Paul Greatrix: there’s an appetite for a post-Brexit UK university in the EU

Paul Greatrix
Many people know about Paul Greatrix through his “True Crime on Campus” series on his Registrarism blog but his day job is registrar at the University of Nottingham. He tells Efficiency Exchange how universities can adapt to Brexit and reveals that, despite the uncertainty, there are plenty of things in HE that excite him.

What are you and your fellow registrars most concerned about at the moment?

It’s a turbulent and uncertain environment for all sorts of reasons at the moment. But I think that the biggest issues for us must be the twin challenges of coping with the impact of Brexit and the many and varied consequences for university staff and student recruitment and retention of attempts to constrain immigration.

Additionally, and pleasingly, many are now also worried about where their next blog post is coming from (it used to be just me who was concerned with this).

You’re travelling around a bit at the moment, including to China where the University of Nottingham has a campus. To what extent will overseas campuses drive expansion in the sector, especially post-Brexit? Is Nottingham looking to create an outpost in the EU?

We recently held our annual tri-campus senior management retreat at our University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) campus. Part of the discussion was, inevitably, about continued international developments in the Brexit era.

There was considerable interest in the recent survey of potentially mobile international students which showed that there could be significant demand for a branch campus in post-Brexit Europe should a UK university decide to open one.

Another campus in Europe is not something we’re considering at the moment but we are very much in the business of strengthening many of our relationships with partner institutions across the continent.

There are many ways for UK universities to retain their international outlook in what will undoubtedly be an extraordinarily challenging post-Brexit environment. The branch campus option is one of these, although I do think the way in which they are often discussed usually fails to take account of the huge efforts required to set them up.

Major new opportunities in teaching, student exchanges and research collaboration have hugely enriched Nottingham’s environment and ethos; our campuses in Asia confer great benefits in terms of the student experience, and this can be equally transformative for students from the UK who spend time studying in China and Malaysia.

Whatever the difficulties Brexit creates and the obstacles it will present, universities have to retain their international ethos. Nottingham has over 9,000 international students from over 150 countries at our campus in the UK, over 12,000 students studying at our campuses in Malaysia and China, and almost a quarter of our UK-based graduates have engaged in some form of international mobility.

Moreover, 25% are our staff are international, and have many international research and knowledge transfer partnerships. 17% of published research outputs are internationally co-authored and 37% of our research funding is obtained internationally. We have strategic partnerships with other leading universities in over 25 countries and one of the largest scholarship programmes for students from the developing world.

Whilst some governments may see both economic and soft power benefits from exporting HE and others may welcome incoming universities’ contributions to growth and capacity building, the impact of universities’ international activities is complex and multi-faceted and the practicalities of delivery are hugely challenging.

To leverage the full benefit of an international campus, though, an institution must have a strategy that goes beyond thinking about cash-generation. The management input required is high, and there are inevitably opportunity costs. The investment is substantial, but it’s worth it for a university committed to an international vision that goes beyond generating income from overseas student fees. Such a global footprint therefore has real impact for the institution, its students, staff, and stakeholders as well as for the governments and society at home and in the countries with which it is deeply engaged – it’s certainly about more than the money.

Which areas do you think could provide the most opportunities for increasing efficiency at the University of Nottingham?

Our most significant programme addressing both effectiveness and efficiency in academic administration has been running for several years now under the banner of Project Transform. It’s one part of Global Strategy 2020, an initiative to strengthen education and research, improve on existing quality and offer a unique international approach for our students.

Aligning processes across the UK, China and Malaysia campuses, the project marks the beginning of a new journey towards continuous improvement and student excellence, transforming the way that the university delivers certain student services.

One in every 24 jobs in Nottingham is reliant in some part on us and I really do think this demonstrates the wider value for money we deliver.

The most noticeable difference around campus is the introduction of new student service centres on 1 August 2016. These are places for students to get help with a range of administrative processes and queries related to their course or the wider student experience. We now have service centres spread across our UK campuses. We’ve established a brand new student services department to oversee them and to manage and improve our administrative processes. For the first time we’re bringing all our faculty administrative staff’s expertise into one organisation to share knowledge and ways of working.

Our admissions and enquiries teams are already working with the software part of the transformation – PeopleSoft Campus Solutions. The software implementation will go much further than this though and offers us an end-to-end student records system, meaning that all student administrative processes can be completed in one place and kept in one record.

MyNottingham is the name of our online self-service portal. Applicants already have access to it but we’ll be rolling it out to students later this year. Students will be able to complete administrative processes online at any time, from any location without having to come on to campus to visit a student service centre. It’ll be integrated with PeopleSoft Campus Solutions so that when a student makes an update or completes a process online, the updates will automatically be applied to their student record.

The introduction of the new software and student service centres will not indicate the end of the project, but rather the start of a new journey towards excellence. The service centres and the online system will be a marked improvement on the facilities available at the university today but it’ll continue to develop. Additionally, streamlining the processes will eventually lead to significant savings.

Tell us about the efficiency improvement you’re most proud of.

Beyond Project Transform, I think the university’s GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory of Sustainable Chemistry is a particular source of institutional pride.

This building (the first manifestation of which burned to the ground a few years back) is now fully occupied. The exciting thing about it is that it’s the first carbon neutral laboratory to be built in the UK. It’s achieved BREEAM ‘Outstanding’, scoring 94.1% and LEED ‘Platinum’ as well as carbon neutral status after 25 years.

The project’s won several awards already and our new ‘green lab’ and now houses our Centre for Sustainable Chemistry, cementing Nottingham’s reputation as a world-leader in sustainable chemistry. The building offers highly efficient laboratory facilities that are almost entirely powered by renewable energy, providing an environment that offers world-class facilities with as small a carbon footprint as possible. It’s a landmark building in every respect.

In which ways do you think Nottingham demonstrates value for money?

For me the best demonstration of this was set out in a recent economic impact report we commissioned which showed that there was a total £1.1bn economic impact generated 
by the university across the UK every year.

The University of Nottingham – our students, staff and their visitors, our research and expenditure and the tax receipts we generate all combine to create a significant annual economic impact. Moreover, the university’s direct expenditure on goods, services and wages all creates “multiplier effects” throughout the economy, and our staff further boost the city and regional economies by spending their wages on living costs and services provided by businesses across Nottingham and the East Midlands.

Despite the recent economic downturn, the university helped to anchor the city’s economy and was able to protect employment levels and support consumer confidence in the region. Consequently, its importance to the city’s economy and labour market should not be underestimated. One in every 24 jobs in Nottingham is reliant in some part on us and I really do think this demonstrates the wider value for money we deliver.

Which policy developments in higher education are you most excited about?

In general I think I’m most excited about the ways in which developing technologies are going to impact on both teaching and learning but also on different dimensions of university operations. From learner analytics to AI to new forms of online learning there are a huge number of possibilities. And then there is the unexploited potential of social media in higher education too. All very exciting.

Outside work, what’s your favourite way of switching off?

Quality time with the family, despairing at the inadequacies of Norwich City’s defence, a bit of cricket and a few gigs here and there but also I really enjoy reading as much as I can, particularly contemporary fiction.