Star comment: University bosses must learn that research means taking risks

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The new boss of Sheffield’s most important research centre started work last week, at a time of unprecedented success – and upheaval.

Steve Foxley takes over the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the height of its powers: it is the reason Boeing, McLaren and Rolls-Royce set up factories here.

His predecessor, co-founder Keith Ridgway, left in October after 20 years building it into a world famous research centre that employs 700, has more than 100 paying partners and has attracted more than 100 companies to the area. It also has an apprentice training centre attended by hundreds of young people.

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The AMRC is part of the University of Sheffield. Last week Mr Ridgway broke his silence to suggest it should become independent to ensure the whole of the North benefits from its world class work. He said the current ownership “severely restricts” access to expertise at other universities.

The Star Business Editor David Walsh.The Star Business Editor David Walsh.
The Star Business Editor David Walsh. | JPI Media

At almost the same time, universities and science minister Chris Skidmore visited the site in Waverley and became the latest member of government to fall in love with the place. He left insisting it should play a much bigger part in the economic expansion of the North.

The Tories won the election promising to level-up the country, billions could be heading this way - hopefully some of it will go to the AMRC.

So what should happen?

University bosses need to tread carefully.

The origins of the Ridgway row began when they cancelled a bid to double the size of the Training Centre, fearing it would ‘cheapen the brand’.

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It was a snub to young people in South Yorkshire and out of step with government.

The centre produces motivated and mature youngsters who are proud to work in manufacturing. It offers a route to a degree without racking up huge debts and chimes with calls to improve social mobility.

On a visit in September, education secretary Gavin Williamson said technical education had played second fiddle to traditional academia for too long.

Then there was a struggle for more oversight of the AMRC’s entrepreneurial ways. It led to the departure of prof Ridgway and a string of senior personnel who followed him out of the door.

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In trying to control and protect its reputation the higher ups ran the risk of doing the opposite. The AMRC was effectively rudderless until last week.

Mr Foxley is not the new Keith Ridgway, he wouldn’t have been hired if he were.

But the principle of academics solving problems and boosting productivity at hi-tech businesses must be protected, encouraged and funded - even if it means taking a few risks.

For university bosses, that is the lesson that must be learned.