The Times and The Sunday Times University of the Year
University of Birmingham
University of Birmingham
One thousand students beginning their studies at the University of Birmingham this week had good reason to be grateful for the institution’s boldness on A-level results day last month.

They all benefited from Birmingham’s innovative approach to student recruitment this year. As competition intensifies among even the best universities to attract the most able students, Birmingham made unconditional offers to 1,000 sixth-formers who applied to the university with predicted grades of AAA or better.

Applicants to 12 subjects – from classics to accounting and finance, metallurgy to modern languages – gained from the open-door policy.
The move was designed to encourage more students to make Birmingham – the original redbrick civic university – their firm choice, giving the university the pick of some of the most able school-leavers, who, in return, had the pressure of achieving high grades in their A-levels removed at a stroke. Most, of course, got their predicted AAA or better and did not use the offer as an opportunity to freewheel. 

And Birmingham undoubtedly recruited many students who might otherwise have gone elsewhere. It is safe to assume the university’s policy was not greeted with much pleasure among its rivals, from whom it will have attracted potential recruits. 

Birmingham’s vice-chancellor, Professor David Eastwood, expects some of them to follow suit. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he told The Sunday Times last week. “We are operating in a highly competitive environment. That competition between universities is giving more choice and placing a focus on what they offer to students. We know our competitors will also be thinking innovatively.”

One senses Eastwood, a former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, relishes the challenge. 
“Our unconditional offer strategy signals clearly that we are interested in students of outstanding achievement and potential. We are saying Birmingham has taken to them and we want them to commit to Birmingham.”

The university’s bold – and successful – approach to recruitment this year, coupled with an eight-place rise up our league table from 24= last year to its new ranking of 16, helped Birmingham to our 2013-14 University of the Year title, having been shortlisted for the award in 2012.
“We are committed to a strategy which is designed to raise the performance of this university,” Eastwood said. “It has always been a fine university; I want it to be a great university.”

Birmingham is a member of the 24-strong Russell Group of research-led universities. Always a solid top-30 performer in domestic university rankings and well inside the top 75 globally, it has been moving steadily higher in recent times.

Among our eight league table measures, it is student satisfaction, the one for which the university gets its lowest score, that Birmingham has placed great focus on. Our analysis of this year’s National Student Survey, which looks at the proportion of positive responses to 22 questions about teaching quality, academic support, assessment and feedback, learning resources, course management and overall satisfaction with course quality, sees it score 81.8% , ranking it 54= nationally. Very few city-based universities score higher.

“We have been doing what many have done and invested in our infrastructure and estate to improve the student experience,” explained Eastwood.

The university has ploughed £3.5m into employment initiatives, including mentoring and new internships, often with successful alumni. Personal tutoring has been enhanced and a transitional review introduced to ensure first-years are making the progress they would want and university would expect.

One of the highest degree completion rates of 95.1% and a top-10 performance for graduate prospects (which sees 80.8% of students gain professional jobs or go into postgraduate study) are the natural consequences of this joined-up approach. Always popular with graduate recruiters, the recent employment initiatives will only make Birmingham’s graduates more attractive in the jobs market.

Teaching degree students will benefit from the way the institution has embraced the University Teaching Schools initiative: the new University of Birmingham secondary school will open in the city in September 2015. 

The university’s school of education is one of just two in England to receive a“double” outstanding from Ofsted – covering both its primary and secondary teaching courses. Some of its students will in future get placements in the new school, located close to the university’s Edgbaston campus.

The new school will draw heavily on the university’s specialism in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and medicine) subjects. This gives the university the opportunity to mould just the sort of students it likes to recruit, and to do it with children on its doorstep. 

“The school will reflect the diversity of Birmingham,” said Eastwood. “It is also part of our contribution to raise further the educational standards in Birmingham, both through provision in the school for the children and through providing outstanding teacher training for the next generation of teachers.”

Birmingham’s existing footprint on the region is hard to overstate, with a recent Oxford Economics report putting the university’s input to the regional economy in 2011-12 at £1.1bn, sustaining 12,000 jobs directly and indirectly, and attracting 87% of the total research income of West Midlands higher education institutions.

“We are a university on the move. We are the most broadly-based institution in the country in terms of the range of programmes we offer,” said Eastwood. “But we expect and hope to improve further and we will not rest on our laurels.”

That commitment to academic endeavour is also evident in our runner-up for University of the Year. Academics at Leicester first floated the idea that the body of Richard III might be buried in the Greyfriars area of the city about 25 years ago. The subsequent dig in a car park and tests on the hunched skeleton discovered there proved incontrovertibly that they were the remains of our last monarch to die in battle. It was one of the outstanding academic discoveries of recent years. 

It’s nearly 30 years since Leicester’s Alec Jeffreys discovered genetic fingerprinting, a development of life-changing significance that also put Leicester centre-stage.

With Coventry winning our Modern University of the Year award and ranking higher than any other post-1992 university in the history of Sunday Times and Times league tables, it has been a bumper year for universities in the Midlands.