David Hillier, associate principal at the University of Strathclyde
“Giving something back” is a topic that crops up again and again in conversations with David Hillier, associate principal and professor of finance at the University of Strathclyde and executive dean of its Strathclyde Business School. When Hillier speaks about the institution “giving back”, he’s not just talking about its involvement with the business community though – he wants to have a wider impact on all society.
Part of Hillier’s ethos and mission for the business school stems from the very roots of the University of Strathclyde itself. Founded in 1796 during the Enlightenment, the university’s forerunner was created to be “a place of useful learning”, a theme that resonates with Hillier today.
Another part of his motivation comes from his personal experience. Hillier was the first member of his family to go to university and so he has first-hand experience of the benefits of higher education. “I came from a background of people who tended not to go to university,” he explains. “My father died when I was young and I had no sense of direction whatsoever.
“The path I took was my own path, I didn’t follow anyone else. I studied maths and was training to become an accountant, but the company I was training with wasn’t performing well.
“When you come out of university with a degree, you think you’re going to automatically go on to this fantastic career, but it doesn’t work that way. I graduated in the early 1990s and it was the time of the first lost generation because the economy was really stagnating.
“What I really enjoyed from my degree was doing research. I gave up my good job to come back to the university on a temporary three-month contract. With a young family, I ended up working for a pittance and at that point I had to prove myself.”
Hillier worked his way up through the ranks, studying for his doctorate before being made a professor in 2002 at the age of just 32. After spending six years at the University of Leeds, Hillier returned to Strathclyde in 2010 and took over as executive dean in 2015.
“That’s one of the reasons why I’m so loyal to Strathclyde – they made me who I am,” he says. “I became a man here and my whole ethos and work ethic comes from that Strathclyde background.
“The great thing about being an academic who’s plugged into industry is that you’re called into so many situations and asked to give advice. I can draw on my research background and my teaching background and apply my knowledge to industry.”
Hillier singles out Strathclyde as one of the best business schools in both Scotland and the UK and points to the institution’s triple accreditation – from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the Association of Masters degrees in Business Administration (AMBA) and the EQUIS quality-assurance scheme run by the European Foundation for Management Development.
“I really believe that, as an organisation, you need a purpose – when you have a purpose then it makes decisions easier,” he explains. “When I became executive dean, I looked at the university and the business school and asked ‘Why are we here? Why do we exist?’
“We were the only university created during the Enlightenment, with a mission to improve humanity. We also have a strong technical background too, having been the Royal College of Science & Technology.
“There are two aspects there – you have the really strong university connections with industry, which is epitomised now by our Technology & Innovation Centre (TIC), but there’s also that social angle there as well. We’re a socially-progressive business school within a leading international technological university.
“What does that mean? It means we’re engaged. That’s not an aspiration, that’s a statement of fact.”
Giving examples of the ways in which the business school engages with industry and wider society is no problem for Hillier. He quickly reels off a list of how the university interacts with the world. In the public arena, he points to the Fraser of Allander Institute, the research unit that produces some of Scotland’s most highly-regarded economic reports, as an example of how the school connects with government and policy. Yet he also highlights a little-known fact about how members of staff from the institute engage with businesses on a one-to-one basis, spending time with directors to talk about the micro-economic picture at an individual company level and not just through the wider macro reports they produce.
The work of the Scottish Centre for Employment Research in helping companies innovate and change is an example close to Hillier’s heart. The centre interacts with companies of all sizes, from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) through to large corporates.
“I’m really proud of our work on the living wage and the work agenda,” he says. “That overlaps with the social angle too.”
The business school’s engagement with industry follows individuals through each stage of their lives. It sends business people into schools to speak to budding entrepreneurs and help them develop their entrepreneurial attitude. Once those pupils reach Strathclyde, they are greeted with the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and the university’s wider work with the Hunter Foundation. The university has an “entrepreneurship pathway” at the undergraduate level, with many of its students going on to set up their own businesses.
After they graduate, the university continues to provide advice and mentoring. Strathclyde also has its own incubation unit, where start-ups can receive further help.
“Our students also take part in internship schemes,” adds Hillier. “Those internships don’t just benefit the students, but also benefit the companies too because our students are among the best in the country and can make major contributions to businesses.”
Hillier also highlights the ten-month Growth Advantage Programme (GAP) that Strathclyde runs with banking giant Santander. GAP is designed to help scale-up companies to reach double-digit revenue growth, with some achieving increases in turnover of more than 20%.
Another important strand is the school’s work with large corporations, including running master’s degrees in business administration (MBAs) for engineering firm Weir Group, Scottish Power-owner Iberdrola in partnership with the Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid, defence contractor Babcock and whisky distiller William Grant & Sons. Strathclyde also runs a dual master’s degree programme in project management with the Politecnico di Milano, ranked as Italy’s top university.
The final piece in the jigsaw is the business school’s wider work in society. “When I came back to the university, I introduced a scheme for every undergraduate student within the business school – except those on foreign exchange programmes – to take part in a community activity in which they use their business skills, management skills and leadership skills to help organisations or individuals in their local communities,” Hillier says.
“One of the best examples is our work with Annette Street Primary School in Govanhill, which has now expanded so that we’re not just working with the pupils but also with their parents too.
“Every single undergraduate is out doing something in the community, which is building up that Strathclyde ethos. It’s getting back to why we exist – our purpose is to improve humanity.
“We then said that we wanted to go further than that by not just getting our students involved but getting our staff involved too in social projects. We’re one of the vanguard partners for MCR Pathways and up to 20% of our staff – both academic and administrators – go out and mentor young adults from care backgrounds.
“This year, I’m expanding that programme to cover 40% of our staff. The impact that programme has had on people’s lives has been fantastic.
“It’s not just the young people either. The staff who are involved in that project come back with much stronger leadership skills.
“A large part of leadership is mentoring abilities. If you can mentor someone then you can use those skills in your organisation.
“We’re now developing a leadership programme that includes a two-year mentoring commitment. We’re developing innovative leadership modules to help people reflect on how they can become better mentors and better leaders.”
Strathclyde is also working with Enable Scotland, Iberdrola and the Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid to launch the UK’s first university certificate for people with learning difficulties. “We want to launch a ten-month programme this year,” Hillier explains. “Enable Scotland will choose the people for the programme and Iberdrola with its own corporate network is interested in offering internship opportunities. The people who complete the programme will be able to graduate from the university.
“This will help give all parts of society the chance to learn and develop. As a business school and university, I believe we’re unique because we’ve identified our purpose and have created the engine that has powered our success since Professor Sir Jim McDonald was appointed as Principal, and will continue to do so in the future.”
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