Robert Gordon uses slick logic to tap the assets of its environment

New principal emphasises importance of links with local industries. Hannah Fearn reports

April 14, 2011

Based in Aberdeen, Robert Gordon University is as close as any higher education institution to the oilfields of the North Sea. The significance of its location and the opportunities it provides have not been lost on its new principal, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, as he fashions a new strategy for the institution.

The former principal of Dublin City University said that under his watch, Robert Gordon would be a "leader in the development of a new model of higher education".

"The idea of the university based largely on traditional disciplines and encompassing as many of these as possible is no longer viable," he told Times Higher Education in his first interview since taking up office last month.

Instead, Professor von Prondzynski argued, "we have to start seeing ourselves as knowledge organisations that have assets that we can use in a commercial environment".

To this end, Robert Gordon, which is named after a 17th-century merchant, will build new links with industries and disciplines in which the region has recognised strengths.

"You need to relate to your environment," Professor von Prondzynski said. "It could be the town or region that you're in, it could be your country or community.

"We are in Aberdeen, one of the international hubs of the oil and gas industry. Clearly that's one area in which we will continue to be involved."

Tapping into the lucrative energy business is not his only target. Professor von Prondzynski has also identified design and fashion as areas of "great potential".

Although he emphasised that the university was not facing a financial crisis and would not need to make redundancies despite funding cuts, he said he would be looking to businesses to help fund the delivery of higher education.

He argued that the likes of oil companies should be helping to plug the funding gap faced by Scottish universities.

"I don't believe we should allow any company to determine our strategy, but we should implement a strategy that encourages those links," he said.

He added that he would also work to improve the image of academic careers by ensuring that his own staff could flourish without being strangled by red tape.

"I hope that one of the things that will be said about Robert Gordon is that it is a good place to work. I want it to be seen as different from almost any other university," he said.

Commenting on the state of higher education more widely, Professor von Prondzynski worried that universities were still seen by many as elitist.

He argued that this was a misconception, and blamed academics for failing to tell their story compellingly.

The funding difficulties faced by universities may have been lessened, he said, if institutions had effectively explained that by paying an extra penny per pound of income tax, citizens would be investing in research towards the eradication of cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

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