Going: outside, looking in

This blog is the second of a trilogy. In the first I looked at the way the University’s environment has changed since I arrived in 2016; in this I look from the outside into the University, and in the third, I’ll write a bit more personally.

I came to Sheffield to be interviewed for the job of Vice-Chancellor in July 2015. I’d come up the week before ‘incognito’ to look around and get a feel for the University and the city. I can still remember arriving on the train and seeing the University rise, like a vast ocean liner, above the city. I knew straightaway that I would like to lead a university so central to its city and its place.

When I took on my duties in January 2016, I found a vibrant and welcoming community – a university with real strengths. But my diagnosis was that Hallam lacked a clear sense of purpose and a self-confident way of expressing that. Like many universities, it hadn’t grappled with the way in which strategy involves choices, and those choices need to shape deliberative action. I thought that Hallam needed a strategy expressed in the clearest terms so that everyone, whatever they did, understood their part in it. The plan I had in mind had to do two things. It had to deliver distinctiveness. Hallam needed a distinctive story which built on its history, community, place and potential. But distinctiveness on its own wasn’t enough. In mass higher education, you need to operate at the highest levels of quality too. Distinctiveness and quality must intertwine. Andrew Wilson, one of our Architecture academics heard me call this the yin-and-yang of higher education strategy, and he thoughtfully turned it into a yin-and-yang diagram for me.

The Transforming Lives strategy, published in 2017, was our answer. We set out the university’s mission, to transform lives of individuals and communities, through four simple pillars – shaping futures, creating knowledge, leading locally and engaging globally, and the underpinning reshaping of the university’s organisation to build a great university. We set that in an expansive ambition to be a world-leading applied university: we would exercise global leadership not by copying others but by being true to our place, our principles and our purpose, mobilising our people. We would excel on our terms.

The idea of ‘one university’ was at the heart of this: a single strategy, driving all we do. For those who don’t work in universities this might seem blindingly obvious, but it’s still too rare in higher education. Too often, universities and their strategies are loosely articulated, with little coherent alignment. Our approach has been different, based on a strongly articulated mission and a carefully structured and planned approach to implementation.

And we have achieved so much with our Transforming Lives vision. Over the last eight years Hallam has educated more young people from deprived communities than any other UK university. I am so very proud of that statistic and the stories which lie behind it. There’s the single mum from Barnsley, whose very robust account of her design degree convinced the shadow minister for higher education of the value of Hallam more powerfully than anything I could have said when he and I were walking around the building. Or the real estate student from Newcastle whose Hallam Fund scholarship had given her the confidence and verve to map out her future in real estate It is an integral part of our story. Of course, It’s not enough to recruit diverse students. They have to be set up for success. Transforming Lives has ignited change across the university, and we are in the top twenty universities for graduate employment.

We lead higher education in our approach to degree apprenticeships and employability. We have trained more degree apprentices than any other university, working with hundreds of companies across south Yorkshire. Every undergraduate course embeds employability opportunities. The Hallam i-Lab has been a catalyst for student enterprise. The Hallam Model gives us something very few other universities have: a framework for curriculum design which embeds our mission in our teaching.

Hallam transforms lives through our practical research on issues as diverse as the challenges of levelling up, cyber security, design for the hundred-year life, and non-invasive cancer diagnostics. In the 2021 research excellence judgements, we doubled our research base at the same time as improving quality and research impact. The Health Innovation Campus at the Olympic Legacy Park is driving innovation and inclusion in healthcare, as well as providing a model of knowledge-led transformation in an area of multiple deprivation. The London Campus at Brent Cross, will extend the University’s range, widening opportunities for Sheffield students and place-making in a new community. The relationship with La Trobe University in Melbourne is a sector-leading international partnership, with strong links at every level of the two universities, and, most recently, an innovative Global Security and Society Institute.

The university has lead thinking nationally on the civic role of universities, with a hundred universities signed up to our Civic University Network. Hallam’s innovations, including the Advanced Well-being Research Centre, our law firm, the Refugee Clinic, the Early Years Research Centre in Shirecliffe, South Yorkshire Futures, and the Institute of Technology all represent ways of working with communities. At the end of my first week here I was talking on the phone to my second daughter about what I’d seen in my first few days. ‘Dad’, she said, ‘you’ve only been there a week and it’s already the most interesting thing you’ve ever done’.

Not everything has gone to plan. It never does. It was Mike Tyson who set out a key principle of strategy implementation: ‘Everyone’ he said, ‘has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’. Given the unexpected – Brexit, the cost-of-living crisis, the pandemic, the changing legal environment – we have had to adapt. But the fundamental principles of purpose, place and partnership have remained.

In 2019 we were the Times and Sunday Times University of the Year for Teaching Quality. In their citation they said this:

Sheffield Hallam is enjoying something of a renaissance. Students have repeatedly given it good ratings for the quality of its teaching, but this year their assessments have propelled the university to a new high. Achieving sustained success in this area is hard, all the more so for a large – rather than niche – institution with 30,000 students. No university of a similar size delivers so well on teaching quality…It has ambitions to be the leading university in the world for applied learning and has embarked on a 15-year campus plan to deliver on that. Rooted firmly in the region it serves, Sheffield Hallam recruits heavily from some of the groups served least well by British universities and ensures they thrive once they enrol.

It took us a while to really crystallise our commitments at the core of our mission, but when we did, with the help of a Sheffield communications agency, we came up with a powerful two-word strapline for the university which sums it all up. Knowledge, applied. We build knowledge through research, teaching and engagement, and we do it in real world contexts. Knowledge, applied. Universities must engage with society and their communities – not just for those who study at or who work in universities, but for the majority who do not. Knowledge, applied is a mission, but it’s also a moral driver.

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