Professor Paul Croney in his challenging new role as vice-chancellor and chief executive of Teesside University is determined to build its recognition abroad, while stepping up its value to business great and small at home. He explains how to Brian Nicholls.
From the fourth floor balcony he looks down on figures far below creating a “heart” for his university in their hard hats and high-viz jackets. Then, across the rooftops of Middlesbrough, Professor Paul Croney points to symbols of Teesside industrial achievement – the sculptured structures where the all important chemicals are processed, the sea with its ongoing allure of hidden energy, and the bluecoated Transporter Bridge linking past with present.
These views excite the university’s new vice-chancellor and chief executive, reinforcing his determination to put this centre of learning at the heart of Tees Valley with national and international dimensions - a catalyst for change and development “for our economy and for society,” he declares. He’ll simultaneously bid to grow the university’s present overall income of £130m.
Notably free of academic and business speak in conversation, he’s “delighted and thrilled” to have been headhunted, though despite his obvious credentials he also admits having had some trepidation. It involves at this time, besides heading academic studies, also seeing through some £30m of development already under way. But at 51 he’s a picture of fitness, continuing in his leisure time to swim, cycle, and now contemplate a fifth Great North Run.
This is the fourth academic citadel from which he has worked, following Leeds, Sheffield Hallam and Northumbria where, until recently as a specialist in management and business education, he held successive leadership roles from dean of the acclaimed £26m Newcastle Business School, to pro-vice chancellor for learning and teaching, and, latterly, as deputy vice-chancellor focused on strategic planning and international development.
An academic scholar in management and business education, he holds honorary and visiting professorships from universities in Russia and China, and his experiences from those will now be to Teesside’s good. He explains: “I’ll seek to develop, at an appropriate time, an international agenda here. It’s a key area of development I foresee besides looking at areas of academic excellence and distinctiveness that Teesside will be renowned for.
“We must be a university of international reputation because Tees Valley needs that. I’m looking to continue my links with my international colleagues in various parts of the world to explore how Teesside can work in the geographic areas popular for UK higher education, and where our international research can be done in international partnerships.
“That will give our students opportunities to study abroad, our staff to have exchanges. The region, too, doesn’t want simply a regional university, but an international university that can make a difference to regional developments. All around me here I see process innovation and other innovation taking place. We must respond to that, bringing international research, partnerships and international staff and academics to Teesside University so they can take part.”
He cites the transnational education now present in partnerships and pledges: “We’ll certainly build strategic international partnerships and, hopefully, strategic alliances creating dialogue with international partners - an exchange process enabling students from Teesside University to go out to the partners and gain learning experience elsewhere in the world.”
Also, more foreign students could broaden their experience through Teesside’s partnership with “the right partners in the right parts of the world.” He cites countries such as China and Hong Kong, India and other parts of Asia, as well as parts of Africa. There are no plans to set up any international campus. “We’d rather work in partnership enhancing the student experience of Teesside through a global network of academic partnerships.”
Presently there are 22,000 students (full time equivalent) and a total staff (academic and otherwise) of 2,400. The 800 non-UK students there now look sure to grow in number. Parallel ambitions for improving potentials for staff and students include stepping up the university’s already considerable value to business, and advancing capabilities to improve the regional and UK economies.
The present £30m investment in development is the university’s biggest such programme yet. It includes:
Teesside University, unlike a number of other latter-day universities, sprang up not on greenfield but in the centre of Middlesborough in 1992 from its predecessors of 62 years earlier, Teesside Polytechnic and the Constantine, jostling for space with existing buildings.
It is only now getting a campus as such, Campus Heart being the romantic expression for the institution’s massive financial and emotional input.
“This pedestrian development will bring students a wonderful learning ambience,” Croney explains. “It’s an opportunity to raise the profile of Teesside and show students how seriously the university takes the student experience and learning environment.”
Crucial to businesses of all sizes in the region, and indeed to the regional and national economy, are new enterprises of which Teesside University is part. They include:
The Forge, shaped in consultation with customers, partners and stakeholders, provides a single entry point for companies keen to access the university’s business services, whether in research and development, leadership development, training or professional education support – the “front door” for anything from a start-up to a blue chip multinational, the university says.
The Forge is expected to speed the growth of firms in emergent activities such as biologics, industrial biotechnology and subsea engineering. In this, the university partners the CPI, Darlington Council and Darlington College. The NHC, it is hoped, may create more than 2,500 jobs and 6,000 training places.
The National Biologics Centre, serving UK manufacturing in that field, will see Teesside lead university, developing with other universities and other corporate partners the nation’s strength in biologics. Students will be able to join biologics companies in programmes and block activity via the university and the biologics centre.
