Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor of Aston University
The right kind of immigration can benefit the UK according to Alec Cameron, the new vice-chancellor of Aston University in Birmingham, who was recruited from Australia for his entrepreneurial skills. Steve Dyson reports.
Immigration and Brexit are hot topics in the UK, but they’re not subjects that Alec Cameron wants to duck. The business-focused academic, who became vice-chancellor at Aston University last September, wants Theresa May and her cabinet to understand what’s at stake as Britain considers how tightly to control its borders.
“The UK is one of the top two countries in the world for higher education,” he says, as we look out across Birmingham from the floorto- ceiling windows of the Marco Pierre White Steakhouse, on floor 25 of The Cube, the city’s landmark building. “That means that this country is one of the destinations of choice for the best academics in the world.
“But if the UK closes the door too tightly, it won’t continue be among the world’s leaders and that would be a huge loss, because one of the pulls of the UK is the great universities here. Whatever the disputes about Brexit and immigration, I don’t want to see universities cut off, because we want the best academics – wherever they come from.
“And that principle is the same for British business – it needs the freedom to recruit the expertise and skills it needs to help drive industry, the economy and services for the benefit of all. I’d like to think that the government would be very open to wanting that.”
The words “universities” and “businesses” are mentioned together throughout my lunch with Cameron, whose high-level entrepreneurial reputation comes from making a commercial success out of academics’ research and inventions. He was born in Sydney 54 years ago, and was the first in his family to study at the city’s main university, graduating with a degree in pure mathematics and physics, and a firstclass honours degree in electrical engineering.
The star pupil then came to the UK to take a doctorate in robotics at the University of Oxford before getting his first job leading research staff at technology giant Philips in New York. He worked there for four years, registering patents on various products including route-planning algorithms and robotic control systems. This period also saw him taking another post-graduate qualification in the management of technology, at what was then the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.
Cameron moved back to Sydney in 1996 as the programme director for an advanced engineering centre, where he concentrated on what he calls “engineering innovation” – basically taking original technology into the commercial world.
He moved up the ranks doing this over the next seven years with COMindico, Telstra and then Sun Microsystems before a “call out of the blue” to take on a senior role in higher education. First, he was a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of New South Wales for three years, then he spent six years as the inaugural dean of that institution’s new Australian School of Business, before nearly five years as deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Western Australia.
As well as the strategic management that goes with such roles, Cameron again saw his main focus as the commercialisation of intellectual property (IP), which he says is not only about registering patents.
“What you find with technologists is that all they see is technical problems,” says Cameron. “Instead, we look at research and opportunities from a better understanding and ask: ‘What is required to turn this into successful products?’ Essentially, we’re looking for commercial partners with the scale and resources to make things happen in the industrial world.
“I’m talking production lines, developing markets and sales channels. What we sometimes find in universities is a desire by individuals not to let go of their technology. But if they’re going to be successful, they need to quickly identify which partner can run with their research or invention.
“Then they can develop licensing and royalties in return for investment in the manufacturing infrastructure that’s needed. The sooner they find that partner, the greater the opportunity. But holding things too close for too long means the window of opportunity closes, as someone else comes up with the same thing. Speed to market is critical.”
Cameron believes that universities and their academics are often too scared to lose out on what he terms “the product gold at the end of the rainbow” by giving their IP away too early. “Universities are not known for being fleet of foot,” he says.
“But hold on too long, negotiate too long, you’ll end up with 100% of nothing. I’d prefer a small percentage of something big. My philosophy is that when innovation is receiving public funds, there’s a research responsibility to maximise the opportunity for a commercial outcome. We have to focus on finding a potential way to market, rather than maximising our share of the IP.”
This was the commercial background and entrepreneurial philosophy that attracted Aston University to travel 9,000-miles to poach Cameron as its new vice-chancellor, replacing the outgoing Dame Julia King last year. Aston is renowned as one the UK’s most business-orientated universities, with a growing reputation for working with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), innovators and entrepreneurs, and it didn’t care where its new leader came from – as long as he or she was ready to grow its commercial edge.
“Yes, I think my mixture of a business and academic background was a good match,” admits Cameron. “Plus the fact I’d spent time working and studying in the US, Australia and the UK meant I had some level of international experience, and I’d studied in both engineering and business.”
