Campus close-up: Nottingham Trent University

One v-c is pursuing novel alliances and fundraising efforts to keep research at his university’s core

May 29, 2014

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.”

In numbers

£23m - Target of five-year fundraising campaign for the John van Geest Cancer Research Centre

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