The Times and The Sunday Times University of the Year
Northern powerhouse sets the standard
University of Leeds
An enlightened approach to education and an outstanding student experience are the twin pillars on which the success of the University of Leeds, our University of the Year, is founded.

Leeds’ success is no fluke. For the past two years it has been runner-up for the prestigious award as it has powered up our league table, this year reaching an all-time high ranking of 13. It is one of the most popular universities in the country.

Only the two Manchester universities and Edinburgh attracted more applications last year than the 52,000 who sought a place here on one of the country’s most extensive undergraduate programmes, with more than 560 courses.

It is not just the range of options, but the strength of the university’s offer to students that is fuelling demand. Yes, Leeds is part of the elite Russell Group of 24 research-led universities, but its appeal goes much wider and is centred on getting the things right that increasingly matter to the modern generation of students.

Sir Alan Langlands, vice-chancellor here for the past three years, says: “Leeds should be defined by breadth, quality and commitment, and to ensuring it has a positive influence on the economy, society and cultural development of the country and the wider Leeds region. These were the ingredients I had to work with when I arrived.”

Langlands, 64, who — as well as being a chief executive of the NHS in a previous life — is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee, our Scottish University of the Year, denies he has some sort of managerial Midas touch. “We have been building on existing strengths rather than striking out in new directions,” he says. “Universities do not change because of one person and they don’t change in just three years. I’m very conscious that the recognition that the Times and Sunday Times award provides is the result of work by a lot of people.”

Among those with longer-term responsibility for Leeds’ success is Michael Arthur, his predecessor and one of the architects of the National Student Survey (NSS). This annual stress test of universities’ ability to deliver a quality student experience and outstanding teaching in return for (soon to rise) £9,000-a-year fees has been the Achilles heel of many of our leading universities.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given Arthur’s involvement in the NSS, Leeds prioritised the areas it measures and today has some of the best results in the Russell Group and is one of few big civic universities to do well in a survey that plays to the strengths of smaller, often campus-based institutions.

Leeds ranks 12= this year for student satisfaction with their student experience and 34= for satisfaction with teaching quality, both rankings slightly down on 2015 but still of a calibre only dreamt of by those universities that are unable to strike a balance between being a leading research institution and having demanding, able undergraduates who expect equally dynamic teaching.

“We offer a very enlightened approach to education and a very strong student experience,” says Langlands. “Students are the lifeblood of our institution and we try to give equal weight to education and research.”

Prioritising undergraduate teaching, in an institution where more than 80% of research was considered world-leading or internationally excellent in the 2014 research assessments, is not easy: “There is a tension. We don’t expect leading researchers to be rushing to volunteer to teach first-year students. However, some academics are infuriatingly good at everything.”

Outstanding teaching is recognised on an equal footing with pioneering research, and Leeds has more National Teaching Fellows than any other university — 22 at the latest count. It has also embarked on an ambitious recruitment programme, bringing in 150 new academic staff from all over the world and from blue-chip universities in the UK — “a new injection in the life of the academic community” as Langlands calls it.

These University Academic Fellows will be joined by another 100 recruits by the end of next year, all of whom will undertake a development programme that will lead to an associate professor role.

One of the university’s big ideas is the LeedsForLife initiative, which is built around a personal tutor system that offers excellent levels of pastoral care and support, so students are able to develop themselves both within and outwith the academic curriculum.

Addressing this in a big city university is “a very difficult issue,” he acknowledges. “We have spent a lot of time and effort and commitment. We want LeedsForLife to be a gateway for opportunity to bolster educational activities.”

Within the curriculum, students undertake a final-year research-based project that is seen as the academic pinnacle of their three- or four-year courses. “The phrase ‘research-led education’ can’t just be words,” says Langlands. “We want to ensure students are exposed to the research community here, but it is a difficult trick to pull off.”

Work placements abound and the university has one of the largest Study Abroad programmes but Langlands bridles at the idea some espouse that universities exist to produce “work-ready” students.

“We want to produce people with independent, critical minds who know how to solve problems and who have strong communication skills,” he says. “They recognise their own worth and are able to make a difference in the world. Everyone with those qualities will be ‘work-ready’.”

Outside the curriculum, students can develop the skills that make them among the most attractive to graduate employers, with 81.4% of students landing professional jobs or going into further study within six months of leaving. More than 3,000 students volunteer in the local community, many working with children in small groups to improve numeracy and literacy in the city.

“The whole essence is for individuals to take the initiative,” explains Langlands. “We want students to have opportunities beyond the curriculum and try to create an environment where we support their development through personal growth.”

The price for all of this is set to rise next September. Leeds, in common with other universities, will raise its fees to £9,250 for new entrants. However, unlike many universities, it will not apply the fees to existing students, nor to those who have gained a place this year but deferred entry to next.

The university’s location in a gritty — but thriving — northern city helps focus attention on its wider mission to be socially inclusive and to take into account the consequences for the student body of the blanket fee rises proposed elsewhere.

In 2017, Leeds will spend £17.9m on its fair access agenda, a sum second only to the University of Manchester, with £14.9m going in financial support of students.

The Access to Leeds scheme makes adjustments to offer levels for applicants who come from areas with a poor track record of admission to higher education or who have personal circumstances that might have affected their academic attainment prior to entry to Leeds.

This translates into a diverse social mix among the student body. Leeds beats its national benchmark for recruitment from so-called low-participation neighbourhoods, with 8.2% of students drawn from these areas at the latest count. And it comes close to matching targets for recruitment from state schools, which stands at 81%, with 22.5% of students drawn from working-class backgrounds.

Langlands is confident that Leeds is producing graduates who, whatever their background, will achieve highly in their chosen fields. “They have heaps of subject knowledge, good opportunities for personal growth, and we have done everything possible to ensure that they can take their place in a competitive employment market,” he says.

The challenge for Leeds — and all universities —is to adapt to meet modern requirements. “The changes from my generation are unbelievable. Students are more committed and take it all much more seriously. That is not to say they can’t have good fun. But they are bright, serious and want to see a career opening up in front of them.”