“It will enhance career prospects, being part of a national initiative within a global activity advancing corporate business and nurturing entrepreneurs,” Croney points out.
The Fusion Hive, a business and innovations centre within a £100m regeneration at Northshore in Stockton, will have three floors to accommodate 60 new and growing SMEs in digital, creative and scientific sectors. Here the university partners Stockton Council, the Homes and Communities Agency and Muse Developments, a national specialist in mixed-use projects and urban regeneration.
Already the university has spun out more than 400 business start-ups. It works with hundreds of businesses a year and holds a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for “world class excellence” in enterprise and business engagement.
Its major boons to business include its leadership accelerator programme, developed with leading process industries firms such as Lotte Chemical, Sembcorp, Huntsman, Cordell Group and GrowHow to fast track potential executives. It equips with management expertise talented graduates of engineering and manufacturing whose degrees lie in a related discipline, but who do not yet have experience in management.
Its performance in a recent Research Excellence Framework showed all subjects entered contained world leading research. “That says great areas of excellence already exist at Teesside and that’s very encouraging,” Croney suggests. “I’m really encouraged by work going on here. In certain things Teesside is up with the best.”
He acknowledges in this the contribution of his predecessor, Professor Graham Henderson, on whose watch over 12 years the university more than doubled in size, became the first modern university to win the Times Higher Education University of the Year award, and also won that Queen’s Anniversary Prize.
Henderson stepped down after 40 years in academia and 16 years in all at Teesside University. Croney’s succession, in his words, comes at “a pivotal time”. He explains: “Such a great amount of investment in the campus bodes really well. I’m coming as all this investment reaches fruition, and as some other projects commissioned start.”
The Curve should be ready for occupation around now. Olympia should be completed by December, and Orion before the academic year ends. The Library and Students’ Union buildings have been modernised (final touches now being applied to the latter), and when the Curve is completed the executive presently occupying the library’s top floor will move across, to allow for a postgraduates’ lounge and learning area.
“I’m determined to put into place a plan for development, finance and resources permitting, to see a rolling programme of investment in our learning experience – environment, facilities, teaching, labs and so on,” Croney promises.
Of The Curve, he says: “I want this to be also a forum for debate and discussion involving the region’s key leaders from many walks – a place where they can talk and debate about how we can transform Middlesbrough, Tees Valley and the North East into an economic success story.
“I’ll say ‘let’s talk through the issues around big challenges ahead’ as announcements come out on business and production and funding. I want this university to be the place for debate, discussion and thrashing out our response as a region to these kinds of things.”
Professor Croney, Newcastle born, foresees a big role for Tees Valley in progressing the North East as a whole, particularly in contributing to the concept of a Northern Powerhouse. “First priority is for Teesside to work with the Tees Valley LEP across all the Tees Valley and to be a component of the Northern Powerhouse. Successful innovation here and in the surrounding area will benefit the North East and, indeed, North Yorkshire,” he ventures.
“The sun rises in the East and this side of the Northern Powerhouse gets the sun before the North West,” he laughs. “So I want the university to be a shining example of Northern Powerhouse in the North East. We can do that.”
So keen is he on this that, when the Northern Powerhouse Minister James Wharton suggested they meet in August, Croney successfully suggested a July appointment instead.
William Gladstone, it was, who during the wisdom of his 60 year political career once described Middlesbrough as “the infant Hercules.” Croney clearly promises Hercules more muscle.
Fusion the food of progress
Hints fill the campus air about fusion of talents and greater might for the already strong. Croney observes: “I’m going to look at where the academic strengths lie, create discussion and debate on where we seek excellence, then develop key themes and invest our resources there, further expanding the university strengths.
“In a world of scarce resources and a competitive environment that universities find themselves in, once you’ve had open and honest debate with colleagues about the whereabouts of our strengths we should then back the winners and seek excellence there. Teesside University must develop an international reputation for academic excellence in things it thrives in. That’s the key development theme I’ll be looking for.”
The fusion? His randomly suggested possibilities include employing digital strengths in biologics, and having forensics linked closely with law and criminology. “I’ll be looking for a commitment, broadening from specialist discipline to a creation of cross-disciplinary areas or themes that society wants, and which need addressing. The university must respond to society needs, generating and applying knowledge through programmes, consultancy and applied research.
“I hope nuggets of great strength will enable us to build responsively, further to needs of the global economy and our global graduates.”
Professor Henderson expects Professor Croney will lead the university to ongoing success, while Alastair MacColl, chairman of the university’s governors (and chief executive of BE Group), admires Croney’s “incredible amount of experience.”