What a fantastic start to a new academic year!

We start the new academic year full of optimism, having achieved a fantastic amount in the last 12 months including a ‘silver’ in the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework which recognises excellence in teaching and learning.

The University has undergone significant structural change – to form six academic schools – and launched an ambitious Connected University Strategy, which is aimed at giving students the best possible experience.

Our students have been largely positive about their experience in their feedback to the National Student Survey and it is a real accolade that we have been shortlisted for the ‘Most Improved Student Experience’ in the Times Higher Awards.

We are now above the national average for overall student satisfaction and 13 of our courses received 100% satisfaction. Our focus now is on ensuring that all of our students have the best learning experience and are helped to reach their full potential. I love hearing from students about the fantastic time they are having here at Staffordshire University and am greatly impressed by what they go on to achieve locally and globally.

And so to the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide. We are the highest climber, rising 29 places to 63rd. This is a real achievement and our highest position to date. I am even more delighted to see us in the top 10 in the UK for teaching quality. Alongside opportunities for our students, our silver TEF recognises our significant investment in facilities and digital learning.

We have recently welcomed more than 3000 new students on to our campuses to study our awards and our intention is to help them find a way to progress and succeed whilst having a great time. Retention for new and continuing students is our main priority this year and we have a big focus on personal tutoring that will ensure our students are supported through to graduation and beyond.

Here at Staffordshire University, we are about transforming lives and prospects of those people who study with us. This was recognised in the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey – it’s official, our graduates are among the most employable in the UK!

Alongside our regular activities, we have also been working with partners in Staffordshire to ensure that Stoke on-Trent’s bid to become City of Culture 2021 is out of this world.  To end on cultural note, our Autumn events programme of Open Days, lectures and ‘Profs in the Pav’ – presentations which enable our top academics to connect with a public audience – is up and running and we would be delighted for you to join us.

Art in the Attic!

stem-cupThornhill Collection Stem Cup

As we head to the end of the year we begin to reflect on events through the last year. A highlight for us, I think, has been the sale of the stem cup. This stands out because of our history, our location in Stoke-on-Trent the capital of ceramics, and the development and transformation we have seen this year of our College Road site and the Cadman building.

Pottery classes were first introduced in College Road accommodation in 1907 and the School of Science and Technology opened in the Cadman building in 1914. We were at that time North Staffordshire Technical College. In 1929 Ernest Thornhill bequeathed us his remarkable collection of over 250 oriental ceramics. He wrote to our Governors telling us that he would like us to use the collection for study purposes. We received the collection for safe keeping during the war in 1940 and he died in 1944. After that we don’t know what happened to the collection until in 1975 Professor Flavia Swann, Head of Department History of Art Design and Film, found the collection in 2 cupboards in the University.

Ernest had no known connection to either the world of art and ceramics or the College. He was in the records as a retired company Director and a chemist. Perhaps it was the draw of Stoke-on-Trent the heart of the pottery industry, and the excellent reputation of the Ceramic Technology department, that brought the collection to us. As for his motivation to put together this collection – I guess he just had a love of ceramics. In his note to the Governors Ernest stated specifically that he wanted students and people to ‘be able and allowed to study the pottery and porcelain pieces by handling them.’

In following our story, it brought back to me a book I read a couple of years ago, ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ by Edmund de Waal which tells of a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke miniature sculptures passed down through 5 generations and surviving the 2nd world war in a mattress. Edmund de Waal is a renowned potter with a love of art that has clearly passed through generations. This book connected objects and places, as does our story, but also I was struck by the tactile nature of our appreciation of art aligning with the desire of Ernest for his collection to be shared not only visually, but to be handled and explored.

The sale of the most precious piece within the Thornhill collection, the stem cup dating back to 1425, begins our journey towards creating an appropriate setting and space to display the full collection, but also as wished to enable interaction with it. The cup was sold at auction for £3.6 million. The auction took place in a fitting location, the Liang Yi Museum in the heart of historical Hong Kong. We have not lost this central piece as we have had replicas created by Mr Zhu from Yun Zwei Ceramics in Jingdezhen, renowned for its ceramics industry.

Proud to be Staffs!

In an Olympic year there is always a great focus on celebrating success and rightly so. This year we saw both our Olympic and Paralympic teams beating their London medal tallies and surpassing their targets. This comes at the end of four gruelling years of training and demonstrates their preparation, dedication, skills and ability.

