Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: How city university is ‘shaping Sheffield’

Sheffield Hallam University Vice Chancellor Professor Chris Husbands. Picture: Andrew Roe
Sheffield Hallam University Vice Chancellor Professor Chris Husbands. Picture: Andrew Roe
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From the roof terrace of Sheffield Hallam University’s £30 million building on Charles Street in the city centre, there’s a view that stretches for miles – out to the greenery of Norfolk Heritage Park and the Cholera Monument, over to Gleadless Valley and, beyond, Norton.

Professor Chris Husbands pauses for a moment to take in the impressive vista, but his thoughts are occupied by a five-day business trip to China he’s about to embark on the next day.

As Hallam’s vice-chancellor, he needs to attend two graduation ceremonies for students at partner institutions in Hong Kong, before heading to Shanghai for a lecture.

“This university sits absolutely at the heart of Sheffield and the city region, but it’s an international university,” he says.

“We have students from over 130 countries. For a long time universities have been able to rely on the fact that large numbers of students want to come to the UK, but global higher education is changing very fast. Increasingly it’s about collaborative partnerships with like-minded institutions.”

And the pace of change has stepped up since Prof Husbands took over at the university in January. He’s had to consider his stance on Brexit, new Government policies around selective education and a fresh wave of tuition fee rises, and is keen to share his views on all three issues, while keeping up-to-date with day-to-day business.

He seems to be juggling all this well – impressively, just after we meet, he greets a student by name, and comments on small details of the Charles Street wing, which only opened in February.

The university chief describes himself as an ‘academic educationalist’. He began his working life as a schoolteacher before moving into teacher education and research. Top university jobs at Warwick and University College London then led to Hallam.

“This is a university that trains people to do useful things,” he says.

“Eighteen-and-half thousand young people from the city region have come through this institution as students in the last five years. We’ve educated 3,500 nurses, 1,500 teachers, 1,500 creative and digital professionals - that’s making an enormous difference to the city.

“We’re seeing the city change around us and we’re driving huge amounts of that change. We’ve invested over £120 million in buildings in the centre of the city and at the Collegiate Campus over the past five years.

“This university’s success is really important to the city’s success – we’re shaping the city. That means over each year £425 million going into the economy that wouldn’t be there if we weren’t here.”

But Prof Husbands accepts that the job market is transforming ‘incredibly quickly’.

“It’s partly because of technology – but not just because of technology,” he explains.

“There are changing social assumptions about how jobs are done, and changing expectations about a service culture. We all want things delivered now.

“But looking at the future is really difficult. We have to train people to play full lives in a rapidly-changing world.”

He adds: “About 20,000 out of around 33,000 students do work placements as part of their degree. My challenge back to the organisation is: ‘That’s not enough’.

“All 33,000 need to have integral work experience as part of their degree, because one of the things universities have to do a lot better in the future is how you transition people into work, and then support people once they’re in work.”

The impact of the Brexit vote on university funding has yet to be fully established – a ‘huge proportion’ of Hallam’s activities are conducted using European money, while staff work closely with other universities on the Continent and students have the chance to take part of their degree in Europe as part of the Erasmus scheme.

“It’s this sense of being international in outlook - that our neighbours are in Leeds, Huddersfield and Doncaster but they’re also in Lieden, Dresden and Rome.”

However, Prof Husbands understands that ‘you do not absolutely have to be part of the EU’ to be part of what he calls the ‘European science space’.

“Norway and Switzerland aren’t in the EU. We’re pressuring a lot to have continued access to European research funding.

“We don’t have a world-class university system made up of international universities by accident. It’s through hard work and policies. We’ve just got to be very careful that as we come out of the EU we preserve those things that have made our universities great.”

If the UK had ‘a clear plan’ for leaving the union, ‘our lives would be a lot easier’, he believes.

“But I don’t think that’s going to materialise and I don’t think there’s much point in us saying ‘Give us a plan’.”

There is ‘no expectation’ that Brexit in itself will cause a reduction in student numbers though, theoretically, creating new grammar schools could by lowering ‘expectations, aspirations and attainment’ for children who fail the 11-plus.

“I believe in a high-aspiration, high-challenge school and university system. The best way that you get that is through really strong non-selective schools offering a rich curriculum and lots of challenge to all children – and ‘all’ is really important.

“This is not the time for us to put barriers on aspiration.”

He continues passionately: “I’m the first person in my family to stay in school beyond the age of 14, the first to get any academic qualifications at all. I went to school, I stayed at school, I went to university and had a very different life from my parents and grandparents.

“I went to university, my wife went to university, all my kids – I’ve got four daughters – have gone to university. I think it is transformational.”

The relationship between Sheffield’s two universities is ‘pretty good’, he says. Hallam is the older of the pair, with its origins in the Sheffield School of Design, established on Glossop Road in 1843.

“There are elements where we’re competitive and there are elements where we’re co-operative.

“This is Sheffield’s university, it’s absolutely glued in to the city and that’s absolutely as it should be.”

Hallam is in the ‘prime position’ for HS2, however, now Sheffield’s stop is to be created at the Midland railway station rather than Meadowhall.

“I think successful cities drive successful regions and I think that drawing HS2 into the city centre makes sense. Somebody once said, if you want a short guide on how to do urban regeneration, put a university in. Universities create regeneration in way that almost nothing else does.”

The city’s future economic prosperity dealt with, it’s back to more immediate matters for Prof Husbands – fixing a broken radiator back home in Ranmoor.

He laughs: “Every minute of my day is accounted for!”

Focus on fees

Tuition fees are ‘not a bad deal’ – and haven’t dissuaded potential students from applying to universities, thinks Professor Chris Husbands.

“We have what is to all intents and purposes a graduate tax – there’s a lot of evidence that that’s a reasonably sensible way of funding a mass university system,” he says.

“I think it’s a great pity that we’ve got a graduate tax set in the language of ‘loan’, because loan and debt carry connotations.

“But people are largely sensible about this, they’ve not been deterred because I think they by and large get it – this is not a debt like a mortgage or a credit card.”

He agrees that the fees - £9,250 a year from next September – are ‘a lot of money’, but says a ‘significant number’ of students will never repay the full sum.

“When I went to university, which was in 1977, nine per cent of young people went to university. It was a minority. And actually it’s relatively easy to say we will fund a nine per cent system through public funding - you can do that, you can afford it.

“Once you go to a 40 per cent system, which is roughly where we are, you just can’t do that. You can’t keep writing the open-ended cheque. So you have to have other ways of funding it.

“It looks like a lot of money, but this is not debt in the same way as a credit card debt, and it’s written off after 30 years.”