Going up in the world: Warwick's rank ambitions

Can Warwick jump from 294th into the top 50 universities globally? Sure, its new boss tells Lucy Hodges

When Professor David Vandelinde got the top job at Warwick seven years ago, one of his ambitions was to make the university a global player.

Built in the Sixties, Warwick had fast acquired a reputation as one of the top 10 universities in the United Kingdom. But its name carried – and still carries – no cachet internationally. The big question was how to enable it to compete abroad with Oxford and Cambridge.

Vandelinde, an American who thought globally, decided that it needed to take a leaf out of the University of Nottingham's book by setting up a campus in Singapore (Nottingham has campuses in China and Malaysia). So negotiations began with the Singapore government, and a heated debate erupted at Warwick about the wisdom of such a risky foreign adventure.

The vice chancellor, who was retiring anyway, lost the battle with his academics, and Warwick was left licking its wounds and without a clear direction.

Now all that is changing. The new man in charge, Professor Nigel Thrift, has done what vice chancellors like to do when newly appointed. He has consulted staff and come up with a dynamic new strategy, made public this week, to put Warwick on the global map by setting an extraordinarily ambitious target: by 2015, it will be in the top 50 world universities.

At the moment, Warwick is nowhere. It comes 294 in the prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University league table, and 73 in the Times Higher Education Supplement's international table.

The key to moving up, the university has decided, is to hire the best scholars it can. So it has identified another bold goal: to have 45 highly rated researchers by 2015. Both the Shanghai and THES tables measure universities partly according to the number of highly cited researchers that they employ. At the moment, Warwick has only five, compared to, for example, Cambridge's 49.

"If you have highly cited people, you are more likely to attract other excellent scholars in those areas," says Thrift, a geography scholar who is one of Warwick's five. "We will meet our goal by creating our own highly rated researchers and by some judicious hirings."

Warwick believes that the recruitment of 45 outstanding scholars in seven years is possible. Professor Andrew Oswald, another of the five highly cited researchers, says: "I think it's extremely ambitious for a young university, but ambition is a good thing."

Oswald believes that, first and foremost, the university needs to play to its strengths, which are in economics, mathematics and the business school. It is important for the school to be ambitious because of the competition. "Everyone else is lifting their sights as well, so to really push ahead you do have to have stark targets," he says. "They will look outstandingly ambitious because other people are not sitting on their hands."

Manchester is one of the universities that spelt out its new goals when it acquired an Australian vice chancellor , Professor Alan Gilbert, and merged with UMIST in 2004. One of those goals was to have five Nobel Prize winners on its staff by 2015. Gilbert made no bones about the need to improve Manchester's position in the league tables. His strategy appears to be working: the university is slowly climbing up the Shanghai table.

Warwick is clearly hoping to do the same. To burnish its international reputation further, it is planning to invite four overseas universities to establish a base at Warwick. The idea is that these universities will build their own campuses on the 750-acre university site outside Coventry. Furthermore, the university is proposing to set up a Warwick Literary Prize, similar to the Booker Prize, which will give a first prize of £50,000 to the winning writer every two years. And it is going to look in detail at the case for creating a "digital university press" to publish academics' work on the internet.

All this will cost a good deal of money. The figure being mentioned is £200m over the next two years. Warwick also wants to double the university's turnover by 2015. It is hoping to boost its research income through an incentive scheme to reward good performance and through developing new businesses, such as a budget hotel on campus.

All the signs are that the university is behind Thrift's vision. He has made sure that they are on side by consulting them carefully, and he is, after all, an outstanding researcher in his field, someone who deserves their respect. The temptation when you are doing well – as Warwick surely is – is to rest on your laurels and become a little complacent. Thrift is aware of those dangers, and seems to have persuaded the staff to buy into his thinking.

"We're an ambitious university," says Professor Ian Stuart, the eminent Warwick mathematician and award-winning writer. "We were just a muddy field 40 years ago, and now we're one of the top universities in the UK. You don't necessarily believe you are going to reach all your targets, but they give us a yardstick to measure ourselves by."

A life in brief

Born: Bath, 12 October 1949

Parents: Both teachers

Educated:Nailsea comprehensive school in Somerset; BA in geography at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth; PhD at Bristol University

Career: Pro-vice chancellor for research, University of Oxford; head of life and environmental sciences at Oxford; geography professor at Oxford and Bristol; geography lecturer, Lampeter; research fellow at Australian National University, Leeds and Cambridge.

Research: One of the world's leading human geographers and social scientists, known for coining the phrase "soft capitalism" and originating "non-representational theory". Elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2003.

Likes: Music - John Cale, a founding member of The Velvet Underground; Richard Thompson, of Fairport Convention; and the American singer-songwriter Gillian Welch. Oh yes, and Mozart.

Currently reading: Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land and Richard Powers' The Echo Maker

Family: Wife Lynda and two adult daughters, one doing her Masters, the other working in New York.

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