Some academics at Liverpool John Moores University were, to say the least, sceptical of their chances of success when they entered last year's Times Higher Education Research Project of the Year Award. According to Chris Collins, professor of cosmology at LJMU, some of his colleagues thought a win nigh-on impossible.
"We were up against some medically related projects," Collins explains, "and a number of people thought we stood a cat-in-hell's chance. But I thought the medical entries would cancel each other out."
It is testimony to Collins' faith in his colleagues' work and to the open-mindedness of the award judges that LJMU's project to measure gamma-ray bursts in deep space won.
LJMU, the first post-92 university to collect the research project honour, impressed judges with a project that advanced understanding of the fundamental nature of the Universe by recording gamma-ray bursts - intense but short-lived bursts of cosmic radiation. They developed an instrument that was fitted to the Liverpool Telescope, and the project required close collaboration between LJMU academics and technical staff from the observatory.
"People may feel that things are stacked against them and that they will never get recognition, but (our award) proves that if you do the best science the recognition will come," Collins says. "Many of those involved were not active researchers but were more technical experts. One of the great benefits of winning was that everyone involved took credit and shared in the kudos of the award."
Since the awards ceremony in November, Times Higher Education has changed its name and its format to become a magazine. But the ethos of the awards remains the same - it is all about celebrating the achievements of the higher education sector and the people in it.
It is with this in mind that we are proud to launch the 2008 Times Higher Education Awards. The closing date for nominations, 12 June, is the next milestone on the road to the 2008 awards ceremony on 23 October.
At last year's ceremony, Loughborough University was perhaps slightly less surprised than the LJMU team but it was no less delighted. It had two wins to celebrate: it claimed the Best Student Experience honour for the second year in a row and won the award for Outstanding Support for Overseas Students.
"Winning the award for the second year running showed an element of consistency," says Ian Cairns, director of marketing and communications at Loughborough. "Hopefully we will be going for the hat-trick this year."
Loughborough uses the awards in its marketing effort, as do other winners.
Like the universities of Nottingham and Manchester before it, the University of Exeter has used its University of the Year award in its promotional material. But Steve Smith, Exeter's vice-chancellor, says this is only part of the picture. "The awards and the ceremony lift the spirits of the sector and make me very proud to be a part of higher education. They are a chance to get a lot of people together to celebrate the sector as a whole."
The university lobby group Universities UK agrees. "It has become the sector's very own Oscars evening and a great way of recognising the commitment and success of the talented individuals working in UK higher education," says Diana Warwick, chief executive of UUK.
A number of organisations have already signed up as sponsors, among them SAGE, sponsor of the award for Research Project of the Year, and the Quality Assurance Agency, sponsoring the award for Outstanding Support for Overseas Students.
There are 18 categories in the fourth annual awards. The deadline for entries is 12 June.
Details are avalable at www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/awards
THE 2008 TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION AWARDS AND THEIR SPONSORS
- Excellence and Innovation in the Arts
Sponsored by the Arts Council England
Widening Participation Initiative of the Year
In association with the Higher Education Funding Council for England
- Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year
Sponsored by the Joint Information Systems Committee
- Best Student Experience
- Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community
- Research Project of the Year
Sponsored by SAGE
- Outstanding Employer Engagement Initiative
- Marketing Initiative of the Year
- Outstanding Support for Overseas Students
Sponsored by the Quality Assurance Agency
- Outstanding Student Financial Support Package
In association with the Office for Fair Access
- Outstanding Support for Disabled Students
- Outstanding Support for Early Careers Researchers
Sponsored by Research Councils UK and UK Grad
- Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development
- Outstanding Contribution to Leadership Development
Sponsored by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education
- Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology
- Lifetime Achievement Award
- Entrepreneurial University of the Year
Sponsored by the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship
- University of the Year
Sponsored by Hobsons.