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.


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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