The enormous hole at the heart of the University of Huddersfield’s campus could hardly be a less apt metaphor for an institution that seems to be successfully carving out its own niche despite sitting between the research powerhouses of Manchester and Leeds.
The hole contains the foundations of the latest and most ambitious instalment of a continuing programme of rebuilding and refurbishment that has already transformed half the university’s estate since Huddersfield alumnus Bob Cryan ascended to the top job in 2007. On the site will rise what Professor Cryan claimed would be the first building on a UK campus to unite all the key student support services, including the library, students’ union, sports facilities, hospitality outlets, careers service and the registry.
Possibly most impressive is that Huddersfield’s building programme - costing £100 million over 10 years - is being undertaken without a penny of borrowing.
This is possible because, since Professor Cryan joined, the university’s surplus has grown from “below average” to a figure that puts it among the UK’s top 10.
According to Professor Cryan, an engineer by background, the transformation has been achieved by applying the “business principles” of efficiency and effectiveness to the institution, which was named Entrepreneurial University of the Year at last year’s Times Higher Education Awards.
Accordingly, he has emulated the US corporate sector by producing a “strategy map”, which sets out, on two sides of A4 paper, “what we are going to do and how we will know when we get there”.
Progress is reviewed regularly using a traffic light system, with virtually all measures currently rated green. The map’s “galvanising” effect on the entire university is further evidenced by a photo on the wall of Professor Cryan’s office: it shows a cleaner’s cupboard with a laminated copy of the strategy document pinned up inside it.
Professor Cryan has also focused on expanding Huddersfield’s international and postgraduate student numbers, succeeding in tripling both since 2007.
Meanwhile, the university’s research income has doubled over the same time frame, partly thanks to its willingness to work with companies on their particular problems.
A prime example of this is its contract chemistry research laboratory, Innovative Physical Organic Solutions, whose director, Mike Page, is a former deputy vice-chancellor.
Other innovations include a recently launched scheme to lend businesses £100,000 via the peer-lending portal Funding Circle. The interest earned on these loans will fund scholarships for young people from socially deprived backgrounds to pursue Huddersfield’s BA in enterprise development.
As for teaching, that too is focused heavily on employability. Many of the university’s 400 courses are co-designed and accredited by more than 50 professional and statutory bodies, and Huddersfield is in the top 10 for employment in the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey.
The institution’s employment of an “entrepreneur in residence” - pharmaceutical innovator Graham Leslie - is part of its programme to encourage and support students to start businesses during their degree courses: those on the enterprise development course are required to do so. One current undergraduate, Jeff Postlethwaite, co-founded a pasta takeaway business that was recently awarded £50,000 by Innocent Drinks co-founder Richard Reed in his BBC Three series Be Your Own Boss.
The student entrepreneurs, mentored by Professor Cryan, will soon move into the university’s much-trumpeted new business hub, the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre, where Mr Postlethwaite’s business partner, business management student Adam Thompson, will offer students advice on how to access the government’s Start-Up Loan scheme.
The £12 million centre, which will open later this month, will house a range of sizes of companies, right up to multinational giants such as technology firm 3M itself - whose former chief executive, Sir George Buckley, is a Huddersfield alumnus and whose president of new ventures, Stefan Gabriel, was appointed a visiting professor of innovation at the university at the end of April.
Those housed in the centre - a converted mill, which reflects Professor Cryan’s respect for the area’s industrial heritage - will be expected to contribute to a culture of “peer-to-peer help”. In return, they will be helped to access finance and markets and advised on issues such as accounting, law, human resources and product development. They will also, of course, have all the university’s technical knowledge to hand.
Patrick Allen, the centre’s managing director, intends to conduct regular “audits” of the university’s research activity “so we can say to companies: ‘I know exactly who you need to speak to’.” Mr Allen argued that this arrangement would also provide the university with a ready source of impact case studies, employment opportunities for its 24,000 students and new problems for its researchers to address.
Some might expect such a high level of engagement with business to conflict with the pursuit of academic excellence. But Professor Cryan pointed to his “super-prof” initiative, aimed at recruiting established research leaders, as evidence to the contrary. Under it, the number of professors at Huddersfield has doubled since the 2008 research assessment exercise. And hopes are high that the institution’s 60 entrants to the 2014 research excellence framework will return a much better result than its 10 RAE entrants.
Recent recruits have even been attracted from Huddersfield’s neighbouring heavyweights.
They include the physicist Roger Barlow, who left the University of Manchester to lead Huddersfield’s International Institute for Accelerator Applications, a partnership with Siemens to develop cheaper particle accelerators with an eye to medical applications such as making radioisotopes for cancer treatment.
Another is the physicist Bob Cywinski, who moved from the University of Leeds to become Huddersfield’s special adviser for research; he is working to develop thorium as a low-waste replacement for uranium in nuclear power generation.
According to Professor Cywinski, Huddersfield is free of the “silo” mentality that pervades many Russell Group universities, making it much easier to pull teams together quickly from across the institution to address industrial problems. And, he insisted, its academics were happy to oblige.
According to Professor Cryan, this is partly because Huddersfield steers clear of “lone stars” and partly because its academics are also allowed to pursue their own interests. Even Professor Page carries out “private” projects in his contract research laboratory: his current work explores whether cells could function using solvents other than water.
“It comes naturally to people at Huddersfield to work with industry,” Professor Cywinski said. “It is not a conflict. It doesn’t matter if the problem is one from nature or industry: you can bring all aspects of your research career to bear on it. Solving it is what is important.”