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Durham University to recruit overseas professors

Professor Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor Durham University, UK

Durham University is to hire 50 professors in a bid to become the “Oxbridge of the North”, 10 of them from overseas.

It plans to assemble more teams of academics from different disciplines who will teach in separate faculties but combine forces for research. Professor Chris Higgins, the vice-chancellor, told his aim was to make Durham a top five university in Britain and within the top 50 in the world.

Durham is currently sixth in The Times Good University Guide, held jointly with St Andrews. Breaking into the top five would mean dislodging one of the London colleges ahead of them: the London School of Economics, Imperial or University College London. Hiring more academics will improve staff-student ratios and should push up the university’s citations for published research, which are key league table measures.

Some universities are currently retrenching slightly as the government’s squeeze on student numbers at more expensive courses transfers places to lower-cost universities and further education colleges. Durham is one of a handful to have escaped the squeeze as all of its undergraduate places are offered at A-level grades of AAB or above, and are exempt.

Durham, one of four new members about to join the Russell Group of leading research universities, had decided to keep its undergraduate numbers stable and would expand only a small number of courses such as history, Professor Higgins said. Instead it has increased its staff budget by £5 million ($7.8m) to create 40 new professorial posts. It is also recruiting internationally to fill a further ten vacant academic positions.

Professor Higgins said Durham had a strong reputation in Britain as one of only three historic collegiate universities, alongside Oxford and Cambridge, but it was less well known abroad. It is ranked 83rd in the Times Higher Education global table and 95th in other tables published by QS.

“People know of Oxford and Cambridge. Durham is less known about worldwide,” he said. But in history, for example, he pointed out that Durham was ranked top, ahead of Cambridge and Oxford, in The Times Good University Guide.

Its decision to hire academics to create clusters of research strength mirrors the trend in higher education to move away from the “lone scholar” model in which experts work in isolation towards a focus on building teams, in arts and humanities as well as in sciences.

An example is Durham’s decision to strengthen its research into prevention of climate change, hiring biologists, geographers and earth statisticians who will teach undergraduates separately but work together on research. Similarly the university will build capacity for research into sustainable energy, such as carbon capture and storage and wind power, by hiring teams of physicists, engineers and social scientists.

Other areas in which it plans to concentrate research activities are soft matter science, advanced computing and computational biology; medical humanities, conflict prevention; medieval and renaissance studies, theology and religion, population health, and ethnomusicology, which is the study of world music.

All new academics will have teaching responsibilities. “Our students get taught by world-leading researchers and interact with them on a daily basis,” Professor Higgins said. “They also get an education which incorporates research right from the start of their undergraduate career. We don’t have research-only professorships.”

The University of Reading also announced plans two months ago to recruit 50 academics to build its research capacity shortly after the appointment of its new vice-chancellor Sir David Bell. He was previously permanent secretary at the department for education.

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