Learning and Skills: Five years of progress for University Campus Suffolk

UNIVERSITY Campus Suffolk was established five years ago with a unique method of governance and a stunning home on Ipswich Waterfront. Provost Professor Mike Saks tells Sheline Clarke about the progress so far and his ambitious plans for the future

The campaign to establish a hub for higher education in Suffolk had been rumbling for more than a decade when building finally started work on Waterfront House, the stylish building where Mike Saks and his team now steer UCS towards achieving its goals.

It was formed through a unique partnership between its parent universities, the University of East Anglia and the University of Essex, which, incidentally, have both been rated in the Top 20 new universities by the Times Higher Education guide.

What makes UCS even more pioneering is its relationship with colleges across Suffolk that give UCS a pan Suffolk reach that other universities simply don’t have.

“This is a totally unique model,” said Mike, “and I think it is potentially a model for other universities for the future.”

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Mike came to UCS from the University of Lincoln where he was Deputy Vice Chancellor. Lincoln was founded in 2002 and, under Mike’s stewardship and the work of the whole team, went from being at the bottom of all the league tables to around 60th out of 120, on average, which is almost unheard of.

“It was a meteoric rise and you don’t often get that happening; it’s like turning round an oil tanker.”

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But turn it around he did and so brings to Suffolk the knowledge and experience of helping newly established centres reach their potential.

Since his appointment two years and three months ago, Mike has put in place a strategic plan for UCS. He has reorganized the university into five schools to highlight areas of expertise and reviewed support services.

Then there are the buildings. While Waterfront House was already up when Mike arrived he is proud that since then the library has been overhauled, the Infozone established, the gallery moved to the ground floor space and believes the new student caf� is “the business”.

Then there is the James Hehir Building with its science labs, sports facilities, students’ union and, of course, the Eastern Enterprise Hub at the top.

Plans are already afoot to develop the car park adjacent to the James Hehir building into another iconic landmark.

“I’m thinking Sydney Opera House,” smiles Mike.

“I have visitors here who are blown away by this campus, and that’s before the new building is put up and I am confident that in the next five years this will be one of the most attractive campuses in the UK.”

But development is not restricted to the Waterfront. Lowestoft has invested in a new learning resources centre and West Suffolk College has a new higher education building, while back in Ipswich, Suffolk New College is enjoying its new �70million building.

A recent institutional review by its parent universities pronounced work at UCS to be right on track.

Despite all the upheaval and changes – including to some staff contracts – the report found 81% of staff had confidence in the executive as opposed to between 20-30% three years ago and against a national average of 71%.

“The pace of change has been incredible,” says Mike. “I have a fantastic team and an executive that is inclusive and covers all parts of the university and the attitude is very ‘can do’ which is wonderful.”

But a university is not all about the box, rather more importantly is what goes on inside it.

Mike is passionate about getting the best people in their field to come to Suffolk, engage with the university and spread the word.

In the past two years more than 70 professors, visiting professors and fellows have been appointed, all leaders in their field and all keen to engage with UCS and help put it on the map.

These include specialists in bio tech, stem cell technology, scientists from Nasa and the European space agency, top photographers, architects and artists, poets and novelists, the list goes on.

“I don’t want any wallpaper, “ says Mike. “These are the top people who are committed to us, who will come here and deliver lectures and masterclasses. They are inspirational when you meet them and hear about their achievements and because we are attracting that calibre of people then we will get corporations wanting to work with us and we will be bringing that to Suffolk and that’s the whole point.”

Enterprise is also high on the agenda at UCS under Mike’s watch and goes through everything from establishing new disciplines - like linking an MBA with fashion - to establishing atrium studios to provide an incubator environment for students and external players to become part of UCS. Plans are also afoot for a business incubator, which will tie up with work going on at the Eastern Enterprise Hub, which he describes as a “tremendous asset”.

Another asset at UCS is the business school, led by David Weir, who Mike describes as his “secret weapon”.

“One of the key things if you are going to move something forward and make something great is having great leaders and David is one of them. He is incredibly well connected and is committed to moving the business agenda forward in the context of Suffolk and more broadly in the East of England, that really is first base for him.”

The business school is already working with local employers such as BT and Willis, while in Lowestoft a visiting professor of marine engineering has been appointed to engage with offshore renewables and at West Suffolk College a centre for nuclear education is being developed in anticipation of the development at Sizewell.

One of the next steps is to get the student balance right.

“On my second day in the job Gordon Brown visited UCS and asked me what proportion of students came from the east of England and I said 80% which he thought was fantastic. It is fantastic and it is important to widen participation from the local population but you need to get the mix right and give students a richer university experience. What we need to do is to become more cosmopolitan and I am thrilled to meet students coming from Birmingham, Ulster, Manchester, London and the South East and from France and Spain and Germany. And from the view point of the local business community and the local economy, welcoming students from other parts has a much wider impact.

“At Lincoln, �250million was coming in each year to the town as a result of having a university, having 10,000 students and all the secondary industries. Then there’s the impact the university has in offering MBAs, in terms of mentoring and being a conduit for resources from government designed to prime pump new business development.”

Since arriving in Suffolk, Mike has been impressed with the relationships that surround UCS beyond the immediate academic community.

“The way we work with the local community is pretty much unparalleled,” he said. “When I came here people said it was fantastic in Suffolk and I have to say the relationship with Suffolk County Council and Ipswich Borough Council are wonderful and I like the fact that we use UCS for all sorts of community activities.

“We have been so well supported by the business community and public sector bodies, the regional development fund and a whole range of parties and what’s great is that Suffolk sits right in the middle of all this.

“This year we will have more than 5,000 fte (full time equivalent) students. We have grown exponentially and will continue to grow and we are looking internationally as well as locally to do that.

“I am very positive about what will happen in the future; I have been there before and know how it is done admittedly in a different climate. We have got some great guys at the helm here from the executive right through the staff. The aspiration is not to be a middling university – we want to be a great university.”

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