For post-92 universities, the increasing tendency of research funders to concentrate resources, such as doctoral studentships, in established research powers represents a considerable threat to their ambitions.
But for Neil Gorman, the vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, one of the “fundamentals” of a university is its role in the “acquisition and dissemination of new knowledge”.
“To have the enquiring mind of students being somewhere that isn’t enquiring itself isn’t a healthy thing,” he says.
Hence, although he takes pride in Nottingham Trent’s relationship with 6,000 businesses, the professional accreditation of the majority of its courses and its strong record in employability, he also demands that all its courses be “research-informed”. This means that the academics delivering them are “active researchers and absolutely up to date on everything that is going on” – even if that does not always result in papers worthy of submission to the research excellence framework. It also means having “certain areas where we are absolutely research-led” – and it is on these that the bulk of the university’s research investment is concentrated.
To sustain such islands of excellence, Gorman emphasises the importance of having the “right relationships with some of your good neighbours”. One conspicuous success, he says, is Nottingham Trent’s involvement in the Midlands3Cities doctoral training partnership, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, alongside other universities from Nottingham, Leicester and Birmingham.
Another good example is the university’s John van Geest Cancer Research Centre – a translational research hub that is obliged to work with other universities’ medical schools and hospitals (Nottingham Trent has no teaching hospital), both locally and internationally, to trial the immunotherapy treatments for breast and prostate cancer that it is developing.
The impressive purpose-built centre’s construction and first three years of running costs were funded by an £8 million donation. When the gift was made in 2008 by the John and Lucille van Geest Foundation, it was the largest that a post-92 institution had ever received.
According to Sue Dewey, the centre’s head of fundraising, the gift came about because the foundation liked the science being done by Robert Rees, now the centre’s director, whose research it had previously funded. After being asked what he would do with a larger donation, he went away and designed his ideal research institute, complete with an open-plan office to maximise interaction between the 40 or so researchers it houses.
The university meets the annual running costs of the centre, which opened in 2010. On being wound up in 2012, the van Geest foundation endowed an £8 million capital reserve to cover the cost of new equipment – with which the centre is already well furnished. But with the foundation’s support for scientific costs now having run out and the university feeling unable to fill the gap, Dewey was taken on a year ago to raise funds from philanthropists, industry, local businesses and alumni.
Her efforts to raise the centre’s profile started at zero: its private income source and inconspicuous campus location meant that it had in essence been “operating in secret”. According to Rees, although the centre is not widely known, the scientists associated with it are well regarded internationally, enabling it to win grants from external funders such as the Medical Research Council, the European Union and the charity Prostate Cancer UK. Nevertheless, the enormous cost of the clinical trials that the centre hopes to carry out – including a forthcoming £3.5 million trial of a prostate cancer vaccine at a Greek clinic – mean that more funds are necessary.
Hence, Dewey is leading a five-year, £23 million global fundraising campaign – although £8 million of that sum is the already banked capital fund. The task is made slightly easier, she says, by the “brand” the centre has provided to the university’s already well regarded cancer work, as well as by the patronage of the university’s outgoing chancellor, Sir Michael Parkinson, and the fact that she can guarantee donors that every penny given will fund science, not administration.
She is confident that the campaign – launched in March at a concert in Nottingham – will be successful despite the lack of precedents to follow.
“We know that centres like the Royal Marsden Hospital are fundraising as institutions, but we are not aware of any other university that is engaging the community in the same way as we are, so perhaps we are trailblazing to some degree.”
£23m - Target of five-year fundraising campaign for the John van Geest Cancer Research Centre
University of Glasgow
Mass murderers and serial killers are likely to have their behaviour triggered by a complex combination of neurodevelopmental problems and psychosocial disorders, a study has suggested. Researchers at the University of Glasgow found that more than half of such individuals had suffered some kind of psychosocial stress in the past, such as physical or sexual abuse during childhood, while more than a fifth had experienced a head injury or were suspected of suffering from a form of autism.
University of Sheffield
Biomedical research laboratories have been opened to the public as part of a celebration of a university’s medical research. The University of Sheffield’s Life Festival, which ran from 19 to 24 May, highlighted the university’s research into cancer, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and childhood diseases. The event included free health checks, interactive lab demonstrations and public lectures from medical experts, including Embarrassing Bodies lead presenter Dawn Harper.
University of Leicester
A university has raised funds for the biggest capital project in its history by staging a black tie ball. The University of Leicester’s Heartbeat Ball raised money for its £42 million Centre for Medicine. The facility, which is already under construction, will house Leicester’s departments of health sciences, psychology and medical and social care education, bringing together academics and students currently spread across multiple sites.
Two-time Man Booker prizewinner Hilary Mantel will judge a university writing competition named in her honour. The Wolf Hall author will judge the Kingston Writing School Hilary Mantel International Short Story Competition. Writers from across the world are invited to submit a story of no more than 5,000 words by 30 June. The winning entry will receive £3,000.
University of Brighton
A two-bedroom flat, kitted out with cameras and microphones, is the latest facility created by one university to help paramedical, midwifery and nursing students hone practical skills. The University of Brighton students are filmed as they respond to simulated scenarios set up in the £100,000 facility, which looks like a real home. The flat is linked to a soundproof control room and an observation room with one-way mirrors so that students can be observed and their performance analysed.
University of Edinburgh
Chemistry scholars have said that a sixth of Scotland’s energy needs could be met by installing solar panels on a quarter of a million roofs in the country. The change was recommended by University of Edinburgh researchers working alongside business leaders and public sector experts on what has been billed as the most comprehensive assessment yet of Scotland’s renewable energy potential.
Leeds Metropolitan University
A graduate of Leeds Metropolitan University who set up a children’s literacy programme has been named student of the year by a schools outreach group. Alex Edwards, who established Let Leeds Read while he was an undergraduate, was presented with the National Education Opportunities Network award by Liam Byrne, the shadow higher education minister, at the House of Commons on 13 May. More than 150 pupils benefited from the reading scheme via 56 student volunteers, and the programme has continued to operate despite Mr Edwards’ departure from the university.
University College London/ King’s College London
Watching exciting films can trigger changes to blood pressure and the heart’s beating pattern, researchers have shown. Academics from University College London and King’s College London made the discovery by showing cardiology patients at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital a clip from the movie Vertical Limit, an action-drama about mountain climbers. The results will help doctors to understand the impact of emotional and mental stress on the heart, the research team says.