Spirit of excellence reaps its rewards

November 16, 2007

What is it like to work in one of the world's best universities and how do they make it to the top? In the midst of the international debate following last week's publication of the latest Times Higher- QS World University Rankings, Chloe Stothart talks to staff members and senior managers at some of the UK's high-flying institutions.

Southampton: Good word gets around

Southampton University's language department is bucking a trend: it is recruiting more students when other departments are seeing a drop.

And its rapid ascent up The Times Higher -QS World University Rankings will help it pull in more staff and students from overseas, according to Alasdair Archibald, programme leader for linguistics.

"If we get a good rating, then presumably we get more people. It certainly works that way with international students," he said. For example, many of the university's Taiwanese students come through agents who use the rankings to recommend which institutions to apply to.

Bill Wakeham, the university's vice-chancellor, agreed. "The rankings do have a profound effect on what international students think of the institution because it is the easiest information for them to access," he said.

The number of international students has doubled in six years, according to Professor Wakeham: they report good experiences to their friends on their return home, so the numbers snowball, he said.

York: rise reflects growth

York University is adding departments at a rapid rate.

A department of law and one of theatre, film and television have started taking postgraduates and will open their doors to undergraduates next year. Other newcomers are the departments of medicine, management and health sciences. There has also been an expansion of electronics and computer science.

Brian Cantor, the vice-chancellor, is not finished. "We expect (to open) one or two more departments over the next ten years, with dentistry and pharmacology and pharmacy prime candidates."

The new departments have been popular with international students, and this recruiting success - as well as moves to hire more overseas staff - is part of the reason for York's climb into the top 100 in The Times Higher -QS World University Rankings.

"About 40 to 50 per cent of our academic staff come from outside the UK. It would have been a lot lower ten years ago," Professor Cantor said.

Despite its newfound popularity with international students, York has no plans to set up a campus abroad. "I think that it is not possible to create our high-quality brand of education in a different cultural, financial and political environment," he said. York is, however, setting up collaborations with overseas universities to allow students and staff to work abroad. It is also doubling the size of its campus.

Of course, size is not everything. In the politics department, it is the ability to specialise in a few key areas that attracted one staff member. Rob Aitken, a senior lecturer, said: "We are a broad department - we have sociologists, economists, historians, philosophers, even an architect and an engineer - but we link together around some themes and do them well rather than trying to do everything in political sciences.

"The university overall has that strength of particular specialisms rather than trying to spread itself thinly."

Lancaster: climbing into the world's top 200

For Jim Wild, Lancaster University's move into the list of the world's top 200 universities is recognition of its forward thinking and distinct identity.

"The collegiate identity - students graduate from their colleges rather than from their subject area - gives students a nice identity away from just their subjects. At most universities, you're in your halls of residence and then you leave," said Dr Wild, a lecturer in communications systems.

Students also liked the university's system of offering "minor" and "major" subjects, so in their first year they could study outside their own subject area, which was "quite rare in England", he said.

Dr Wild, who gained his first degree and doctorate from Leicester, said his department had a close relationship with business. "We have also managed to attract money from the North West Development Agency and the European Union to outreach into business. In my department, we work hard to get students placed with companies. We try to build bridges between academia and enterprise."

Recognition in The Times Higher -QS league table was a welcome reward for the university. "For your own motivation and your own team spirit, it's nice to know that if you're working hard and the university's taking a bit of a punt and trying some new ideas that it's starting to feed back in a positive way," he said.

"It's nice to see that you're moving up the league table, and it gives you a nice feeling that it's making a difference."

Surrey: a rankings debutant

"It is our strategy to become an international university rather than a UK university doing international activities, and I am pleased to see that it is starting to have an impact," said Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of Surrey University.

Surrey entered the top 200 in The Times Higher -QS World University Rankings for the first time, largely on the strength of the number of international students and staff at the university.

After the launch of a campus in China last week, Professor Snowden has his eye on more outposts around the world with India, Pakistan and Malaysia the frontrunners.

Employers surveyed for the rankings were also relatively keen to hire Surrey's students. This might be because the university builds an optional year in the workplace into degrees, making graduates more employable.

Success in the tables could also breed further success, Professor Snowden said. They were particularly important to international students choosing an institution, and even academics looking at making an international job move would take note. "It would be a factor because it has many of the characteristics staff would be interested in such as citations and staff- student ratio," he said.

UCL: Academic standing secures top ten spot

"Tell us your ideas." That was how University College London advertised for eight new engineering lecturers two and half years ago. That open approach appealed to Sarah Bell, who got one of the jobs. Dr Bell, who has the unconventional combination of a degree in engineering and doctorate in social sciences, specialises in the relationship between engineering, technology and society. She said: "Nobody would ever advertise for what I do, but because it was an open process they picked me up."

Dr Bell left her post at the University of Sydney to come to UCL, joining new colleagues from as far afield as Brazil, China, Portugal and Russia.

"There's a spirit of excellence here," she said. "There are a number of really big names, and as an early-career researcher being in the culture drives you towards excellence."

This internationalism combined with a solid academic reputation may be part of the reason UCL has broken into the world's top ten.

Michael Worton, UCL's vice-provost, said a good rating could help the university. "It raises our profile and makes people think," he said. "In terms of agreement with government agencies, they take these rankings very seriously."

He stresses that UCL fishes from an international pool for staff and students. "This is not just about cultural diversity but about understanding how research methodology differs around the world."

UCL has a long history of global involvement. Alumni include Mahatma Gandhi and Hirobumi Ito, Japan's first modern Prime Minister, who was one of five students smuggled out of Japan to study at the university in 1863 when travel abroad was forbidden. More recently, UCL has forged alliances with institutions around the world.

Their partnerships are with "the best universities", and units are chosen for fitting well with those at UCL, Professor Worton said. He cites a link with Delhi University's physics department, in which a Delhi professor is seconded to UCL and a postdoctoral student from UCL works in India.

UCL's links extend to charities, among them the Banyan, an Indian NGO known for its fieldwork with women with mental-health problems. UCL will supply the theoretical underpinning for its work.

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