Fearless in the face of assault on RAE summit

May 6, 2005

"Nothing in university life can scare me," Chris Jenks says candidly. He is not making a bullish boast but rather pointing out that the experiences he has encountered while indulging in his 30-year passion for scaling mountains put the stresses of academic management in perspective It stands to reason that the challenge of climbing a highly unstable glacier with your climbing partner's life in your hands would demand an even temperament.

And it is exactly what is needed of the pro vice-chancellor for research at Brunel University, where he has faced scathing union attacks and strikes by staff over proposed job cuts.

The responsibility for implementing Brunel's mission to hone itself into a research-led institution, reaching far beyond its technical roots, is a challenge that would daunt many. But Professor Jenks benefits not only from his mountaineering mettle but also from his considerable experience of research management.

During four years as pro-warden for research at Goldsmiths, University of London, he helped develop a strong research culture. He instigated regular departmental research reviews, held mock research assessment exercises and delivered the 2001 submission - Jall while writing five books, numerous journal articles and book chapters and conducting a £150,000 research project.

A prolific sociologist, he specialises in research into childhood and education, but he has also written about the public's enduring interest in the East End gangsters the Krays. "I was fascinated by the fascination," he said.

Professor Jenks arrived at Brunel in August 2004, when the university had already put research at the top of its agenda, a policy that was prompted by poor performance in the 2001 RAE.

Brunel submitted only 60 per cent of staff to the 2001 exercise, an unacceptably low rate, according to Professor Jenks. His aim is to have between 80 and 90 per cent of staff submitted in 2008.

Professor Jenks said: "The RAE punctuates academic life and we'd be foolish to leave it out of our plans, but the structure will not become defunct after it. The work we are doing will restore Brunel to its former glory. We are trying to build the future and do it very quickly. That kind of change is painful whatever method you employ."

Brunel has carried out an evaluation of its research capacity based on its 2001 performance. Major restructuring has taken place, with 60 new research staff recruited, 60 voluntary redundancies of non-research active staff to be replaced with more research-active peers, and 30 new professorial and reader-level posts still to come.

Such major change has proved difficult, inciting high-profile union wrath.

"It's a major upheaval," Professor Jenks said. "The campus is erupting.

It's all very symbolic and a wonderful period of change, but it makes for a volatile environment, which can be interpreted positively or negatively."

But Professor Jenks insisted that it was an investment of unprecedented scale rather than a cost-cutting exercise.

"It's a complex change of purpose. Those 60 people who are going may be perfectly adequate teachers, but they are not researchers - and this institution wants to be research-led."

In no way is this hypocritical. He expects the same standards of himself and stipulated that both research and teaching would form part of his working life before agreeing to join Brunel.

"I can't tell people to do more research on top of teaching if I'm not doing it myself," he said.

"I think it's a false distinction. Teaching should not be seen as a threat or an alternative to research. I'm utterly opposed to research and teaching being seen as anything other than a dialectical relationship."

There has been a union backlash and a staff strike, but Professor Jenks takes it in his stride.

"The Association of University Teachers is running a fairly aggressive programme, but you would expect it to. It is working for its members and is professionally and morally bound to do the best by them, but the vast majority (of Brunel staff) are on board," he said.

"There are consequences that follow from a policy of redundancies, and it's not without impact. The rhetoric is that the place will become populated by boffins, but it's not the case that we are only employing 5* people.

There's been a lot of talk about firing the teachers and that is simply not true."

That teaching is still important is not just rhetoric. Professor Jenks's own career began with the desire, at 16, to be a teacher. He was the first in his family to go to university, and he has a postgraduate certificate in education, a rarity among academics. "I realised that I wanted to teach in a university but had that not come about, I could have taught in a school or anywhere so long as I had an audience," he said.

Professor Jenks gets in front of a class whenever he can. "At the moment I teach PhD students, but I don't see that as a grand irony."

Perhaps because of this desire to promote good teaching, he is unapologetic about his university's mission to boost research.

"First-hand new knowledge rather than replicated or textbook knowledge comes from research. University is about being taught by people who actually create the discipline," he said.

"All academics are pedagogues who move their subject forward by their pedagogy. People don't opt into university life to do research and similarly not to do teaching."

Professor Jenks has conquered a few mountains in his time, but Brunel still represents a real challenge. "I didn't come to Brunel for a quiet few years before retirement or to screw my academic colleagues. I want to insulate them and let them get on with their research."

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM

Surrey University, then London University

MY FIRST JOB

was lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London

MY MAIN CHALLENGE

is cushioning academics from constant change

WHAT I HATE MOST

is people who say 'no problem'

IN TEN YEARS

I hope to be watching more cricket

MY FAVOURITE JOKE

is 'you give me the extra staff and I'll get you the students'

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