First impressions

In the first week of February I spoke to staff audiences across the University to set out my impressions and first thoughts. Over the coming weeks, I will set those out in three blog posts.

There has never been a time in the history of the world when universities have meant more to more people than they do today. Around the world, individuals, governments and societies look to universities more than ever. Universities are growing at an unprecedented rate: faster than the growth in population, faster than the growth in GDP around the world.

Universities are becoming more important for a reason: they work. They work for individuals. They work for communities. They work for societies. For individuals, there are enormous benefits of going to university: higher lifetime earnings – and the earnings premium has by and large kept up as universities have grown; lower likelihood of unemployment; longer, healthier lives; and improved opportunity and capability. And the benefits are not just to individuals: universities grow economies and build more diverse, engaged communities. Sheffield Hallam commissioned research last year which mapped the University’s impact on the city region economy – estimating it as over £424m per year – 3% of the local economy. Governments, also, look to universities to drive innovation, economic development, creativity and innovation. I have a very simple, and very crude way to put this: until the eighteenth century, the economy was driven by wood; in the nineteenth century, it was driven by coal; in the twentieth century, it was driven by oil; and in the twenty-first century, it will be driven by education and skills.

So universities matter. They matter to individuals, to communities and societies. Sheffield Hallam matters: to those who come, to those who work with us, to this city and this region. This is important: it’s important because it shapes what we do here and why it matters. We are enrolling students, teaching courses, undertaking research, and leading innovation, working with partners, developing the estate. But we are doing all those things for a purpose: we are shaping the lives of young people who will go on to work and to lead, shaping this city and this region, impacting on the world beyond.

This is the big context for what I have seen since I arrived. It’s a context in which universities, what they do and how they do it, matter more and more, and in which the stakes for universities are getting higher and higher.

My first impression is of first class staff – in every part of the University. That’s easy to say, but it’s meant genuinely. It’s true across the range of disciplines, from designs for neck rests for people with motor neurone disease, to work on packaging technology developing easier-to-open jam jar lids and baked bean cans, to pre-competitive research to reduce sugar and salt content in food products, to world-leading work on novel coatings and surface treatment technology in materials research, to the extraordinary work on precise measurement in elite sports, with potential translations to population health, to fabulous technologically-enhanced learning environments in health and wellbeing. And if – as I have – I have missed out work of real importance it is simply because I don’t have time to list everything. And it is equally true – and this is certainly not the case for all universities – in the ways in which professional and support services grasp the importance of the University and what it does.

The Sheffield Support Snood - a revolutionary new neck brace for motor neurone disease patients

The Sheffield Support Snood – a revolutionary new neck brace for motor neurone disease patients

I’ve laboured the point because it really has been the striking impression of the first few weeks of this job: this is a University with committed and effective staff. I’m going to talk in my next blog post about the challenges ahead and I am clear that, although none of them are easy, there is no chance of getting any of them right without a strong and effective commitment across the University.

That leads onto a series of other impressions: a well-managed University with robust processes and an impressively-managed estate; a financially sound University with a strong sense of civic and regional pride; a University strongly focused on application, use and relevance. And all this leads to frustration at the University’s league table position: in my judgement, league tables understate the strength and impact of the University by least fifteen places.

Taken together – all this tells me that this is a good University. And that’s good. But it’s not enough; it needs to be much more than that. It needs to become a great University. In my next blog, drawing on the second part of my address to staff, I will set out why that is so important.

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