Mersey beats its drum

November 3, 1995

Peter Toyne is proud of Liverpool John Moores's partnerships in which money talks but academic judgement rules OK. Working in partnership with industry is the life-blood of the new universities - after all, the polytechnics were expressly set up in the late 1960s and early 1970s to be at the forefront of what Harold Wilson called "the white-hot technological revolution". There was nothing new in that either, since most of the polytechnics were created by the amalgamation of many formerly separate colleges and institutes, all of which were themselves established to serve local industry and business.

John Moores University, for instance, traces its origins to the Liverpool Mechanics' Institution which was founded in 1823 by a group of Liverpool businessmen led by one Egerton Smith, editor of the Liverpool Mercury. Its president was William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool and the then president of the Board of Trade, and its founders' purpose was "to provide opportunities for the people of Liverpool to train as mechanics and apprentices according to the needs of local industry".

The Institution subsequently gave birth to other larger colleges and institutes dedicated to providing advanced education tailor-made for industry - for example, the Liverpool School of Pharmacy, founded by the Liverpool Chemists' Association in 1849, the Liverpool Nautical College, opened by Lord Brassey in 1892, the College of Building (affectionately known as the "College of Bricks"), the College of Commerce and the Regional College of Technology - all of which were merged together in 1970 to form The Liverpool Polytechnic, the immediate antecedent of JMU. Yes, it's in the blood - it is not new at all, but well established.

That is why our corporate objective, "to be a student and client-centred learning community, which is businesslike in delivering our core activities of teaching and learning, scholarship and research, and enterprise and technology transfer geared to the needs of our clients", is not a glib slogan dream-ed up by a spin doctor or a corporate communication consultant.

The evidence is there for all to see - warts and all. One very recent visible sign of our industry partnership is our Peter Jost Enterprise Centre. This is a Pounds 4.3 million new building designed as a shop window for our research, technological activities and enterprise services and is named after one of our most famous alumni, the founder of tribology, and an active industrialist, now chairman of KS Products Ltd.

The building provides facilities for industry and local businesses to develop products and ideas in association with our leading academics, and it is to be the base for a new regional Teaching Company Scheme which has just been approved by the Department of Trade and Industry and which will operate as a joint venture with the University of Liverpool. New businesses and companies will be born and jobs created as the centre gets underway.

The centre reflects that long tradition of scientific and technological development for which the new university is locally well recognised. Examples of successful partnerships abound, and relate to big companies as well as small and medium enterprises (SMEs) of which there are many on Merseyside.

Among our most recent joint ventures, backed by funding to the tune of Pounds 1.5 million from the European Regional Development Fund (funds that could only be attracted if the partnerships with industry were strong and established), are the following:

* a pharmaceutical research and trials clinic supported by a United States company, IND Research, which will move into our new science park now being developed on Wirral in derelict docklands

* a centre of excellence providing bespoke computer training courses with Phonelink, a highly successful company started by another of our alumni, Trevor Burke

* a robotic telescope centre in which local industries will be developing and manufacturing a "new generation" of world class telescopes

* a tribology transfer centre for the study of surfaces in sliding contact, and dedicated to developing, with local industries, techniques for reducing wear and tear on parts and equipment.

* an Electromagnet Compatibility Club that brings 120 companies together with our staff in Northwest Regional Electronic Centre, and provides support for those companies by developing, with them, products which comply with new EMC legislation.

The list could go on and on. It is small wonder that our applied research and technology transfer is readily acknowledged to be an essential part of Merseyside's industrial way of life.

But perhaps even more significant is the way in which our teaching programmes have been designed over the years in collaboration with both local and national and international industry. We now have several programmes which have been tailormade for particular companies, for example the Rover Group, the Ford Motor Company and BICC Cables.

These bespoke programmes and several more like them have all been designed ab initio by our academic staff sitting alongside company staff and responding to the company's needs. These are customer-led products, not producer-determined facilities.

The same goes for most of our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes though they would not be regarded as "bespoke". We try to make sure that we design and develop our programmes with industry and business needs clearly in mind. It is done by inviting "real world" expertise to join our programme design teams, by having industrialists and business people on our validating panels and, in most of our Schools, by having a school advisory panel made up of local leading industrialists and business people. For instance, our business school has a school council consisting of members from such local businesses and industries as Vauxhall Motors, Parkman Engineering, North West Business Leadership, Royal Insurance, Bank of England, Littlewoods and KPMG. While our school of healthcare council, chaired by the chairman of the North West Regional Health Authority, has members drawn from all the major local health-related industries.

We are proud of our robust and often intimate partnerships with industry. Yet the cynics are never far away. Doubting Thomases ask: "Aren't you selling your soul to the devil? Where's academic rigour? And what about standards? Isn't it all just too much? All you are really interested in is the 'bubble reputation' - a bit of glitzy PR razzmatazz to please the Government! You're Tory lackeys. Money talks . . . and all you do is listen without question . . ."

These and similar criticisms are often heard. But when all is said and done, it is our historic mission to provide "relevant" research and teaching. Why else did Harold Wilson want the polytechnics? Was he not right?

We have and always have had, rigorous validation procedures, designed to assure quality and maintain appropriate standards, and they are open to public scrutiny via the Higher Education Quality Council. So quality control is in the blood as well. That means that our academic programmes while geared to the needs of industry, are academically and professionally well controlled. Academic and professional rigour is then not sacrificed. All right, money does talk, yes, but academic judgement finally rules OK.

Not everyone feels comfortable with close industrial partnership. Some find it difficult, others abhorrent and others disturbing. Not everyone knows how, or wishes to know how, to deal with industry, to negotiate deals with industry, or to deliver a course in a radically different way from the traditional academic norm.

So be it. They are not obliged to get involved. But increasingly we have new academics, whose fervent wish is to work in association with business and industry, and who enjoy the challenges which that association creates. Many of our staff have joined us directly from the world of business and industry and they, too, appear to thrive on the stimulating environment which is to be found at the interface between industry and academe.

Peter Toyne is vice chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

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