Exeter aims for the top

When its research rating plummeted, Exeter University was shocked into action. Now it is hiring new professors to restore its fortunes. Lucy Hodges asks whether it will work
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When Steve Smith arrived a year ago as Exeter's new vice-chancellor he commissioned a survey into how people saw the university. They were asked which motorcar it reminded them of. The vehicle they chose was a Volvo Estate, a reliable, upmarket car which will get you where you want to go without any hiccups but which is not exactly cutting edge or top-of-the-range. You might regard such a description as perfectly adequate but Professor Smith would rather Exeter were a Mercedes Benz, a university in the top 20 of the research league rather than one languishing in 34th place in The Independent's league table.

The survey gave him the hard evidence he needed. It is well known that Exeter is popular with well-heeled parents who want a safe place to send their daughters. Set in the most beautiful surroundings above the river Exe, it has always had more than its fair share of Sloane Rangers. In fact, it is popular with everyone, being the 10th most sought-after university in the country on applications per place. But it doesn't do particularly well in research - and that matters because excellence in research brings large dollops of cash and a reputation to die for.

"I think Exeter didn't punch its weight for quite a long time," says Smith who came from Aberystwyth University. "The popularity of its undergraduate recruitment probably meant that people didn't think they had to try quite so hard on some of the other criteria. Life is relatively comfortable. It's a middle class university."

Professor Smith's task is to prod Exeter into becoming less complacent. It's a tough job. Reputations are much more easily lost than gained and the university has a lot of ground to make up. In 1992 it came 14th in the research assessment exercise (RAE). But in the next RAE four years later it had the shock of its life when it slumped to 47th place. Last time round it clawed its way back up by nine places. Smith intends to use its popularity and the fact that it attracts very high quality students to make it a top player. Many people might be surprised to know that Exeter is outperformed in research by the universities of Essex, Lancaster and East Anglia, none of which are as popular with students. "Where we stand on research is inconsistent with where we stand on all the other measures," says Smith.

Two weeks ago Exeter published a gigantic advertisement for new professorships in 17 subjects. Other universities have done the same, among them Royal Holloway, the University of East Anglia and Nottingham. The idea is that by making a splash about your commitment to research you attract attention. Academics who might not have thought about working for you think again.

Asked about the advertisement, Professor Smith says that the university wanted to put some money into boosting the academic side. He scraped together £700,000 from different pots and an internal university competition was held to decide which disciplines should get the professorships.

Altogether 26 or 27 chairs will be created, he says, mostly in areas that achieved a five (top grade) in the RAE last time in the hope that they will get a five-star next time. In addition, a few four-rated departments, for example, French will receive new investment.

The tactic is criticised for being a public relations gimmick. "It's complete folly," says one higher education expert. "It will lead to lots of second-rate appointments." Smith, however, rejects the criticism on the grounds that it is part of a much broader recruitment strategy which involves nurturing PhD students, giving staff the rewards they need and instituting a criteria-based promotion system. "We won't fill these jobs if we don't get the right people," he says.

Exeter has the misfortune to have a large number of departments rated four. That means they receive some extra funding for research but not much. Forty four per cent of its academic staff are in departments with fours. Smith agrees that this is bad news. The university has only one department scoring five star (German) though it has 18 with five. There are great hopes for the latter.

On the face of it the university has a lot going for it. Its campus is gorgeous, laid out over 250 acres of parkland sporting all kinds of rare botanical trees, and its teaching scores and facilities are good. The problem is that it didn't wake up to the new competitive climate in British academe until relatively late.

"It hadn't got its act together until the mid 1990s on graduate students or overseas students or research," says Smith. "The shock of its research assessment exercise rating in 1996 changed everything."

The previous vice-chancellor was Sir Geoffrey Holland, a former permanent secretary at the Departments of Education and Employment. Sir Geoffrey did a fantastic job, says Smith diplomatically, but Exeter needed an academic to really sort out its research weaknesses. "A lot of what has to happen here is very much to do with changing the culture," he says. "That means I have regular termly meetings with every head of school about what the school is doing and yearly meetings with every head of school about each member of staff's research. That's a lot of time." That didn't happen before.

Smith continues in pep-talk vein: "What I am very keen to do is to make sure that we achieve what we want to achieve and that we know where we are so what you find here is an institution that is really looking very carefully at what its competitors are doing, looking carefully at what it's doing, working out where it wants to be and make sure it's getting there. The job is to drive that change through the institution."

Exeter is proud that it has stolen its new registrar, David Allen, from Birmingham. And it is putting new investment into press and public relations. Until now one man has had to do all three jobs of PR manager, press officer and development officer. New staff are to be hired.

And it is very keen to do something about its notoriety for being Sloaney. It is the university with the biggest gap in the proportion of students it recruits from the lowest social classes compared with its benchmark (what the Higher Education Funding Council thinks it should have). It has 13 per cent when it should have 19 per cent.

"Not enough has been done in the past and we're still not doing enough," says Smith. But the university has announced generous bursaries of up to £4,000 for disadvantaged students to try to change that. In fact, one of the reasons why Professor Smith is so keen on the top-up fee Bill is that it does so much for students from poorer families. The Government's policy creates the fairest way to deliver additional funding while at the same time maintaining the basis for young people from poorer backgrounds to go to good universities, he says. "That's not just spin. The bursaries that we and others can bring in will be a sea change for poor kids."

He goes out of his way to say that Exeter is not in the business of social engineering or quotas. "We're not going down the route of saying, 'If you come from this school or that school, you get a place or you don't'," he says. "We're trying to drive up A-level grades."

In an effort to raise the aspirations of local children, which are low, the university has entered into a collaboration with the local further education college and has thrown itself into what is called the Combined Universities in Cornwall. If it can do all that and burnish its reputation nationally, it will finally be able to claim to be a Mercedes Benz.

Great campus ... shame about the research ranking

Vital statistics: A small and beautiful university with 12,000 students. Strong in law, sport, English and psychology.

Ambience: Great views and mild climate - the camellias were in flower last week. Is trying to counter its private school image by making special efforts to recruit students from less advantaged backgrounds.

Added value: It has the new Peninsula Medical School, which it shares with Plymouth University. And it has launched the Combined Universities in Cornwall initiative. This offers programmes in biological sciences, English, humanities and geography alongside the Camborne School of Mines' earth and environmental science programmes. There's a big Arab influence: the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies has been built in a prime position overlooking the Exe with money from the Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi. A new Exeter Centre for Finance and Investment, otherwise known as XFI, is being constructed with an anonymous donation. It will house the MBA students.

Any more new buildings? Yes, £38m is going on upgrading halls and building two new ones; £33m on new academic buildings.

Research: Came 34th in the 2001 research assessment exercise after dropping to a humiliating 47th place in 1996.

Glittering alumni: JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author; singer Will Young; three High Court judges: Sir Patrick Elias, Sir Robert Owen and Sir John Goldring.

Who's the boss? Professor Steve Smith, who built up the department of international politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and is president of the International Studies Association.