For Staff

How can a young academic forge a successful and fulfilling career in Britain today? - April 2011

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How can a young academic forge a successful and fulfilling career in Britain today? It is a question I have been asked several times in recent months by postdoctoral researchers and junior lecturers from a variety of disciplines who are concerned that the tumultuous changes sweeping through higher education will impact on their vocation.

On the subject of research, my answer is stark - and it's quality over volume, every time. In a funding system where a 'world-leading' piece of research, of four-star quality, is worth 30 times as much (QR income) as 'internationally recognised' work graded two-star in the Research Exercise Framework (REF), then it's an obvious point to make.

So from the very outset of an academic career, the focus needs to be on ensuring work is of world-leading quality. In my field of medicine, this would require reading all around the subject, talking to everyone you can, gaining the confidence and knowledge to ask harder, riskier questions and, of course, making sure that your methodology is absolutely state of the art.

Here's the difference. A two or three-star project might look at the expression of a protein of interest using a specific antibody, and may compare what happens in normal or diseased tissues. World-leading four-star research takes that protein and manipulates or genetically changes it allowing experiments that identify its importance, or otherwise, in a disease process and thus generates a definitive piece of work.

In the arts, definitive, world-leading outputs are those that don't just re-apply familiar ideas. Instead, they transform our understanding or shift our assumptions about a particular writer, historical period or cultural formation. A great researcher takes what we know and builds on it to create something new.

Leeds is special in this respect; across campus, there are many examples of great research feeding into great education. The critical importance of teaching and learning - as outlined by our strategy six years ago - is now beyond any doubt.

Students' expectations will rise with the increase in graduate contributions, and the financial health of each and every academic unit on our campus will be directly linked to the quality of their education, to student satisfaction and to the successful recruitment of excellent undergraduates.

Students will come to Leeds for a life-changing experience, a distinctive, research-led education and the benefits of a lifelong network of opportunity. Students are at the heart of our University and our mission; LeedsforLife and the partnership between students, their teachers and the University should be nurtured, promoted and treasured.

To be explicit; teaching and learning already features in all academic promotions criteria, so my second piece of career advice is to give equal priority to teaching, research and innovation. This is a tall order - all our staff already work very hard - so this has to be about following our strategy of closely integrating these key academic functions and working together effectively as a team to deliver world-class outcomes.

The challenges of providing a fantastic education to students while maintaining excellence in research and innovation were among the many topics raised in the three 'Preparing for 2012' open meetings held on campus last month. These were great discussions; varied, lively, engaged, creative, thoughtful and professional. I was asked some tough questions, but welcomed the opportunity to explain where we are heading and why.

There was a clear appreciation of the arguments and figures behind our decision on the new undergraduate fee. Discussions ranged far and wide, from visas, backlog maintenance and postgraduate fees to social media, graduate careers and staff training. A number of issues were raised we need to think about again, such as fee levels for industrial placements, and the shape of the student bursary package.

I was extremely proud that staff at all levels have been addressing the implications of the new funding and fees system not just for themselves, but for colleagues, students, parents and the general public. A huge effort is underway across campus, pulling together the information we need to answer the obvious question that will be on the lips of every undergraduate we would like to study here - 'Why Leeds?' The first of our open days for 2012 applicants takes place on June 24 and we will need to be able to articulate a compelling case.

I have no doubt we will be able to do this and that we will be ready for 2012. Our undergraduate fees have been set at a level (subject to agreement by the Office for Fair Access) which will enable us to provide bursaries for one in three students, thus protecting our commitment to extending opportunity to all who can benefit from a Leeds education, regardless of their means.

Our financial forecasts are healthy, and we will be able to invest just short of £50m of new money every year in academic activity (and the staff student ratio), strategic development, student support, and buildings and infrastructure. That sounds like a lot and it is, but for context it costs us just under £10m a week to run the University. So while the additional fee income puts us on a sound financial footing - provided we continue to recruit high quality students in sufficient numbers - it is hardly the 'windfall' I have heard described.

As this issue of the Reporter reaches you, we will be reporting back on a serious exploration of an opportunity to establish a research-intensive engineering 'college' - an extension of our Leeds engineering faculty - in Malaysia. It's a collaborative proposal, with various universities providing different faculties. A great performance by our engineering schools in the REF, and a number of influential alumni in government, higher education and business have opened doors. Discussions are at a very early stage, and we would need to do a great deal of detailed work before reaching a decision, but it is a great opportunity, potentially, for the right kind of presence in a key region of the world.