Two weeks after becoming vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, Hugh Brady decided to wander unannounced around the institution’s open day as a kind of secret shopper.
He was pleased to find that one of most popular exhibits was a stand for the university’s innovation programmes, a four-year course that combines a core academic subject with extensive training for students on how to develop and plan their own business.
“I couldn’t get near the academics at the stall because of the queue of students and parents,” he said.
The programme, which leads to a master’s degree and will be on offer from 2016-17, can be taken in anthropology, computer science, electrical and electronic engineering, film and television, geography, history, management, music, physics, psychology and theatre.
Bristol decided to introduce the courses after it found that 30 per cent of its students planned to become entrepreneurs after leaving university.
Students will start off using about 20 per cent of their time to study innovation, but this proportion will grow as they reach the end of the course, Professor Brady explained. Graduates will not only start businesses, he emphasised; many will also go into not-for-profit social entrepreneurship as well.
There is no shortage of universities claiming to turn their students into entrepreneurs, but “all too often the innovation bit is a superficial bolt-on”, he said. Or a “hybrid” degree is offered and students fail to become an expert in either their core subject or innovation, he said.
He said that with the Bristol courses “the bar is being set high…students commit to an immersive experience and a team-based experience”.
Professor Brady stressed the difference between preparing students to do a specific job, and educating them to be “career ready”, which is what Bristol aims to do.
“I think there will be universities that are less research-intensive that will have a curriculum which is much more practical and business [focused]. The objective [there] will be to have them work or job ready,” he said.
In contrast, “the ongoing challenge for Bristol is to…have them career ready”, which means “realising that your [graduates] are going to be moving jobs and moving areas”, he explained.
An expert on diabetic kidney disease, Professor Brady was president of University College Dublin from 2004 to 2013 before taking up his role as vice-chancellor at Bristol in September. He has also worked at Harvard University and the University of Toronto.
On measures of research power and GPA score, Bristol rose slightly up the rankings in last year’s research excellence framework. But like any other major research university outside the “Golden Triangle”, it inevitably faces a challenge keeping up with the concentration of resources and prestige in London, Oxford and Cambridge.
One advantage Bristol does have is that it is a “relatively small, intimate city”, Professor Brady said.
Students do not live on campus, so when they step out of their lectures they can walk in to coffee shops, performance venues and other spaces that might spark entrepreneurial ideas, he argued.
Bristol is a “much more affordable, much more liveable city” than London, something that is a “major asset when recruiting staff”, he said.
“The millennial generation is increasingly looking at work-life balance,” argued Professor Brady, and as this generation percolates through academia, universities in more pleasant cities such as Bristol will reap the rewards. “It’s now a factor, and will become more so,” he said.
Not everyone will share Professor Brady’s upbeat view of life as an academic at Bristol. In July (before Professor Brady took over), it emerged that Alison Hayman, a former lecturer in connective tissue biology, had taken the university to an employment tribunal for allegedly dismissing her for failing to secure enough grant income, although Bristol said that it did not set individual targets.
Asked whether Bristol would set individual targets (something that now exists in some form at one in six UK universities), Professor Brady described them as “heavy handed”.
“I see no reason to have such a measure,” he said.
It is too early to say what changes Professor Brady will bring to the university, as with his feet only just under the table, he is awaiting the results of “widespread consultation” of staff. But he does say that in the past, Bristol has been “somewhat modest about its achievements” – something that looks set to change with him at the helm.
30 per cent – proportion of Bristol students who plan to become entrepreneurs
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