Links between Durham and Newcastle are likely to grow with the arrival of top scientists. Phil Baty reports
The North East is set for a major reinvigoration of its research profile after Durham University confirmed that it had poached one of the UK's biggest medical scientists from Imperial College London to become its next vice-chancellor.
Durham's appointment of Chris Higgins, director of the Medical Research Council's Clinical Sciences Centre and head of clinical sciences at Imperial, raises the tantalising prospect of even closer collaboration on science with Newcastle University.
Neighbouring Newcastle is already planning a £300 million investment in science under the Government's science city initiative, building on its reputation as a world leader in stem-cell research.
Newcastle also announced that it had appointed a new vice-chancellor this week - Chris Brink, who is vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Professor Brink had a proven record in "institutional transformation", a Newcastle spokesman said.
Professor Higgins immediately dampened down rumours that change at the top of both North East universities could mean the resurrection of a much mooted merger.
But he said that "partnership and collaboration" between the two parts of what was once the same institution was "very much on the cards". Newcastle was in effect part of Durham until 1963.
He told The Times Higher : "Newcastle and Durham are very different institutions. Both have real but distinct strengths that are complementary.
This offers opportunities for interactions and collaborations. This is already being explored."
Professor Higgins, who is 51 and will take up his post next year, suggested he would be keen to raise Durham's international profile.
"Durham is truly a world-class university, but it is not quite recognised as such everywhere," he said.
The North, through the N8 group of northern universities, including Durham, Newcastle and Manchester, is already seeking to establish itself as a "new global power base" to challenge the traditional dominance of the golden triangle of Oxbridge and London.
Newcastle and Durham, with the regional development agency One North East, have put together a funding package of nearly £25 million to establish the regional Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.
Newcastle, which cloned the first human embryo in Britain, recently acquired a £33 million site in central Newcastle to form a £300 million hub of the Government's science city.
Professor Brink, who will take over at Newcastle in 2007, said he was honoured to be given the opportunity to participate "in the development of Newcastle as a science city".
"The combination of global and local challenges manifested here appeals to me," he said.
Newcastle this week emphasised Professor Brink's experience in promoting diversity in higher education - a priority in a region with the lowest participation rate in higher education in the UK.
Stellenbosch was once the intellectual heart of apartheid, but since his arrival at the university in 2002, Professor Brink has overseen dramatic increases in the proportion of black students, who now make up 20 per cent of undergraduates and 40 per cent of postgraduate students.
- Bob Cryan will leave his post as deputy vice-chancellor at Northumbria University to become the next vice-chancellor of Huddersfield university.
MORE THAN A COMMON INTEREST IN EXCELLENCE
Chris Brink graduated in maths and computer science from what is now the University of Johannesburg, gaining his PhD in algebraic logic at Cambridge University in 1978.
He has been professor and head of maths at the University of Cape Town, which he helped to restructure as co-ordinator of strategic planning in the mid-1990s. In 1998, he was appointed pro vice-chancellor (research) of the University of Wollongong, Australia, and joined Stellenbosch in 2002.
He has remained an active researcher and has published widely in the fields of maths, logic, philosophy and computer science.
Chris Higgins graduated from Durham University in 1976 with a first in botany, and completed his PhD in 1979.
In 1993, he was appointed Nuffield professor of clinical biochemistry at Oxford University and moved to his present post at Imperial College London in 1998, where as head of clinical sciences he manages a division with a turnover of more than £200 million.
He is an internationally recognised clinical scientist and has published more than 200 research papers in the field of cell biology and genetics, winning several awards for his research.