Cameron and his wife, Elizabeth, a physiotherapist, live in the vice-chancellor’s flat on Aston’s campus, while their two children – Hugh, aged 22, and Molly, 24 – are following their own careers back in Australia. Cameron’s now six months into his role at Aston University, an institution that’s impressed him because of its “success in the competitive market in student recruitment”, its research quality, its thorough engagement with the business world, and the resulting “employability” of its graduates.
“The Aston Business School is one of our stars, with its specialism in SMEs and the Goldman Sachs programme,” he says. “There are other developments in store, such as the rise of degree apprenticeships. We have been one of the first universities to embrace this, and this summer will see the graduation of our first cohort.”
The UK Government’s new apprenticeship project means that, from April 2017, any employer with a wage bill of more than £3m a year will have to pay a 0.5% levy. They can then use their ‘levy account’ to help fund approved training or retraining for any employee, regardless of age or career stage, resulting in degree-level qualifications, with different arrangements in Scotland.
“We really are at the leading edge of this,” says Cameron, “with businesses like Capgemini among the first [sponsors of Aston’s degree apprentices]. It’s all about how do we bring together Aston’s model – work experience and learning – to produce work-ready graduates.”
But many SMEs that fall under the £3m wage bill level will not have to pay the apprenticeships levy, and Cameron believes universities like Aston have a role to persuade those employers to take part.
“For businesses that will soon have to pay the apprenticeship levy, it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’,” he says. “But for the many SMEs that fall under the levy, we need to make sure they see a value and benefit in taking part. And in many cases, SMEs will need this more desperately than large corporations.
“Because for SMEs, speed is critical. Our students graduate with one year of work placement, and we explicitly teach entrepreneurship in the curriculum. We also offer start-up funding and support opportunities for students, and so this focus makes it natural for us to occupy a leading place in creating degree apprenticeships for the SME sector.
“At Aston, rather than the university deciding the programmes, we put businesses at the front of the process, partnering with them to meet their needs. We meet them before to consult and engineer our programmes, so that we can then specifically deliver what they need.”
While Cameron’s impressed with much of what he’s found at Aston, he’s also open and direct about what he sees as the university’s weaknesses.
“The opportunity is online,” he says, “and we need a suite of online teaching offers, especially in the post-graduate taught area where students need access at their own times and in their own locations. We’ve got to grow the deregulated, post-graduate part of the business, where the UK as a whole is slower than Australia and the Untied States.
“Another weakness is Aston’s international strategy. What sets Aston apart is its focused strategy with business, its consistent offerings with things like its placement year for students. But it’s not in the international space [enough], and it’s too reliant on an opportunistic response.”
Cameron explains that Australian universities have been much better at penetrating foreign markets, with some 25% of their students being international, as opposed to around 15% in the UK. This, of course, is where we came in – the unknown future for the UK in the international sphere.
“There’s obviously going to be a challenge around the whole immigration debate surrounding Brexit,” Cameron admits. “But I don’t think the government is driven by that sort [students and academics] of immigration. It’s more concerned with unskilled immigrants taking low-level jobs, which is increasing unemployment.
“Any legislative change will have its risks for us. But I’d like to think the government will look at students very differently, and that it would be very open to want young, mobile people over the age of 22 seeking to spend their money on our education.
“The same goes for academic staff who bring their knowledge and expertise to academic institutions. I think Brexit provides the government with the opportunity to focus on the type of immigration, rather that where immigrants come from.”
Cameron’s on a roll now, but pauses to comment on the “decent” MPW fillet steak he’s eating, and to express pleasure at the “grand view” of Birmingham as the sun gleams down onto the cityscape beneath The Cube. He’s obviously happy with his new home in the UK.
Then he’s off talking about recruiting from abroad again. He says that if a university is currently offered a choice between a German or Canadian academic, the German would often win because of the UK’s European Union membership. But once the UK is outside the EU, he says he looks forward to choosing the best academic, even if that means the one from Canada instead of Germany, because Aston and the UK will only benefit.
Cameron ends with what sounds like gentle but firm advice for the UK Government as it prepares to depart Europe: “I don’t hold that EU prejudice. Like any business, it’s in our interests to bring in the best talent from wherever it can be found. That seems logical and is also addressing public concern.
“This sort of approach will benefit the economy and is highly politically sellable. That would be a good outcome of Brexit: the ability to employ highly-skilled people.”