This Sussex Life. PVC Professor Keith Jones: "Sussex's challenge is to define its purpose."
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 14 May 2021
Professor Keith Jones, Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, talks about Size and Shape – and reflects on his ‘ping-pong pom’ career journey.
I currently live just outside Southampton but the plan is to move! When I joined in October, after being Executive Dean of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Adelaide in Australia, things were a bit more open. I had an opportunity to see a little of campus and Brighton. But a lot of my time has been spent meeting people virtually and working from home. What I have not seen yet is a vibrant campus because the students haven’t been around. I am looking forward to that.
During my first few weeks it was good to meet some of the researchers who are active across our University: in development studies, quantum technology, sustainability, and neuroscience, to name just a few. Across the university we have great research strengths – and ones to be developed further in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) – so we do look like a comprehensively strong university. I have been really buoyed by people’s attitudes and perceptions of our research. Hopefully our REF results next year will reflect these strengths.
We have an impressive history of cross-discipline research. We led on interdisciplinarity research before it became mainstream. Every university does it now, but we were leading on it initially, and I think we could do even more - spanning very distinct areas of research strengths in social sciences, business, humanities and the sciences; taking advantage of our growing joint Medical School, and creating more interactions. We certainly benefit from not being siloed in our research.
We’ve now started our Size and Shape programme engagement process, which is being led by the Sussex Engagement Group and involves everyone at the University being able to have their say. This will provide an essential voice from the staff and student community on size and shape matters to the University Executive Group. I hope this helps build better decisions.
There are elements of tension between some parts of the University. A lot of things have changed in the education sector over the past ten years, little ever stays still. Such changes have left us in a position where we have opportunities to grow but find investment difficult, while other areas require support to continue because student demand has shrunk. Some areas of the University are student-rich and staff-poor, or strong in research but need to be supported financially. We may consider ourselves a little mishappen. We need to focus on getting a better shape and, in so doing, establish what are our truly leading areas of research expertise and our capacity to support them. What the ‘shape’ part will do in our Shape and Size programme is try to even out those tensions.
Even if people currently feel they don’t have enough knowledge to engage, that in itself can be useful because hopefully they’ll make efforts to find out more. The outcome will be a deeper understanding of how the University operates. Raising everyone’s perspective above and beyond their own Division or School has real benefit. We all belong to the same university, and we all have different things to contribute to its success. It’s a communal effort. I hope that a better understanding of how our university works will be a product of the engagement process.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I as a school but I did have a natural affinity for the sciences and a curiosity about how things worked. I liked chemistry the most but was eventually drawn to biochemistry because it has to attempt the impossible; it tries to explain the most complex things in the Universe (living matter) through simple chemical reactions.
I was the first in my family to go to university. My mum was a school dinner lady and my dad was a machinist in a factory. I am the youngest of four children and was the only one to go to university (although others in the family have since followed). University was quite a daunting experience and at first seemed very alien. However, I was brought up in Wolverhampton and from a young age was keen to do something different in life rather than stay there. So I persevered. I worked in Adelaide before coming to Sussex (my frequent moves between the UK and Australia means I’m what some of my Australian friends call a ‘ping-pong pom’). Adelaide is a slice of paradise on Earth. If I’d been brought up there, I would never have wanted to leave. There are a great many more reasons to leave Wolverhampton than Adelaide!
The more your career develops the more you reflect on how you got to where you are today. During my ‘gap year’ after university, I had an opportunity to work in a research lab in Sydney, which I really enjoyed. It got me hooked on doing research. So when I came back to the UK, I decided to do a PhD and I worked on a topic that had excited me from having a wonderful and enthusiastic lecturer (Dr McCormack) at university. If I had not worked at that lab in Sydney I would never have gone on to do a PhD. The move from being an academic engaged in research and teaching into university leadership and management has been a gradual one. I have found my management activities are more team-based than my research ever was, and I enjoy this aspect the most.
Sussex faces a challenge that all universities face, which, at its heart, is defining its purpose. Universities teach and do research – simple! But what’s the purpose of a university education these days? And how can we excel in research in a funding system that fails to fully support the costs of that research? Doing this examination now is even more important because the costs of research are increasing and students’ appetite for specific programmes changes with time: thus, the margins in which we work have narrowed. We have a lot of metrics available to us – there’s plenty of market analysis around to understand degree programmes that are waxing and waning. It should, therefore, be a regular exercise to examine if our education provision matches the demands of the student market.
On research, we need to invest in areas associated with international prestige and recognition or are able to reach this level. Our Development Studies programme is no 1 in the World in the QS Rankings, and that is an amazing achievement. We must make sure that whatever we do in Size and Shape, we don’t diminish our truly outstanding research.
This is part of our This Sussex Life series