Brian Cantor: why I took the Bradford v-c job

The former leader of the University of York on how his new role’s focus on technology made the decision an easy one

April 9, 2015

Source: Gary Neill

When it was announced in 2013 that I was to be the next vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford, I think it’s fair to say it took the sector somewhat by surprise. It hadn’t been what I’d originally planned either: I had publicly declared my intention to resume my research on materials manufacturing, after stepping down as vice-chancellor at the University of York.

But let’s be honest, it wasn’t so much my change of heart as my destination that caused some eyebrows to be raised. After doubling the size of York, investing the best part of £750 million and getting it into the world top 100 and the Russell Group, why would I take the helm at Bradford, a university that had been languishing in the middle of the league tables for some time?

It certainly wasn’t through a dearth of options. As soon as I made it known that I was leaving York, I was flattered to be offered chief executive positions in government, industry, the charitable sector and higher education, both in the UK and abroad. So to be sure I made the right choice, I set myself some strict criteria. First, the role had to be close enough to my previous experience – both in leading a higher education institution and working in applied research – to ensure that I could make a significant input. And it had to be different enough that it represented a challenge. I really wasn’t sure I’d find any role that ticked both boxes. Yet as soon as I came to Bradford, I knew that I’d found the right fit.

I saw straight away that the institution still has some truly brilliant research and teaching – particularly in engineering, life sciences, health sciences, business, international studies and political sciences. What was needed to get it back to its rightful place in people’s esteem was to build self-confidence in these intrinsic strengths and promote them more effectively beyond the university. And that, I felt, I could do.

Bradford is one of the UK’s true technology universities, alongside Aston University, Loughborough University and the universities of Surrey and Bath. We were all originally colleges of advanced technology, set up in the 1950s and granted university status in the 1960s, as part of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” revolution (Wilson was, of course, Bradford’s first chancellor).

But technology and applied research is still looked down on in British higher education. Our system’s elitist roots mean purer, blue-skies activity still ranks higher in the pecking order. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology and the Technical University of Munich certainly don’t consider it detrimental to their reputation to have the word “technology” in their titles, but no UK university has adopted it. This snobbery is part of the reason why people were surprised that I came to Bradford after a career at York and the University of Oxford, and it is also the reason why the UK has struggled to develop a coherent industrial strategy, unlike Germany and the US.

But British attitudes to applied research have finally begun to change over the past 10 to 20 years. First we were pushed to involve ourselves in what were called third-leg activities, then it became knowledge transfer and now we all talk about impact. The sector has been somewhat resistant to impact. But it is clear that impact is here to stay. And as the sector is being forced to consider it, I hope and expect that we will start to value our technology universities more highly.

For us at Bradford, “technology” means the delivery of knowledge in all fields to create economic and societal development – which is, basically, impact. So we see our management school as a key part of our identity as a technology university. It was the first in the UK, set up long before older universities would consider dirtying their hands with teaching or research so close to the real world of business and finance. We are, of course, also well known for peace studies, which has been fantastically successful in preventing wars and supporting disarmament, capacity building and education across the world. But we also excel in technology in its traditional sense too; it’s not by chance that we were responsible for one of the most successful UK spin-off companies, Bradford Particle Design, sold in 2001 for $200 million.

League tables continue to be incredibly misleading. You get no brownie points for populating executive teams in world business, helping to deliver peace in war-torn countries or implementing manufacturing solutions.

Germany and the US have reaped the benefits of valuing and supporting technology, creating more vibrant entrepreneurship, stronger economies and a healthier manufacturing sector than the UK. And while I appreciate much of the freedom that the UK higher education system allows universities, I still think that there is much that we could learn from the US in particular.

One area is differentiation. UK universities have a tendency to try – not always successfully – to be all things to all people. At Bradford, we understand what we’re good at and we’re concentrating on that. That’s not to say that some of the older universities don’t do technology – of course they do, and they do it well. But many of them adopted it relatively recently and, let’s admit it, somewhat reluctantly. For Bradford, it has always been there, in everything we do.

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