A raid on a Post office van in 1990 started a chain of events that not only threatened to ruin an innocent man’s life, but also delivered unshakable proof in the power of young minds working together.
“I owe everything to a group of students who believed in me when others didn’t,” said Alex Allan, a Tyneside shipyard welder after his conviction for robbery was finally quashed, but only after serving six years of an eight year sentence.
The eight students he passionately thanked, who later helped him win a £170,000 government compensation payout, were from Northumbria University’s groundbreaking Student Law office, headed up at the time by course tutor Kevin Kerrigan.
“It was the first time a group of students had ever done anything like it,” recalls Kerrigan over a plate of pancakes, syrup and eggs at Newcastle’s Sandman Signature hotel.
“What they did, which was amazing, is reconstruct the case from start to finish and found things that all the lawyers involved in the case had missed, and some really major errors on the part of the police.”
Today Kerrigan serves as executive dean for Northumbria University’s faculty of business and law – his role having been expanded to incorporate business last September following restructuring at the university.
But he remains an active force at the law clinic, which employs 20 people, involves 170 students each year and has won a clutch of industry awards and accolades. other landmark cases for the clinic, that offers free advice to anyone in the North East who needs it, include the challenging of imbalances that previously existed between widow’s and widower’s benefits.
“We took on the case of a widower who couldn’t get access to benefits that widows receive. This was clearly sexually discriminatory on the part of the UK government and we helped to clarify that law so you now have equality in terms of widows and widowers.”
The satisfaction of taking on such breaches of human rights is perhaps what has kept Kerrigan involved in the law clinic and in continuing to teach law to students despite his now lofty position.
But the law which underpins some of this type of work, the UK human rights act, is currently drawing fire from all angles. Home secretary Theresa May proposed recently to scrap the act and even go further by pulling the nation out of European obligations on rights altogether.
In the meantime, cases of disgruntled armed robbers and burglars crying foul for impingements of their rights have become common fare in regional newsprint, turning the volume up on the act’s vocal opposition.
But Kerrigan, who offers pro-bono human rights consultancy services on behalf of former employer David Gray Solicitors in Newcastle, is a staunch defender of the act.
“The Government says the human rights act doesn’t work but in my view it does. It’s been a major step forward and means that people don’t have to wait up to seven years to get their case in court in Strasbourg.
“The act has enabled our judges to contribute extensively to the development of human rights law. If you take the act away then our judges are deprived of the opportunity of having that influence on the way the European human rights law develops. I think it’s been used as a political football because it’s been associated with Europe in some way.
“I think it would be a big mistake to pull out of the human rights act and I don’t think, if they look at it seriously, they will see much benefit of doing so.”
When he’s not crusading under the human rights flag, Kerrigan has much to contend with in his day job at the university. And, under his watch, Newcastle Business School in particular has big plans for the coming months; this as Kerrigan still adjusts to his new role that now encompasses business as well as law.
“The big challenge has been coming to terms with the different needs of our students from the business side, compared to the law side. But also spotting the opportunities that there are to do more as a unit than we were able to do separately.
“Top of my remit is, from a student experience perspective, to encourage learning by doing and getting students engaging with the world of professionals.”
Kerrigan has wasted no time in attempting to emulate the success of Northumbria’s globally renowned law clinic in the business world. Plans driven by him will see the launch of a business clinic staffed by business school students and offering free advice and support to the public.
“We’ll have a clinic where the students will, under the supervision of our professional members of staff, offer free branding, marketing, business development and strategy development advice to start up enterprises, charities and not-for-profits.
“We’re taking the experience we’ve developed in law and bringing it into the business school. It’s the leading law clinic in the country and one of the leading ones in the world, and that would be my vision for the business clinic.”
A pilot of the business clinic will be carried out in September, with a view to fully rolling it out next year. Also in the university’s pipeline is a revitalised MBA programme, with a new director of MBA programmes soon to be appointed. And there is also the creation of a school for entrepreneurs on Tyneside.
Northumbria has taken up two floors of Gateshead’s Northern Design Centre (NDC), part of which will form the centre point of its new entrepreneurship degree to be launched in September.
Second and third year students on the course will be provided with a small amount of seed funding to set up and run their own businesses at the NDC, with the university owning a stake in their enterprises.
The course aims to harness the expertise of regional entrepreneurs and business leaders, and students will be encouraged to learn from their mistakes as they get their businesses off the ground.