Mike Hamlyn’s blog responding to the year 2 specification for the TEF, which proposes an Olympian approach to the categorisation of Universities with gold, silver and bronze ratings, reminds us that not everybody wins medals, but to be an Olympian they still have to be world class.

This made me reflect on the fact that UK Higher Education is reputed to be world class. I would argue that what contributes to our outstanding reputation in Higher Education is the richness of our sector in the UK, offering a diversity of missions and complementary strengths. On Friday I was at the launch of the exciting new Applied Materials Research Innovation and Commercialisation Company (AMRICC) in Stoke on Trent, along with the two other University partners; Imperial College London and Manchester University. What was clear is the different skills and expertise that each partner brings to AMRICC, supporting world leading research, innovation and practice, and applied learning and development.

My opening about celebrating success and what it takes to succeed is the focus of my blog. Since the start of this academic year I have been honoured to be a part of a number of launches and celebrations. It started with our staff conference where we launched our new strategy with 800 staff attending the day. During that day a number of staff spoke about why they are ‘Proud to be Staffs’. They were reflecting on our achievements and on those of our students and graduates. We were able to plan the next steps of our journey in implementing our strategy and how we will take the university forward and continue to enhance what we do and grow our reputation and performance.

After a lot of preparation and planning and a very challenging timeframe for moving from our Beaconside campus to the Stoke-on-Trent campus and building our new facilities, we welcomed our students onto a transformed campus. The campus is ‘buzzing’ and vibrant. Our first open day was really successful where our ‘brilliant and friendly staff’ were proud to demonstrate the sort of experience that our students now have in our new learning spaces.

Our pride in the new facilities and particularly our cutting edge technologies was endorsed when Jason Bradbury from the Gadget show was our guest speaker at our launch evening and tweeted ‘wow ur facilities are fantastic’. He was truly ‘blown away’ by our studios and new classroom spaces and technologies, and he went on to entertain us with a mind-blowing talk about future technologies and how they will transform our lives.

And finally but not least, I am so ‘Proud to be Staffs’! For those who were at the Celebrating Staff Success Awards you will know exactly why. Ever since I first walked through the door of Staffordshire University to take up the role as Vice Chancellor I could tangibly feel the welcome; and that comes about because of the sheer commitment of our staff and of our supporters in the City and county. Staff who go the extra mile, who think outside the box, who are ‘curious and daring’ and above all have the courage to test the boundaries whilst keeping our students at the heart of all we do.

At Staffordshire University, we believe in recognising and celebrating success, and it was a sheer delight to stand on stage at our Celebrating Staff Success awards last week and publicly congratulate our winners. If you weren’t at the evening you can find a full list and photos here on Iris – though I would like to add that everyone nominated is a winner. They were recognised because they are ‘ambitious’ both for themselves and the University and they are ‘inspirational’, inspiring colleagues to nominate them. We are lucky to have some fabulous champions of our University and it was a delight to have an honorary graduate, Nina Nannar, who is the arts, media and entertainment correspondent at ITV, present our awards for the tenth year running!

Our celebrations continue this week – I am sure you will have seen posters, lamp-post banners and heard the radio adverts on Signal radio publicising our new City Campus launch party which takes place on Wednesday. Staffordshire University has plans to paint the city red with a week of activity designed to showcase its transformed Stoke-on-Trent campus, our £40m investment in new facilities … and our place in the City!

I’ll be introducing broadcaster and presenter of The Great Pottery Throw Down, Sara Cox, who will be getting the party started on Wednesday when the University’s College Road site is further transformed with a ferris wheel, helter skelter, live music, street entertainment and food stalls. So, spread the word! We’ll be getting “all Stoked Up” and we want everyone to enjoy our launch celebration – you can find out more about the event and other events to follow here.

In case you haven’t picked up on it I am describing how our staff are demonstrating that they live the values of our new strategy. How they prepare, are dedicated to our students and continue to develop their skills, knowledge and expertise. They are ‘brilliant and friendly’, they are ‘ambitious and inspirational’, and challenge and improve what we do by being ‘curious and daring’ and they are clearly ‘Proud to be Staffs’.

Graduation 2016

Wow – what a fantastic week and the sun shone for all but one day. Graduation is a time when I am sure that we all reflect on what Higher Education is all about. As I talked to students, parents and families and listened to our Students’ Unions’ representatives in their speeches I was struck as ever by the power that education has to transform lives. Our graduates’ stories are not just about the positive employment outcomes, but about the broader impact on their lives – health, social and general well-being. We produce well-rounded graduates ready to ‘take on the world’. Or at least that is how it seemed as I watched them cross the stage celebrating their achievements.

