'If you are seen to have quality research, people start wanting to recruit your staff'

June 2, 2006

Sheffield may not have the glamour or the bank balance of cities in the South East, but when it comes to running a university this is not always a bad thing.

"We've had to push harder because we are in a more deprived area. We are hungry and lean," Geof Tomlinson, pro vice-chancellor for research at Sheffield University, said. "We're snapping at the heels of the Golden Triangle. They'd better watch out."

The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest he is right. Sheffield is seventh in the league for research grant income, following Oxbridge, the big London institutions and Manchester University.

Professor Tomlinson believes a key factor in the university's success is its readiness to cross old-fashioned disciplinary boundaries. In the past year, Sheffield opened three multidisciplinary research facilities. The latest, unveiled last week, is a centre for humanities research that will focus on issues ranging from race and social status to Freemasonry.

"This is where our future lies," Professor Tomlinson said. "We want people to broaden their horizons." Sheffield has been investing heavily in new staff at all levels, though this may have reached a temporary ceiling. "We will probably have to cut back on expenditure as we've been attracting so many high-quality people," Professor Tomlinson added.

Diana Green, Sheffield Hallam University's vice-chancellor, is delighted that her institution has been ranked top of the modern universities for research cash. But such success may have its downsides. She said: "We are more at risk from Russell Group universities. If you are seen to have excellent research, people start looking over your shoulder and wanting to recruit your staff."

Sheffield Hallam has turned around its research in a relatively short period. Income for 2004-05 was up 12 per cent on the preceding year to £12.2m. More impressively its research council income was up a massive 80 per cent.

"We've been trying to get more professional," Professor Green said. "We are really engaging with the research councils and taking advantage of initiatives such as discipline-hopping awards."

Sheffield Hallam has been very clear about its priorities, working on the assumption that you cannot excel at everything. "The caveat is that you need to be aware all the time that if you invest only in areas of existing strength you will neglect the green shoots," Professor Green said.

"It is much more strategic and focused than when I came here," she said, adding quickly: "I still don't think we are doing enough. My ambition exceeds our performance."

On the up: Sheffield University's research and Sheffield Hallam's student art projects have helped push them up the research rankings.

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