My vision for unique university

My vision for unique university

After a starring role in the campus-led revolution that built the Rainbow Nation, Calie Pistorius left South Africa for Hull with a mission to drive positive change there. Five years on, Andrew Mernin discovers how he is bringing new energy to the Humberside economy and transforming the way business and academia work together across the UK

When apartheid crumbled and Mandela’s reign dawned, universities in South Africa were pivotal in the rebuilding of a nation. Their ability to catalyse economic and cultural regeneration and breathe new life into the communities they served was a powerful force in helping this new country find its feet.

“In that time of transition, universities stepped up to the plate and played an enormous role in nation building,” says Professor Calie Pistorius, who was a prominent player in this higher education-led revival in his homeland.

The career-long academic led one of South Africa’s most respected universities, Pretoria, through almost a decade of growth and chaired his country’s influential National advisory Council for Innovation for many years.

Today he may not be charged with building a nation from the ground up in his current role as vice chancellor of the University of Hull. He does, however, source inspiration from his days in South Africa and the lessons he learnt about the power of universities to drive change, in his Humberside seat.

“In South Africa community engagement became a purpose of the universities and they had a real influence on the broader development and longer term outcome of the regions in which they were located,” he says.

“When I was considering coming to the UK, I looked at Hull and the area around it and I thought ‘this is a university which is extremely important geographically, since it is the only university in the region’. I also saw many opportunities for industry interaction, as well as issues in the region around which the university could make a really big difference and that resonated with me.”

Having made the move in 2009, his fingerprints are clearly now visible throughout the university’s strategic plans and initiatives. And, with other institutions following Hull’s lead, he’s also making his mark on national policy around universities and their responsibilities to their local communities.

Hull has a strong case for being the pioneer of ‘anchor institutions’, a phrase it coined several years ago and which now dominates the government’s university rhetoric. An anchor university, says a recent parliamentary review, ensures its surrounding region benefits from its presence and activities.

“We wrote about our defining function as an anchor institution in 2011. We’re not sure if we invented the term but it’s gratifying to see it being widely used.

Pistorious02“Soon after I arrived in Hull and our team articulated the university’s vision, it was great that there was buy-in from the council and the region around us. That was refreshing.”

Certainly, there are plenty of numbers to suggest the university is helping to shape the current upturn in Hull’s economic fortunes. Its enterprise centre has created more than 140 new businesses in the last six years, while its Logistics Institute has reportedly helped 530 businesses create hundreds of new jobs and boost their sales by £55m.

The university worked with local authorities and Associated British Ports to help lure Siemens and its planned £310m offshore wind manufacturing facility up the Humber. It also contributed to a £26m public and private sector-backed initiative called Green Port Growth, which aims to prepare the region’s businesses for the opportunities of offshore wind. It is also home to the group For Entrepreneurs Only (FEO), made up of more than a hundred of Hull and East Riding’s leading entrepreneurs representing a joint turnover of £3bn, and 16,000 staff.

The group, which won the Best Business Partnership prize in the Guardian University awards 2014, has assisted more than 500 entrepreneurs and start-ups in the past year. Then there are the circa 15,000 students, including 2,600 from overseas across 95 countries, contributing to the economy.

The university has invested heavily in its own facilities too, most notably through the £27.4m refurbishment of its library which famously had as a former librarian, the poet Philip Larkin. Work has also been completed on a new biomedical research facility, backed by a £1.5m donation from local businessman Dr Assem Alla. According to Pistorius, the bright outlook of the university is in line with the upbeat mood sweeping through Humberside.

The development of Humberside’s status as the UK’s ‘energy estuary’ – driven by investment in tidal and offshore wind energy projects – and its vast port facilities continues at pace.  

Other sectors are benefiting too, says Pistorius, while Hull’s successful City of Culture 2017 bid is also adding to the area’s sunny disposition.

“There is rising optimism here, especially through the energy estuary factor,” he says. “The city of Hull has been here for 1,000 years and its wealth has always come from the sea whether from fishing, whaling or shipping, right up to the next wave, which is going to be energy from the sea. But as well as the Siemens investment and the offshore wind sector manufacturing that’s going to happen, there is also the huge chemicals industry here.”

He also points to the marine engineering sector, visitor economy and digital industries as contributing factors to Hull’s confidence.“As a university we need to make sure we support the existing industries here, but we also need to make sure we put energy into growing and supporting the emerging ones.

“Because of KC [formally Kingston Communications which at one time provided Hull with the only non-BT telecoms network in the country] we’ve got some of the fastest broadband in the world here and there is a significant amount of fibre in the ground. So for many reasons the digital sector is really taking off.” He has seen this at close hand through the university’s boardroom seat at the Centre for Digital Innovation (C4Di) – which will act as a hub for Hull’s digital businesses in a £13.4m facility in the city’s Fruit Market.

In all of its interactions with business, the university recognises its role as a problem solver, says Pistorius. This is manifested through the rolling out of new cross-discipline institutes, designed to cater for the private sector beyond its walls, by bringing together the most appropriate skills from across the university to tackle specific challenges. Areas of focus include maritime, energy, digital and creative and regional economic development.

“What the world wants is problem-based solutions rather than discipline-based solutions.

“Our institutes provide a fantastic interface with industry, enabling everyone to contribute, and it creates an enormous research capacity.

“Often disciplines become like silos. It makes it difficult for academics in a department to collaborate with ones from a different discipline because of organisational structure.”

Globally, meanwhile, the university is well connected and continues to forge new ties. Like most universities, it collaborates with research counterparts across the globe on various projects. It is also member of a group which brings together coastal universities around the world. Since the 1950s, Hull has been a popular destination for students from West Africa; Hull’s Alumni Association, in fact, had its annual general meeting in Ghana last year. The University also runs teaching programmes in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and in the Middle East and a number of growth markets are opening up.

At home, the sector has faced sweeping changes – perhaps the most significant of which is the raising of the fees cap from around £3,000 per year to £9,000.

“The fees changed the way you run universities. It placed a bigger emphasis on the quality of the student experience, which has always been great at this university anyway. But, also, from a student viewpoint, they now pay three times as much as they did before so they expect three times more. “From the University’s viewpoint, the funding and the amount we are getting is not radically different – it’s just the nature of the funding source has changed. So with the same funding you’ve got to deliver three times the quality.”

Another recent trend is the growing demand among students for the knowledge that might help them become successful entrepreneurs. While Hull students run their own entrepreneur club, the university also now offers free modules related to starting up businesses. Throughout Pistorius’ career, innovation has been an area of keen interest. His long term role as chair of the National Advisory Council for Innovation in South Africa, saw him influencing national policy on innovation as a close adviser to government.

In the UK he contributes to the national debate on how we might improve our approach to new ideas. He says: “Very often innovation is confused with creativity, but they are not the same thing. There are also two components to innovation. One is creating something new but then you also have to make sure whatever you’ve created is actually absorbed into the market. It’s not good enough just to invent something great. Someone else has to buy it, adopt it or take it further. There is also a difference between incremental innovation, with small changes made over time, and radical innovation, where you start something completely different.”

The university is in the process of developing a “regional innovation strategy.”

“This will drive regional competitiveness and is a slightly different concept from just targeting economic growth. It will work alongside the institutes we have here,” he says.

Perhaps this plan, still taking shape, could become another ‘anchor’ moment for Hull.