolov, Reza Ramezani, Abdullah Baz, Xuefu Zhang, James Docherty, Hock-Soon Low).

A fundamental aspect of digital electronic circuitry is the concept of a ‘clock’. This is typically a square-wave signal, to which digital circuitry responds by changing its state, usually at the voltage transition of the wave. The clock signal is typically generated by a quartz crystal – in effect a piece of rock – that vibrates at a precise frequency through a phenomenon known as the the piezoelectric effect. These clocks are nowadays very fast, so when we talk of a 1GHz computer CPU, this is on the order of the clock frequency. Naturally, we all want faster computers – but for a given device, a higher clock rate means more power.  In this regard engineering processes (both software and hardware) can no longer sustain this growth; they need to be much more resource-conscious.  Specifically, energy-frugal, power-proportional systems will be required in the future. As an example from the energy consumption viewpoint, the Google plant in Oregon has been estimated to require 103 million watts  of power – enough to supply every home in Newcastle!

The innovative step pioneered by Prof. Yakovlev and his group concerns self-timed digital circuits. Such circuits are largely free from the constraints of a precise, predictable clock – i.e. they have timing elasticity. This allows such circuits to operate under a broad range of power and temperature conditions, which would defeat conventional circuitry. Unlike their conventional counterparts, these self-timed circuits also enable energy-proportional operation (i.e. energy consumption proportional to required activity). Such operation is of value in e.g. mobile devices, which  require a high performance for short periods while interacting with the user,  followed by relatively long idle periods that may last seconds or minutes. A natural, but previously unrecognised, effect of the new circuits is that they can actually convert electrical energy, in the form of charge stored in a capacitor, directly into computation. This effect has led Prof. Yokovlev’s group to devlop a novel sensor powered by the energy of the sensed signal itself.

So, well done to Alex and the group members. The awards committee unanimously thought this  a particularly innovative discovery, which coincidentally falls squarely within the Sustainability Grand Challenge Theme.

We’ll be repeating the award next year so everyone please keep innovating!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Strategy into Action (update)

Next week the Faculty Executive Team will meet for a third away-day during this calendar year. The purpose of this meeting will be to take a look at our strategy and ask whether we are still on-track to deliver what is required. To help us, we will be making use of three important pieces of information that have appeared during the summer, namely (i) the outcome of our internal REF readiness exercise (‘IQA2’); (ii) the 2012 NSS results and (iii) the outcome of the undergraduate admissions process for 2012-13.

You might remember that back in January we defined a series of critical tasks (see here) that we believe need to be executed in order to deliver on our strategy. These are implicitly linked to REF, NSS and undergraduate admissions, as I have attempted to illustrate in the diagram below:

Each of the top three coloured boxes contains an abbreviated version of the critical tasks that we need to undertake, and these are of course all interlinked. In the red box, the tasks are designed to communicate to all staff what our overall vision is, how we plan to get there, and how each individual can play a part (which is in turn communicated through PDR). The tasks in the green box are aimed at ensuring that we achieve the best possible outcome in REF 2014 (amongst other things), whereas the tasks in the blue box will hopefully achieve an excellent student experience and thus a good score in NSS. These three sets of tasks combined will then hopefully impact on our league-table position and the content of the Key Information Set (KIS) that prospective undergraduates will have at their disposal when deciding whether to study at Newcastle. Thus, with action (rather than sitting back in the vain hope that our strategy will execute itself unaided!), we aim to improve our performance and reputation, which is in essence the major take home message of our Vision 2021.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But, in the short time since our first away-day in January, the external environment has changed considerably. Thus we need to ask whether the critical tasks are still relevant, and if so whether we are indeed undertaking them as planned, and whether we need to do anything else to deal with a changing environment or to accelerate our progress. As usual, it is unlikely that we will have all the answers – bright ideas welcome!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Salutary Lesson

All will be aware that one of the key objectives in Vision 2021 is to maintain and enhance our international reputation. We do this in many ways of course, but a major aspect of this objective is our ability to attract international students to study and live in Newcastle. Overall we are very successful in this regard, and indeed at least one school in SAgE depends strongly on a large intake of international students.

Our ability to enrol these students is dependent on the UK Border Agency granting the relevant immigration status to these students. Potential students outside of the EEA who wish to study in the UK must apply for entry clearance. If this is granted, they have special permission from the UK government to enter and remain in the UK as a ‘Tier 4 immigrant’ during study.  Tier 4 is the section of the immigration system that deals with student visas.  NU, together with many other educational establishments, is known as a ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ (HTS) under Tier 4, on the basis of  a proven track record of recruiting genuine students who comply with the UK’s immigration rules. Benefits of this status include for example the ability to offer a wider range of courses to international students. Despite the title, HTS institutions are not however ‘left to get on with it’ – there are regular checks that we are complying with the various regulations. This begs the question what would happen if we were to lose this status?

