Over the Christmas break, we welcomed not only our four daughters – with their partners in tow – to Sheffield, but also our first, ten-week-old grandchild.
The youngest and smallest members of families have the habit of making the house revolve around them, and this was no exception. We enjoyed the chance to get to know our grandson. So as the New Year begins, part of my own reflection – and what’s the Christmas break for if not slightly mawkish sentiment – is not only about the hopes and concerns I have for the New Year, but also about the world my new grandson is growing up into.
If current life expectancies are anything to go by, the small baby I was cradling in my arms will be an old man at the beginning of the twenty-second century. I find that a mind-blowing sentence to write: of course it is idle to speculate on the changes he will see over the course of his lifetime – and, indeed, it might also be depressing or frightening if we could. But it’s still worth thinking about the sort of world I – we – would want him – and all our young people to grow up in.
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This, of course, is not just about family. For all of us, our futures depend on the opportunities we create for the next generation. It’s them we will depend on for community, innovation, creativity and imagination.
I have no idea what my grandson’s interests, or his aptitudes or his enthusiasms might be. And that is partly the point of this: because I don’t know this for him, or for any other new baby. I have to think seriously about the sort of environment in which my grandson will thrive and which he will be able to explore his enthusiasms and prosper.
It’s a version of the old argument: what we want for our own children and grandchildren is what we should want for all of the children.
I’m proud to lead a university which, at its root, is committed to creating and expanding opportunities, committed to changing lives through its research, its teaching and its regional engagement. Among our most important priorities for the New Year are plans which will significantly enhance our mission. The further expansion of our degree apprenticeship offer, an area in which we lead practice nationally, will offer more people alternative routes to a degree level qualification at all ages and stages of their career.
We are building relationships with employers large and small to open opportunities. We were delighted to see government encouragement to proceed with more detailed business plans for the development of research and development centres in health on the Olympic Legacy Park, bringing our planned Health Innovation Park closer to reality. Our South Yorkshire Futures programme is the largest and most ambitious programme of engagement between a university and schools in the country.
And these innovations and developments are being developed alongside our core mission in teaching and research. Day-in, day-out, my colleagues offer outstanding teaching and opportunities for our students, from Sheffield, from South Yorkshire, from the wider nation and the world – the several thousand international students who make such a profound contribution to our university and city. Alongside that work, through our research, whether in science and technology, health and well-being, arts and culture, we enrich the life of the community. Just before the Christmas break – and certainly before the Christmas Day showing of Call the Midwife – one of our students was shortlisted as national student midwife of the year. Just after the break, three of our staff – Rosemary Leach, who works on sports, communities and enterprise, Andrew Bromley, who works on international student support and Karen Bryan, until recently pro-vice chancellor for health and well-being – received New Year honours from the Queen for their dedication to the education of young people.
The world we want for our children and our grandchildren is surely a world made up of opportunity and possibility, possibilities created by the actions of institutions and the people who work in them. Of course, we can’t insulate our children and grandchildren from challenges and problems. The big issues – the challenges of climate change, of resource depletion, of inequality and poverty – will not go away. But we can, as perhaps a New Year resolution for all of us, think harder about how we want to shape the world, with all its unknown and unknowable opportunities and challenges, which they, like my grandson, will inherit.