Practical solutions to real world problems

This is the third of my blogs which is drawn from my all-staff addresses earlier in February. It sets out my first thoughts – with more to come – on shaping the University in response to the challenges I set out in the previous two blogs.

A Vice-Chancellor’s job is essentially simple: it is to mobilise the university’s strengths and resources to overcome external challenges. That means being clear about the nature of the challenges, but also about the resources available. It’s the route to ensuring the long-term success of the university.

The world looks to universities to provide practical solutions to tough problems through teaching and research. Hallam is, above all, an applied University which uses its resources and capabilities to meet practical challenges. That underpins our teaching – we train people to do useful, important jobs as engineers and scientists, nurses and coaches, teachers and artists, lawyers and paramedics. It makes our teaching in conventional subjects – in mathematics, history, English, sociology – distinctive, with a strong focus on employability. But it also drives our research, in science, sport, social science, arts, engineering, and business. So my aspiration for Hallam is very clear: we will be the UK’s leading applied University. What does that mean in practice? It means marshaling our strengths to solve challenging practical problems. It means equipping students and society with usable solutions to tough problems, close to employers; close to implementation. It means using our location in the city and city region to be a national and international beacon for what universities can do with and for their communities.

Research at Sheffield Hallam

Research at Sheffield Hallam

This is not a short-term fix for next year, nor is it about a five year strategic plan. It is about a sustained, long-term commitment to our mission, driving success for the city, the region and our students. I like long time horizons because they help to sift the important from the urgent, and the significant from the incidental.

The UK’s leading applied University is an easy phrase – but what does it mean? I think it has four dimensions: shaping opportunities – for our students, with our staff and regional employers and partners; building knowledge and innovation – through research, teaching and consultancy; looking outward to the city and region; and, in all we do, modelling leadership behaviours which secure the first three. I talk about building knowledge because it cuts across research and teaching – too often research and teaching are seen as different ends of a see-saw in universities; but universities are, and always have been, about both. Without research, universities are not universities at all; without teaching, they are research institutes. What makes universities special is the opportunity to fuse research and teaching in imaginative ways – though all too few, in practice, really try to do this. Both teaching and research are means by which we shape and achieve our mission. Nor does being the UK’s leading applied University detract from an international focus: I want us, quite simply, to be a global beacon for the things we are good at.

There is an ambitious future for Sheffield Hallam. Securing it involves some immediate priorities for the University. We have to put quality at the centre of everything we do, looking hard at our teaching, our research, our processes and being self-critical to be better. This is a good University, but in too many ways our performance is not yet consistently good enough. Secondly, we need to understand and enhance our impact – focusing on the impact of what we choose to do and how we do it, and making sure that we do it with a keen eye on its effectiveness and power to change. Thirdly, we need to be innovative and distinctive, marking us out from others in what is an increasingly crowded higher education environment. If I have a principal concern after my first two months, it is this: I have seen lots of measure to sustain what we have, but I do not know enough yet to understand whether we have the framework for innovation right. That means being bold enough to reshape our offer. Fourthly, we need to reinforce our engagement with others: being outward facing, learning from others, working with others – back to the dimension which modelling leadership. And, finally, we need to think about sustainability, in its broadest sense – financial, environmental (which will be an increasing differentiator for success) and cultural, ensuring that we draw on the talents of all, against a financial background which will, I am afraid, become more difficult. Amongst other things, this weekend, I have been reading the final report of the Sheffield Green Commission, with powerful messages for making the city a better place, and the role of the universities in that.

Everything I have seen here tells me that this is a good University. It’s an enormous privilege to have been appointed to lead it. But it’s not yet a great University. And that’s what we are going to make it.

One thought on “Practical solutions to real world problems

  1. Hugely encouraging words here, Chris. Personally, this feels like a perfect `fit` to me, with both a strong sense of where we are already, alongside ambition and challenge for the future.

    Naturally, I am particularly delighted with your focus on sustainability and the mention of the Sheffield Green Commission report. We are working closely with the SHU Sustainability team to develop a more detailed response to that report, and to reflect on our future aspirations. Just as an example of your `practical solutions to real world problems`, the Department of the Natural & Built Environment ran an excellent event on 6 April exploring how to make Sheffield homes more sustainable in the future, in partnership with Green Homes Sheffield. Over 120 participants – local businesses, community groups, staff and students – were inspired by talks from SHU researchers and local practitioners. Presentations and outcomes will be available soon on the Green Homes Sheffield web site, but (as I know you are a keen user of `twitter`), you might like to follow the conversation on #TSHConvo.

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