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!

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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.

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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.

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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.




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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!







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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.

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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!

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