The controller preparing the platform to elevate Brunel

Chris Jenks intends to take his university into the Russell Group. Melanie Newman reports

February 28, 2008

If the Conservative MP for Uxbridge is to be believed, nobody knows where Brunel University is. John Randall suggested in the Commons last year that the Middlesex institution should have been called Uxbridge University instead, "if for no other reason than when large donors in America wrote out cheques they might think that they were donating to Oxbridge".

Location aside, the university has made its presence well known in the sector in recent years, thanks in large part to its controversial former chief Steven Schwartz.

Chris Jenks's reign has so far proved less colourful, but in his first interview since taking office two years ago, he describes a vision for the university that is every bit as ambitious as his predecessor's.

"My job has been to move Brunel from a research-led to a research-intensive university. We want to play in a different league," he said. While QR (quality research) income stands at only £10 million a year - "not outstanding", Professor Jenks admits - other external research income is now £16 million, having risen for the past three years.

His ultimate aim is to take Brunel into the elite Russell Group; in the medium term he has his eye on the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive institutions.

When Professor Jenks, a sociologist, became vice-chancellor in February 2006, Brunel belonged to the Coalition of Modern Universities (now renamed Million+). He withdrew from the group as it "did not seem to represent Brunel's particular interests".

"I helped take Goldsmiths College (where he was pro warden for research) from nowhere into the 1994 Group, and I hope to do the same for Brunel," he said.

Having admitted four new members in 2006, the 1994 Group said it would not look to expand membership until after the results of the 2008 research assessment exercise.

Whether or not Brunel performs sufficiently well in the RAE to enter the group, it is bound to do better than it did in 2001. The process of boosting its research profile - and shedding research-inactive staff - was begun by Professor Schwartz. Professor Jenks said the initiatives - which saw Professor Schwartz nominated by the lecturers' union for a spot on the reality TV show Britain's Worst Boss - have left him in a "wonderful position".

A policy of hiring only academics with doctorates and at least four publications meant that 90 per cent of staff were entered into the 2008 RAE.

"That's up from 60 per cent in 2001, and staff numbers have doubled since then," he said. "Nobody was left out: the 10 per cent not included opted out. There have been no appeals, no casualties."

This leader does not come across as someone who enjoys creating casualties; he has been consulting on his uncontroversial strategic plan, published this month, for two years.

Brunel is also putting "enormous effort" into benefits for and communication with students, including the student union, following two years of poor showings in the National Student Survey.

As independent university guide says, Brunel's grey concrete buildings are "in the final throes of a £250 million redevelopment programme that should leave (the university) academically, sportily, socially and foodily enhanced". The website continues, "Dystopian nightmare A Clockwork Orange was filmed here and, although the newer buildings are slightly less conducive to ultra-violence than the 60s monstrosities, the campus is drably practical rather than sexy."

Professor Jenks remains convinced that the new buildings, combined with teaching enhanced by cutting-edge research, mean that Brunel will soon be selecting students rather than recruiting them.

"Russell Group universities don't put a lot of money into student marketing, do they?" he observed.

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