Graduation 2016 Hat Throw

There was a lot of reference to how proud the graduates should feel about their achievements and rightly so, but I also hope that the staff felt a real pride in the role that you have played. Of course I did sense that pride when you stood up for your graduates. That was really touching and I know that the graduates really appreciated this and enjoyed sharing their moment with you. I want to say thank you to the academic staff for an excellent turn out. It was great to see so many of you on the stage and some in the audience. I also enjoyed celebrating the contribution some of the staff have made as recognised by our Students’ Union awards. A lovely moment for the students who voted for you to see the acknowledgement of what you meant to them.

As I say thank you I now have to talk about the amazing set-up at Trentham Gardens. What a very special venue it is, but I do not under-estimate the work that goes into setting up and running such a large scale event. I visited a few days before the ceremonies whilst the marquees’ were still being erected it is a massive operation. The catering was fantastic and considering how many visitors we were entertaining daily amazing how smoothly it all went. Finally, we had professional services staff registering students, running stands, looking after partners and conducting many other activities. A huge thank you to you all. It was lovely to see you all smiling throughout and from those that I spoke to you were busy, but having a great time. Again I know our graduates and their guests really appreciated all your support.

Liz Barnes Graduation 2016 During our ceremonies we made awards to Honorary Graduates who have a connection with the University and/or the region, and who have demonstrated outstanding achievements and contributed more broadly to society. Their stories were truly inspiring and they are all committed to working with the University to enhance opportunities for our students.

A special moment during the ceremonies was the return of five of our graduates, their wives and a lecturer from the first cohort of computing students 50 years ago. I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly computing looked like back then and exactly how many computers we had! We were at the forefront then and now we see ourselves as the number 1 provider of computer games programmes. It is great to be able to celebrate our rich history, but also to observe how our legacy has remained but takes the shape of the modern day.

I am sure that you will all be taking a break at some time in the near future and it is much deserved. Make the most of it, relax and recoup that energy. As we head into the next academic year there will be changes and we have a lot to do, but remember last week and focus on what we are all about – our students. Hopefully graduation will have energised us and we have it all to look forward to again next year!

Have a great summer. Looking forward to a successful year next year.

Brexit at Staffordshire University

I am not sure that any one of us, including our UK government, quite anticipated the outcome of the EU referendum or indeed the current mood of the nation and the subsequent disarray in our political landscape.

Just last week I was part of the panel alongside Stone MP Sir Bill Cash, for the Big Debate, a discussion on the EU referendum held by the Sentinel and Staffordshire University. Although figures for the on-line screening of the event were good, there were a fair amount of empty seats in LRV, suggesting that England v Slovakia were the victors in that particular European contest or maybe many had already decided which way they were voting by then.

Sir Bill made an impassioned plea for the audience to vote ‘out’ for democratic reasons but was equally matched by former Stoke North MP Joan Walley who argued that the area’s needs would be better served by remaining part of the EU. Although there were few students in the audience, I made the points that the referendum was an extremely important event in the lives of our young people, that EU students contributed much to the UK economy and that UK Universities did disproportionately well out of the EU research funding. Interestingly, as a finale to the event, Sentinel’s editor in chief Martin Tideswell asked the audience for a show of flags and the result – “too close to call.”

65% of our research income is from the EU. We have 45 staff from the EU and 536 EU students studying with us. Most Universities are a part of the ERASMUS scheme that funds exchange between students and staff in Europe supporting work and study opportunities. We have many EU placements for example with Cisco in Belgium and Airbus in Germany. This generates graduate level opportunities as well as providing excellent work-based experience. A quarter of the employees at Airbus Helicopters are Staffordshire Graduates!

Although in hindsight the result of the counts in many of our regions may well have been anticipated, I think it’s fair to say that most people were shocked to find that an overall 52 per cent of people had voted for the UK to leave the EU.

Shock waves are continuing to reverberate and already we have seen the resignation of the Prime Minister, the replacement of the shadow cabinet, and a country at odds once again with Scotland and Northern Ireland who voted to remain.

Universities UK were quick to react, on behalf of the University sector, with information for staff and students about what we do know; that nothing will happen overnight and that immigration status isn’t a concern for students and staff currently with us or students due to start in September.

