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.

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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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