Campus close-up: Coventry University

‘Captain Cyborg’ Kevin Warwick on how a new research focus and 200 extra staff can help the institution rise up the rankings

June 19, 2014

For universities bent on rising up the research rankings, one solution might be to implant a chip in academics’ brains to enhance their cognitive abilities. But if Coventry University’s new deputy vice-chancellor for research and self-proclaimed cyborg, Kevin Warwick, has such a scheme up his sleeve, he is not letting on.

Professor Warwick – who famously had a chip implanted into the nerves in his arm and most recently has invited critical scrutiny after claiming that a computer program had passed the Turing artificial intelligence test – told Times Higher Education that he aims to use more traditional methods to achieve the university’s goal of entering THE’s ranking of the world’s top 100 universities under 50 years old by 2020. Those methods are principally inspiration, perspiration and £100 million drawn from Coventry’s reserves to boost its research performance.

Its research strategy, Excellence With Impact, was developed by former vice-chancellor Madeleine Atkins and her replacement, John Latham. But Professor Warwick was lured from his chair in cybernetics at the University of Reading earlier this year by the “challenge” of implementing it, and it is his image – complete with robot hand – that graces the first adverts for the new research-focused positions the university is creating.

Appointments will be concentrated in areas where Coventry already has distinct strengths or advantages – around which its network of research institutes will also be amalgamated into large, cross-disciplinary, “university research centres” or smaller “faculty research centres”. These will also directly recruit the 50 new professors, 50 readers and 100 other research-focused academics whom Professor Warwick hopes will allow Coventry to continue a rise up the university rankings that has so far been driven by a successful focus on the student experience.

“We are looking for academics who really want to make a difference,” Professor Warwick says. “They could be people who have already achieved something and now really want to take on the world in their research area. Or they could be somebody more mid-career who has previously been working under someone else’s cloak and hasn’t been able to express themselves. We aren’t really looking for well-established academics to come and spend a few years and have a cushy time.”

Despite the research councils’ recent confinement of doctoral funding largely to traditional research powers, Coventry also hopes to significantly increase its count of research students by using both internal and industry funding.

Professor Warwick will leverage Coventry’s strong industrial links for project funding, such as by co-locating more university and industrial research facilities along the lines of the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering it is currently setting up with manufacturing and logistics firm Unipart – which will also yield lots of “impact brownie points” for the next research excellence framework.

He denies that it would have been better to recruit ahead of the 2014 REF, believing it is preferable to give the academics plenty of time to build up a head of steam for the 2020 round, in which he would like Coventry to be in the top quartile in at least some subjects.

Recruiting now also avoids the danger that existing staff resent the newcomers for being “parachuted in to change the stats”. Rather, he hopes they will “enthuse” existing staff into upping their own research performance – although he adds that a primary focus on teaching will continue to be an option.

Nor, he says, will Coventry’s new research focus detract from its existing emphasis on teaching and applied contract research. Rather, income from these areas will be invaluable for research: “It is all part of one big scheme of things, which is the university.”

For Professor Warwick, his namesake institution and Coventry’s closest neighbour shows it is genuinely possible for a young institution to establish itself among the research elite and, beyond 2020, he has his sights set on the world’s top 200.

“There is a strong belief and a very positive feeling in the staff; a lot of people would be delighted to kick ass a bit and stir it up,” he says.

And despite his new managerial responsibilities, he hopes to keep his own shoulder against the research wheel, noting excitedly that one of the surgeons involved in the implant experiments is now based at a Coventry hospital.

“I love research and I don’t see why I can’t keep it up,” he says. “There is the management side but, as much as anything, I am a flag waver, saying: ‘Let’s go for it!’”

In numbers

50 - the number of new professors that the university will directly recruit

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