EU students will continue to be able to access loans through to the completion of their course and students joining us in September will still have access to those loans. We will seek to strengthen our partnerships in the EU ensuring strong research networks and continued collaboration in research and knowledge transfer. The recruitment of students from the EU will remain a priority and we will create opportunities for our students at home, in the EU and globally.

But while we must be reassured that everything will be done to press for a fair deal for our University sector, there follows a period of unprecedented uncertainty affecting the whole of our nation.

However, some reassurance. As a connected University, we have to be mindful of the disappointment that many of our students may be feeling with the results of the referendum which demonstrated a huge disparity in the way people of different ages voted and the outcome – which will impact on their future!

We also have to consider the strength of feeling demonstrated by the Staffordshire electorate who voted overwhelmingly for the UK to leave the EU. There is a lot of misinformation flying around and we are in a position to offer insight and expertise on many of the unresolved issues facing the UK.

I wish for our future an international campus and the continued growth of students from the EU and across the world. And I will work hard to ensure that this becomes a shared vision for Staffordshire University and that our businesses and partners will also get to reap the benefits of our ambition.

Research

The first month has flown by and consisted primarily of meeting people, but as a University is its ‘people’, this seems like the best use of my time in the first instance.

What I find is a community of staff and students that are passionate about Staffordshire University and its success. I have met with a number of people in the City and County and have met our Governors at my first Board meeting. Our University is important to them and there are many that give of their time to support us and enrich our offer because they see the University and education as a central part of their community and the future of their local population and regional economy. They also of course recognise our impact way beyond our local community in that education really does transform lives.

I am going to pick out two particular highlights from the last couple of weeks for me. I opened our fourteenth Staffordshire Conference of Clinical Biomechanics (SCCB) and spoke at the launch of the Staffordshire Forensic Partnership .

At the SCCB there were five delegates that had attended all fourteen conferences! This said something to me about the quality of this gathering. It was a truly international audience with the first key note speaker joining us from Australia. Our biomechanics team led by Professor Nachiappan Chockalingam is collaborating with the World Health Organisation and developing the first international guidelines for prosthetic and orthotic services. This is a strong interdisciplinary and international research community focused on applied research.

HEFCE are currently undertaking a review of REF 2014 including an assessment of interdisciplinary research activity. They have found that interdisciplinary research is growing in intensity, in line with a global trend. UK interdisciplinary research is highly collaborative in international terms, with over 45 per cent of the most interdisciplinary publications co-authored with international colleagues. Academia makes a major contribution to UK interdisciplinary research, with 85 per cent of the most interdisciplinary publications including at least one author from academia.  (http://www.hefce.ac.uk/rsrch/REFreview/Interdisciplinarity/).

Interdisciplinary research brings its challenges for the REF exercise, but it strikes me that the challenges are also a product of the way that we structure our universities and manage our resources. Our research units are usually aligned with a faculty and focused on a single discipline and our budgets are managed within these silos with complex mechanisms for cross-charging. This has the impact of dis-incentivising interdisciplinary working.  We are currently reviewing our infrastructure for research and we will be looking to maximise opportunities for interdisciplinary working and would like to see more engagement with international colleagues.

Staffordshire Forensic Partnership is an initiative that has taken about three years to come to fruition. It has emerged from an approach by John Beckwith, Head of Forensics, Staffordshire Police to Professor Andrew Jackson our Award Group Leader for Forensic and Crime Science. The development of this centre of excellence is to ensure that Staffordshire remains at the forefront of forensic techniques, with a responsive and dynamic forensic service which is accredited and cost effective. The aim is to improve the service for the community, for example, through the rapid use of identification and digital forensics to resolve crime and reduce risk.  Digital forensic investigation is the fastest moving and most technically challenging area of forensics and the rapid delivery of these services is having a significant impact on the detection and intervention of crime, particularly surrounding the area of protecting children. For Staffordshire University this supports us in strengthening our applied research in forensics, having a visible impact in our community and it will provide placements and work experience opportunities for our students. Of key importance is also how this will inform our curriculum and link students to ‘real world’ learning with experts in the field.

Research remains an important strand of what we do at Staffordshire. Research informed teaching will ensure that our students are having a contemporary and relevant experience. Furthermore, we will seek to engage our students with experts in the field and opportunities in the ‘real world’, to ground their learning and prepare them for their future thereby ‘giving our students the edge’.