Should they still be in business by the end of the course, decisions will be taken to sell the businesses or – perhaps most beneficially for the region’s economy – to buy the university’s share and grow them into fully fledged success stories.
“The traditional approach towards business education is that the professor tells the students how to run business organisations. This will be radical and is based on an approach that’s been successful in Finland for many years.”
In Finland, Kerrigan says, 49% of students on entrepreneurship programmes go on to set up businesses after they leave university, compared to just 4% in the UK. Northumbria is part of a consortium of three UK universities which is bringing the Nordic concept of entrepreneurial degrees to these shores alongside the University of the West of England (Bristol) and the University of Westminster.
The university will provide funding to students on the course – understood to be around the £5,000 mark to cover costs like stock, transport and logistical services.
“You can’t teach the passion and drive needed to be a successful entrepreneur, but you can teach how to hone that passion and drive and how to develop the knowledge and expertise you need to make the right strategic decisions and avoid some of the pitfalls,” says Kerrigan.
“You can’t teach how to successfully run a business. Somebody needs to do it and the traditional approach is to teach theory to students at university before they leave and then learn through practice.
“This course will enable students to develop their skills and make mistakes, but in a protected environment that allows them to learn from their mistakes so when they go out into the real world, they will be much more effective as business people.”
Aside from its office take up in the NDC, the school’s footprint south of the Tyne is growing in other ways too. Ways, in fact, which could threaten culture clashes among the stalls, aisles and bus stops of Gateshead’s shopping heartland.
“It’ll be a shock to the system – for students and the good people of Gateshead,” Kerrigan says of the 1,000 new student digs which his university is currently painting into the skyline near the former ‘Get Carter’ car park site. “Imagine students turning the wrong way on Gateshead High Street and ending up in Curley’s Bar,” he says with clear affection for the rougher edges of the town the Yorkshireman has called home for the last 12 years.
The influx of students will undoubtedly provide a much needed economic lift to a high street, which in the depths of the consumer spending slump in 2009 was found by Experian to have almost 60% of its retail premises standing empty.
But of course bodies are needed to fill the hundreds of new student beds being created in the region by Kerrigan’s organisation. Despite the speculated impact of rising costs on the appetite of UK school leavers to go into higher education, Kerrigan says applications for business and law places at Northumbria are up 10% this year.
“There’s been no drop off in demand at all [as a result of rising fees].
“In fact, we’ve seen a rise and I think students are thinking much more about their future career when applying for university. When they are considering which course to do, they are questioning whether they should do something that might develop them as a person but not necessarily help them get a specific type of job.”
As well as more career conscious UK undergraduates, individuals from all over the world continue to flock to study in the UK and the chase for international students is fierce. Kerrigan says there are currently around 111,000 students in the North East, of which 19,000 (or approximately 17%) are from overseas. Although their annual influx to these shores adds wealth to public and private regional coffers, Kerrigan says their true value is being missed because of a governmental oversight.
“International students are a huge benefit to this region but, after studying here for three or four years, they’re not allowed to set up businesses because the Government has stopped the post-study work visa.
“So on a national scale, students from India actually fell for the first time this year and that was a direct consequence of the demise of the post-study visa.
“Prior to the changes, you could stay for a further two years after you graduated.
“The UK higher education sector is with one voice on this and believes that it’s really important that it is re-introduced, giving graduates the opportunity to contribute to the economy and bring those ideas that we’ve helped to develop, into the market place before they return to their home country.”
Increasingly, students abroad are taking UK university-affiliated courses in their homeland. Significant areas of growth in recent years for Newcastle Business School include China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
“I spend much more time jetting around the world than I used to. Since September I’ve been to Moscow, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Texas, the Czech Republic and I’m going to Grenada and Indonesia later this term,” Kerrigan says.
“When I was in Sri Lanka we were talking not just to universities there but also to HSBC about running leadership programmes for their management staff.
“So we’re not just looking at research opportunities and student exchanges but also corporate work as well.
“Increasingly students can remain in their home country and be taught by a mixture of e-learning and from our staff who we fly out to teach, as well as our local support partners.”
Back at its Newcastle HQ, the business school will be taking on 30 new employees this academic year, as it rolls out its expansion plans. Kerrigan, the man driving the plans at the helm of the school is a prolific scribe of legal text books, papers and journals too, and still finds time to squeeze in a day a week of research.
“I really enjoy getting under the skin of the law and education and thinking about new ideas.
“And when I have new ideas I want the world to know about them. I also want students to learn from my experiences,” he adds.