New v-c seeks to give research a sporting chance at Loughborough

Nick Jennings was nearly a professional footballer himself, but wants his new university to ‘broaden its profile’ beyond athletics and student experience

November 29, 2021
Nick Jennings. Credit: Loughborough University

“I’m a super-keen sportsman but I never thought it would help me get an academic job,” reflected Loughborough University’s new vice-chancellor Nick Jennings on taking over at Britain’s most famous sporting university.

Indeed, having been a county-level cricketer and footballer in his teens, he imagined his last serious brush with elite sport was during his trial for Aston Villa as a 13-year-old goalkeeper in the late 1970s.

Now the 54-year-old computer scientist regularly bumps into sporting greats who train at Loughborough’s famous facilities. “I’ve already met Adam Peaty, Graham Thorpe and Jonathan Trott and some other England cricketers,” said Professor Jennings.

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But while he is happy to celebrate Loughborough’s reputation for sporting excellence, Professor Jennings wants the east Midlands university to be known for its other achievements.

“It’s good that a university is known internationally for something – many institutions are not much known beyond a name – but I am keen to broaden the profile of what we do,” he explained.

As a former vice-provost for research and enterprise at Imperial College London, Professor Jennings has been tasked with improving his new institution’s research performance, suggesting that Loughborough must look beyond its traditional focus on student experience and teaching, even if that has seen it rank highly in several national league tables.

“I have been amazed to see all the efforts made to improve our educational offering but that singular focus has perhaps been to the detriment of other things,” said Professor Jennings, who added that he wants to give academics “more headroom” to explore research projects and “give them permission to do this”.

“I don’t want to be complacent about student experience, but I do want dial up the amount we do on research and innovation – and my council has signalled that should be my remit,” he said.

“In my interview process, I kept discovering things that we’re doing in research and thinking, ‘Why aren’t we telling more people about this?’” continued Professor Jennings, who saw big opportunities to build on Loughborough’s traditional strengths by expanding research around sport and well-being, climate change, and social inclusion.

“I’m keen to raise our ambitions – we have some great industrial connections, a big science park, and more undergraduates taking work placements than in any other university in the UK, so that is a great basis for us to get into some bigger research partnerships,” said Professor Jennings, who has won more than £33 million in research funding during his career.

Of course, attracting research investment from industry is a difficult task, with many UK universities signing partnerships with high technology firms from China to fund dozens of projects in recent years.

But Professor Jennings, an artificial intelligence expert who was the government’s first chief scientific adviser on national security, said he was pleased to see universities becoming more circumspect about this kind of partnership following growing political pressure.

“We have obviously seen a sea change away from the engagement witnessed under the Cameron-Osborne administration and the government is more cautious, and maybe rightly so,” said Professor Jennings, who suggested “there has been a degree of naivety in our international engagement”.

Neither should UK universities entirely cut themselves off from China, he insisted. “Engagement is the right thing to do – I think government has always warned that China is a complex country to do business with, and universities need to do this engagement with their eyes open and understand who their partners are,” he said.

Professor Jennings’ speciality of AI is another area that many universities are seeking to expand, although he is wary about trying to push his own area of research at Loughborough, rather than building on existing strengths.

Even at Imperial, it was difficult keeping hold of AI researchers given the “vice-chancellor-plus salaries” being offered by technology businesses, he admitted.

“As a London institution, we were losing a lot of talented people because you could go to work for DeepMind without moving house,” recalled Professor Jennings, who said that some of his senior AI researchers had gone after receiving salary offers in excess of £1 million.

“I’m pleased that some people have gone back into academia,” he continued, adding that “people miss those uber-bright students and PhDs coming through who want to explore and test the limits in their discipline.”

He suggested that this was why he had resisted similar offers and had stayed in academia. “[It] helps academics to stay fresh and it is very hard to replicate anywhere else,” he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

Over the past twenty years, Stirling has been driving up the same "sporting university" cul-de-sac and I imagine that they will find it equally difficult to reverse back out when the time comes.