Campus close-up: University of Leeds

Yorkshire powerhouse puts accent on interdisciplinarity, research themes and life lessons for undergraduates

July 10, 2014

As a former principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee and ex-chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Sir Alan Langlands thought he had “seen it all” in higher education.

However, he admits that even he has found the sheer scale of the University of Leeds, with its 33,000 students and 560 undergraduate programmes, “quite daunting” – as well as “hugely energising” – since he became the institution’s vice-chancellor last October.

However, he also sees Leeds’ breadth of coverage as a distinct advantage in terms of managing risk in an era of great uncertainty in higher education – particularly once the undergraduate numbers cap is removed in 2015-16.

He also wholeheartedly approves of the university’s efforts to capitalise on that breadth by expanding its existing prowess in interdisciplinary research – not least because it will also allow Leeds to leverage the strengths of its most successful groups, including environment and earth science.

According to David Hogg, pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Leeds, interdisciplinarity is something the university has prioritised for some years in specific areas, such as water research. According to bibliometric analysis, the results have been highly successful.

The university now plans to duplicate the feat in a range of other “themes”, such as energy and food, with others to be announced shortly. However, counter to the approach taken by some other institutions, the relevant researchers will not be co-located in new institutes; rather, they will remain based in traditional departments in order not to jeopardise Leeds’ disciplinary strengths.

“We have a big opportunity and appetite for promoting interdisciplinarity. So do many universities, but because Leeds is big and we have been doing it for a long time, we think we know how to do it,” Professor Hogg says.

Sir Alan notes that the interdisciplinary agenda chimes with the challenge-led approach being adopted by many funders, including the research councils and the European Union. He is confident that the larger units of assessment in the 2014 research excellence framework will serve to reduce the risk that its assessment panels will struggle to give interdisciplinary submissions a fair hearing, as has been the accusation in the past.

Other priorities for Sir Alan include expanding Leeds’ international offering – “not by recruiting more students but by building longer-term education and research partnerships in key places around the world”. So rather than setting up fully fledged branch campuses in other countries, Sir Alan’s intention is to collaborate with local universities on ventures such as joint schools in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

“The rationale is to create an environment in which Leeds students benefit from people coming here from abroad and [have a greater opportunity to] spend time in another country,” he explains.

That emphasis on “combining subject knowledge with opportunities” – such as studying abroad for a year or having a year out in industry – is, in Sir Alan’s view, Leeds’ greatest strength.

Enhanced development

The institution’s commitment to offering its students multiple personal development opportunities beyond the standard academic curriculum is manifested in its Leeds for Life programme. Launched in 2008, the programme offers a host of volunteering opportunities, many of which are now compulsory parts of courses. Students may apply for grants of up to £500 towards projects they come up with that will demonstrably enhance their generic skills, such as teamwork.

An online “personal development timeline”, to which students and the university contribute, allows students to record their extracurricular activities, and one-to-one meetings with personal tutors several times a year are aimed at not only reviewing academic progress but also encouraging students to reflect on the skills they have learned and how those relate to their career aspirations.

According to David Gardner, head of student opportunity and enhancement, the timeline is also intended to be a memory jog for students struggling to provide concrete examples of their skills development on job application forms.

Students’ participation in any of about 100 volunteering opportunities certified by the university to provide graduate-level skills is also recorded in an achievement record, presented to them alongside their graduation certificates. An online network has been established of Leeds alumni willing to mentor students or provide them with internship opportunities.

“Leeds is really ahead of the curve on all this,” Sir Alan observes.

In numbers

560 undergraduate programmes

Campus news

University of the West of Scotland/University of Strathclyde
Male first-year students tend to be more physically active than their female counterparts, a study has found. An analysis of freshers’ lifestyles carried out by researchers at the University of the West of Scotland and the University of Strathclyde also found that undergraduates living at home tended to have healthier diets and lifestyles than those who moved away to study.

Teesside University
New research indicates that there was a spike in anti-Muslim attacks after the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in southeast London in 2013. The analysis from Teesside University’s Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies also showed that fewer than one in six of the reported attacks had been reported to the police. The paper draws on data from the Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) project, which asked people to send in their experiences of threats and assaults.

Lancaster University
Abseiling down a 150ft tower was a mountaineer and university chancellor’s way of marking his institution’s 50th anniversary. Sir Chris Bonington, 79, who retires as chancellor of Lancaster University later this year, took on the challenge of the university’s Bowland Tower. He said he felt “privileged” to have been the chancellor of a successful university that was “also a friendly, happy place”.

University of Derby
An entomologist has been beaten to the rediscovery of an endangered insect by his seven-year-old son. Karim Vahed, professor of entomology at the University of Derby, was searching a Pembrokeshire beach with his son for evidence that a colony of scaly crickets had survived the winter storms. But it was his son who found the insects. “If I produce a paper on the discovery, I might even have to share credit with him,” Professor Vahed said.

Tour de France
The visit of the Tour de France to Yorkshire was celebrated with a series of events and activities involving the region’s universities. Ahead of the Grand Départ from Leeds on 5 July, the riders followed a route to an opening ceremony on 3 July from the University of Leeds. Then on 4 July an event was held by Leeds Metropolitan University to celebrate British cycling, featuring a host of amateur and professional riders. Meanwhile, an international cycling science conference held in Leeds on 2 and 3 July, and organised by University of Kent academics, attracted many of the world’s leading sports scientists, coaches and riders. The Tour went on to visit Sheffield on 6 July, where Sheffield Hallam University – an official supporter of the race – ran a series of activities, while the University of Sheffield marked the occasion with a giant piece of artwork (see above) cut into a hillside along the route.

University of Wolverhampton
A university-run theatre has won £330,000 in funding from Arts Council England to cover the next three years. The Arena Theatre, part of the University of Wolverhampton, features seminar rooms and a bar and stages 200 productions every year. The Arts Council judged that the proposed programme put forward by the theatre supported its ambitions, including increasing its interactive work with children.

University of Northampton
A plan to explore strategies for turning Northampton into a “university town” following the local institution’s expected relocation to the town centre has been launched. The 15-month University Town Northampton project is led by Sabine Coady Schaebitz, director of the University of Northampton’s Collaborative Centre for the Built Environment. It will draw on case studies from around the UK and Europe where the development of universities has had a significant regenerative impact on their surroundings.

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