The answer to this question is currently being played out in the popular press – e.g. see here. I don’t think I need to add to this piece to emphasise the  catastrophic impact it would have at NU.  So how do we minimise the risk that this will happen to us? Quite simply, we need to ensure that we are compliant. This does not just mean saying we are compliant, but demonstrating that we are compliant. There will be regular spot-checks to inspect the evidence that we complying, and thus it is critical that we take this very seriously indeed. For example, one of the requirements is that we monitor student attendance on our courses, not just to demonstrate that a student is studying and working at NU, but also to demonstrate that a student is engaging with the course. This sounds easier than it is. For example, it would clearly be discriminatory to monitor the attendance of only certain students – we must monitor all students in a given cohort. I met earlier in the year  with the Student’s Union Sabbatical Officers, who conveyed their concern that all students will be monitored in this way. Given the potentially dire consequences for the international students at London Metropolitan University, I hope it can be seen that we really have no choice in the matter. Moreover, it’s not just about monitoring attendance – that’s not rocket science – when a student goes AWOL it will be our responsibility to chase this up, which could involve an enormous time commitment.

I don’t want to sound like a prophet of doom. The SAgE Management Team and University Executive Board have been well aware  of these issues for some time, and we have been ensuring that our processes and manpower resources are sufficiently robust to minimise any risk to NU. Where necessary we have employed additional staff to take care of the additional administrative burden. Why spend money on this rather than our principal strategic aims you may ask.  Good question – but again we have no choice.  

Despite robust processes and dedicated personnel, there will remain a risk unless everyone pays due diligence to this issue. As you can see from the above link, the price of non-compliance (or rather the inability to demonstrate compliance) is extremely high.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Undergraduate Admissions 2012

One of the issues that has exercised universities across the country this year concerns undergraduate entry. As many will know, the system changed this year, and it has been more difficult than ever to ensure that we get the correct number of students enrolling at NU in the autumn. Securing the correct number is very important since if we recruit below our numbers, then our financial plans will be jeopardised, and in the worst (but extremely unlikely) case a degree programme might not be sustainable. Conversely, if we over-recruit there are severe financial penalties imposed by the government. The whole process is a complex balancing act, especially since we cannot count exactly how many students have arrived for study at NU until the census in December.

This year the process has been even more complicated. In an effort to drive up student quality, the Government announced that universities can recruit as many students with AAB grades (or equivalent) and higher – the so-called ‘AAB+’ cohort. While this is in principle very good news because universities can expand those courses that attract the very best students (if they wish), there is a sting in the tail – the Government simultaneously reduced by 20,000 the ‘core’ quota of students (those who attained less than AAB) that  we would ordinarily be free to recruit subject to our chosen entrance requirements. This core has not been lost, but has been redistributed to universities that meet certain criteria including lower fees – these universities do not include NU and the remainder of the Russell Group. So universities like NU that wish to maintain or expand student numbers in effect must recruit higher quality students. The waters are further  muddied by the fact there was an overall reduction in the number of students applying to university this year. 

In effect then all schools at NU were assigned a target for ‘AAB+’ students, and a target for ‘core’ students. Critically, if any school was unable to attract the relevant number of students with  AAB+ , then the only way to make up student numbers is to recruit students with less than AAB+ qualifications from core. If every school needed to do this then it’s clear to see that the core allocation would be exhausted and we would under-recruit overall. There is clearly potential for disaster here, which is why staff involved in admissions have been working very hard behind the scenes to minimise the potential risks. Nonetheless, there have been some sleepless nights for faculty PVCs!

So how did we do? Fortunately, very much according to plan. As a Faculty we have managed to attain our students numbers or thereabouts – the process has not yet formally completed and as mentioned above we will not have an accurate number until December. Thanks to all those who have worked so hard to achieve a satisfactory outcome for SAgE.

Looking ahead, we must not be complacent. Some schools managed to recruit significantly above their AAB+ target whereas others had to work much harder. We need to learn from the more successful units and ensure that all schools are potentially able to exceed their target next year. Speaking of which, there will be further changes for 2013 entry – we will be able to recruit as many ‘ABB+’ students as we wish, but again the rub will be that the ‘core’ quota will be reduced. In practice this means that we will need to be even more vigilant in our efforts to recruit the best students. While Newcastle is a wonderful place to study and live, our ability to recruit the best students (and indeed the best staff) will ultimately depend on the quality of our offering. Hence our focus this year on ‘Strategy into Action’ , which principally concerns the quality of our research and learning & teaching. Given the recent and forthcoming changes to undergraduate entry, our undivided attention on these actions will be even more critical.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment