Hull VC: ‘What’s in a university strategy?’

Prof Susan Lea, the vice-chancellor of the University of Hull, says that government scepticism of universities makes an institutional strategy all the more vital.

The world is in crisis with the mass movement of people, accelerating impacts of climate change, and growing inequalities. Surely, the 2020s must be a decade for confronting these major challenges and working together to find sustainable solutions.

To make a difference, governments, businesses, the public and the voluntary sector must determinedly align their commitments to delivering positive change. They will need to develop and implement robust strategies that realise solutions and overcome the barriers that constrain collaboration. The government’s highly anticipated Levelling-up White Paper – released earlier this year after several delays – marks the opening salvo of the UK’s effort to deliver a coordinated response to the imperatives of tackling regional wealth inequalities and supporting upskilling and green industries by 2030.

Universities are at the heart of this change. Our role has always been to transform individual lives and positively impact society through the pursuit of our academic mission.

Yet, we too are facing pressure. The UK government continues to question the value of universities and desires increasing influence over our activities. Perhaps it is right to say that we have not made sufficiently explicit how we add value to society through our education, research, knowledge exchange and community engagement. We have just been doing it and, I would argue, in the main doing it well.

However, the world has changed – and so must we.

Therefore, we must make sure that our own houses are in order, we are clear about what we are doing, why we are doing it and what difference it will make.

Yet, we too are facing pressure. The UK government continues to question the value of universities and desires increasing influence over our activities.

I have always been guided by the maxim: ‘dialogue, decision, delivery’, in order to make a difference. Our staff and students at the University of Hull have been nothing short of outstanding in working together to do just this: first through an urgent, large-scale, and robust transformation programme and then through navigating a global pandemic. Building on this experience, we have developed Hull’s Strategy 2030.

Rooted in our nearly-100-year history, and true to the university’s DNA, our strategy reflects our passion and expertise in matters of social justice and environmental sustainability and sits on three pillars: people, place and partnership. It reflects our fundamental belief in the power of higher education to drive positive change and provides a roadmap for the university’s contribution to tackling vital issues through the pursuit of our academic endeavours and strengthening collaboration with our local communities and industry.

Our vision is for a fairer, brighter and carbon-neutral future: a world that grips the realities of inequity and climate change and works collectively to reverse them. With our resilient and purposeful university contributing strongly through its role, ours is what I call ‘an internationally-engaged civic institution’.

This positioning captures how the global perspective and expertise of our academics – together with our partnerships locally, nationally and internationally – enable us “to enrich lives, address the challenges facing our region and share solutions that are transferable across an increasingly connected yet polarised world”.

Take climate change. Our strengths in this area have led us to commit to achieving a carbon-neutral campus by our centenary of 2027. Whilst this is a particularly ambitious agenda, we believe that it is our responsibility to practice what we research and teach.

Moreover, our strategy aligns with our place. The Humber is the highest emitter of carbon in the UK, and local authorities, the public sector, private industry, SMEs, and the voluntary and charitable sector are seeking ways to optimise the potential of the ‘Energy Estuary’, harnessing new technology and changing practice to achieve decarbonisation and inclusive clean growth – together transforming the Humber into the ‘Silicon Valley’ of renewable energy.

By leading initiatives in collaboration with partners, we have seen the establishment of the successful Flood Innovation Centre, Aura Innovation Centre, and Leverhulme Scholarships Doctoral Centre for Water Cultures, all of which are leading the way in finding innovative solutions to the challenges of the climate crisis.

But working with our community is also critical, focusing on environmental sustainability and social justice. Our interdisciplinary Risky Cities project will use innovative approaches from the arts and humanities approaches to explore citizen stories of flooding and use them to develop community-based interventions. Similarly, the INSECURE project is exploring young people’s experiences of significant coastal erosion.

Our academics are drawing that important thread from civic to international.

Academics from Hull are working on the natural environment along the Amazon River, understanding how climate change is impacting indigenous communities in the region. Our Treated Spaces Cluster is bringing together diverse global partners – including academics, indigenous communities, cultural and heritage institutions, policymakers and the general public – to help make indigenous treaties and environmental concerns central to global debates.

Central to our future are our students. The work of our academics infuses our curricula and programmes specifically designed to meet the skills needs through collaboration with employers. In an area of significant low participation, the University of Hull sees the above-sector-average outcomes for our students: their diversity of experience and life skills, we believe, will enable them to help shape that fairer, brighter future that we aspire to.

The very point of our Strategy 2030 is to make a difference – through meaningful dialogue, informed decisions, and strong delivery. As we continue to digest the Levelling Up White Paper, working with others to maximise positive impact and create genuine benefit for everyone will be critical.

Prof Susan Lea is the vice-chancellor of the University of Hull.

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