Aberystwyth University has been in the headlines more than most over the past year. Its announcement in March that it will set up a campus in Mauritius attracted national attention, while in January it managed to safely evacuate more than 100 students from seafront accommodation after an enormous storm hit the Welsh coastal town.
But there has been negative press too. A petition was posted anonymously calling for vice-chancellor April McMahon to resign after big falls in Aberystwyth’s position in domestic university league tables. It has now attracted more than 1,000 signatures.
There has also been disquiet locally over the suspension of two managers of the Aberystwyth Arts Centre (which is part of the university) last year amid fears that public access to the centre could be restricted. However, the university said the action was linked to health and safety concerns and one of the managers has now been reinstated.
Professor McMahon acknowledged to Times Higher Education that there was “work to do” over the university’s league table position but “you can’t turn something round in 20 minutes. It takes time.”
In terms of staff and new buildings, “we haven’t invested for a long, long time” but now the campus is covered with scaffolding, she said, as the university’s estate is improved.
A new accommodation village for about 1,000 students should be ready for the coming academic year, and about £5 million is being spent upgrading old, football terrace-style lecture halls into rooms that are less cramped and festooned with new screens and recording technology for lecturers.
Professor McMahon said the university has set out a clear strategy until 2017 and she used a sporting analogy to explain why Aberystwyth’s ranking position had fallen. “If you’re a gymnast, you do your run up and you know which way you’re going. You jump on to the trampoline and which way does it go first? It goes down, of course. Then you get a hell of a bounce and that’s where we’re going.”
This month, in time for the next academic year, Aberystwyth will open a Teaching Excellence Academy. It will comprise several teaching rooms containing equipment that will enable academics to capture and replay lectures so that they can review their teaching.
There is also a studio that allows lecturers to record online learning materials. These facilities can be used by academics who are simply interested in improving their teaching, but the university also hopes to make the academy into a centre for pedagogic research.
“We want that to be a really big exciting research excellence framework return for 2020,” Professor McMahon said.
This is part of a wider “revaluing” of teaching and learning in promotion criteria for academics, she said. “It’s possible for folks to get a little bit dejected if they feel they’re putting in all that effort [on teaching] and then nothing comes back in terms of reward and appreciation.”
While visiting the university, THE was told by one manager that it hopes falling student satisfaction scores will turn around next year after the undergraduate cohort recruited in 2011 – when the university had to bring in bunk beds because it over-recruited – graduates this summer.
It also emerged during the interview with Professor McMahon that recruitment for Aberystwyth’s Mauritius campus is to be delayed by a year until 2015 because it is still waiting on validation of its awards from the island’s authorities. “They’ve got a bit of a backlog at the moment,” she said, and described the delay as “purely administrative”.
The university is also looking to set up a London campus, although Professor McMahon stressed that it was “just talking about opportunities there” and the governing body had only endorsed an “intention” to set one up.
Ideally, she said, it would open in 2015-16 – although this was before the announcement on 24 June of a Quality Assurance Agency investigation into UK university London branch campuses in the wake of a government probe into the abuse of student visas.
£5m spent upgrading lecture halls to provide more space and the latest technology
Students enrolling at a Scottish university later this year will be given the chance to complete the equivalent of a full four-year honours degree within three years. Abertay University believes it is the first in Scotland – where four-year undergraduate degrees are the norm – to offer such an option. Under the fast-track programme, which will be offered on seven of its degree programmes at first, students can study for 30 weeks in the first year and 45 weeks in each of the other years.
Harper Adams University
An insect collection known as the EntoHub will help students and researchers at the only UK institution to offer entomology at postgraduate level. The specimens at Harper Adams University were donated from private collections and sourced from Imperial College London, where the MSc in Entomology was based until 2012. One of the oldest insects in the collection is a large blue butterfly captured in Cornwall in June 1900, while the heaviest is a goliath beetle. The insects can weigh up to 100g.
University of Gloucestershire
The Malawi Commonwealth Games team will be taking residence at a university in the South of England ahead of the event in Glasgow in July. Sports therapy students from the University of Gloucestershire will provide daily massages for the athletes to help with performance. The sportsmen and women will stay in the student halls of residence at Gloucestershire in Cheltenham and Gloucester.
University of Oxford
A university has hosted a film festival that hopes to spark debate about major public health issues. Films about miscarriage, blindness, HIV and pandemics were shown as part of the Public Health Film Festival at the University of Oxford from to 29 June. Stephen Tuck, director of the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, said the festival showed how the arts and sciences can “work together for the public good”.
University of Manchester
A world-renowned science historian who died earlier this year has had a prize set up in his honour. The British Society for the History of Science has established the John Pickstone Prize in memory of the scholar, who was the founding director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester. The announcement coincided with a memorial meeting held at Manchester on 20 June to remember and celebrate Professor Pickstone.
Institute of Contemporary Music Performance
Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith made a surprise visit to a London music school to talk about his career and jam with students. Smith, who was in London ahead of his band’s appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival, spoke to students at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance about his passion for drumming, how he met his bandmates and his famous “drum-off” with actor Will Ferrell.
King’s College London
Monty Python stars John Cleese and Terry Jones joined a university symposium to explore religion through the lens of their film Life of Brian. The comedians spoke about the 1979 film with the Reverend Canon Richard Burridge, dean of King’s College London, as part of a three-day religious studies conference at the institution, which ran from 20 to 22 June.
Warwick Business School
A business school will open a campus at one of London’s most famous, and expensive, buildings. Warwick Business School will have a campus on the 17th storey of the 87-storey Shard, which stands at 310 metres high. Evening courses for the MSc Finance and MSc Human Resource Management and Employment Relations will be taught at The Shard, with plans to run the Warwick Executive MBA from there as well.