Campus close-up: Brunel University

Broad-based restructure aims to encourage interdisciplinary research collaborations

April 24, 2014

Source: Sally Trussler/Brunel University

Who’s laughing now? Comedians Jo Brand and Lee Mack launch Brunel’s Centre for Comedy Studies Research

Brunel University has just enjoyed its most successful year to date for research, doubling its income to £37.5 million in 2012-13.

So why has it decided to overhaul its entire university structure?

This autumn, its eight schools will be replaced by three colleges (business, arts and social sciences; engineering, design and physical sciences; and health and life sciences), alongside three autonomous interdisciplinary research institutes (energy futures; materials and manufacturing; and environment, health and societies).

The radical shake-up, which includes the appointment of a new senior management team, is key to building on Brunel’s recent success and establishing it as a research-intensive university, according to vice-chancellor Julia Buckingham.

Having so many schools had made it difficult for academics to establish links with other departments and undertake interdisciplinary research, which was where the large research grants now lay, Professor Buckingham explained.

“The days of one man or woman in a laboratory doing their research and putting in applications for project grants are dead and gone,” she said. “We want people to come together to form the significant interdisciplinary teams that tend to attract the large research grants.”

Pulling together engineering, maths and computer science is one obvious way to get academics working together on research projects, but Professor Buckingham said the various mergers would create other benefits.

“I am very interested in new teaching programmes around obesity and healthy living, so bringing together psychology and sports science will help this,” she said.

Some unusual courses and areas of research are already under way, most notably at its new Centre for Comedy Studies Research, which was launched in October by Brunel alumni and comedians Jo Brand and Lee Mack.

Academics at the world’s first comedy research centre examine how humour can be used in different areas of society, such as health, education and politics, and analyse the various elements of Britain’s multimillion-pound comedy industry.

Brunel scholars are also currently researching the issue of racial discourse on Twitter, drama in Renaissance-era Scotland and creative writing as therapy – areas far removed from Brunel’s traditional industry-facing research, such as its work with Shell, BP and other universities to create gas-pipe systems that can exploit deep-water reserves.

These arts-based initiatives must seem a world away from Professor Buckingham’s previous institution, Imperial College London, where the pharmacology expert headed its neuroscience division and was pro-rector before joining the Middlesex-based Brunel in October 2012.

“This is a much more interdisciplinary university and it’s great having so many different things happening here, such as our wonderful music department,” she said. “I’ve been hugely impressed by the creativity and ambition of our students.”

That talent, including some of the boldest projects from design and engineering students, will be on show at the annual Made in Brunel exhibition in central London, from 12 to 15 June.

Last year’s event included a scheme using music to calm people with autism-related anxiety; adjustable-length sprint shoes; a new bike light system to improve cycle safety; and a project to intensively farm edible insects as a meat substitute.

This year’s show will include cooking equipment designed for children; a secure storage system for the beach; and a helicopter blade testing system – student products demonstrating a degree of creativity, social engagement and entrepreneurial acumen that Professor Buckingham is keen to promote.

As part of the shake-up, a professional developments centre will be created to nurture the business skills required by today’s employers and to build on the work of the university’s creative hubs.

A new educational excellence centre will encourage innovative teaching and the use of technology in the classroom, while a new international strategy will promote study opportunities abroad.

“We are in the midst of a period of profound change in the market for education and research, and I expect this trend to continue,” Professor Buckingham said. “But I believe that our change programme will ensure that Brunel is well placed to thrive in the new environment.”

In numbers

£12m - Funding council grant for new Centre for Sustainable Energy Use in Food Chains

Campus news

University of Aberdeen
A programme of research scholarships worth more than £5 million has been launched to honour William Elphinstone, the medieval founder of the University of Aberdeen. The Elphinstone Scholarship Programme will be available to high-achieving students from anywhere in the world looking to begin a PhD programme at the university this autumn.

Lancaster University
A student cricket team has returned from Pakistan after playing against the country’s under-19 team in the national stadium. Lancaster University’s men’s team was defeated by the hosts, whose team included a number of potential future test stars. The game took place at the Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, and was broadcast on Pakistani national television. The trip, part of Lancaster’s 50th anniversary celebrations, saw the team visit Lancaster’s partner institution, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology.

University of Essex
A handbook on managing and sharing research data has been written by four experts from the UK Data Archive and UK Data Service at the University of Essex. Published by Sage, Managing and Sharing Research Data: A Guide to Good Practice consolidates 20 years of expertise in the area and aims to give researchers, postgraduate students and research institutions a comprehensive and up‑to-date resource for planning their data.

Queen Mary University of London
A 19th-century Jewish cemetery at the heart of a London university has been officially recognised as a site of important historical interest. With its distinctive flat gravestones representing the equality of all people in death, the Novo or Nuevo Beth Chaim Cemetery in Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End campus is one of only two exclusively Sephardic cemeteries remaining in England. It was awarded grade II status by English Heritage earlier this month.

Leeds Trinity University
Student journalists will be producing a regular page for a major regional newspaper. Trainees on Leeds Trinity University’s postgraduate journalism course will take it in turns to produce content for the daily Yorkshire Evening Post. Each has been assigned a patch and will be helped by a mentor from the paper’s reporting team. Undergraduate journalism students will also be able to work on the paper.

University of Sheffield
A campaign to highlight the value of international students has received its 100th endorsement. The #weareinternational campaign was launched last year by the University of Sheffield’s students’ union and its vice-chancellor, Sir Keith Burnett. Last week the University of Falmouth became the 100th institution to sign up. Sheffield has developed materials to inform prospective students about the visa application process, including films aimed at Indian and Chinese students.

King’s College London
A planned £12 million university science gallery has been praised by the president of the Republic of Ireland on his state visit to the UK. During a speech at the Royal Society on 9 April, Michael D. Higgins said that King’s College London’s public science gallery, due to open in 2016, was an excellent example of cultural collaboration between the UK and Ireland, which followed in the footsteps of a similar project at Trinity College Dublin.

Bournemouth University
A £22 million flagship academic building at a south coast university is to be built after council planners gave it the green light. Opening in 2016, the four-storey glass-fronted building at Bournemouth University will host academic and support facilities, including seminar rooms, lecture theatres, break-out space and cafes. Vice-chancellor John Vinney said the institution needed such “world-class facilities” if it was to meet its aspiration of becoming “a centre of academic excellence in education, research and professional practice”.

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