Tara Dean: passionate about making university enterprise a key activity

Professor Tara Dean, University of Brighton
Professor Tara Dean plans to use her pro vice chancellor role at the University of Brighton to drive enterprise for impact. But she’ll also be encouraging more women and girls into STEM subjects and indulging her passion for all things art deco.

1. What do you think are the key leadership skills in your role?

Aaah. That gem of a question. Understandably an important question as the tragedy of organisational life is incompetent leadership. I was an external candidate for my current role and am still fairly new to it (months and not years!).

The leadership skills you need when you join an organisation are different from the skills you need when you move to a leadership position within the institute. Every pro vice chancellor (PVC) will say that influencing skills are key to the role but to influence in a new setting is tricky. You need to gain trust to influence and the only way to do that quickly is to communicate and immerse yourself within the organisation and work hard!

I am a big fan of ‘C’ leadership words and I recall the person specification for my role required someone who is confident, competent and collaborative. All good starting points, but I would like to add courageous, particularly having the courage to take risks, as being risk-averse and running from discomfort hinders achievement.

I also think that celebration is key and particularly celebrating the contributions of others. I am blessed with a strong team and very rarely am I the smartest person in the room! And, of course, the skill of ‘cultivation’, that is constantly growing! And, finally, my favourite C is ‘complete what you start’.

2. What do you think should be in the government’s industrial strategy?

I welcome the fact that the industrial strategy consultation acknowledges that creating the right environment and incentives makes all the difference to whether or not universities succeed or fail to drive the fortunes of their local economies.

Therefore, I’m clear that a national innovation policy for universities, “devolution / city deals” and “sector deals” must be driven in an interconnected way, or there is a risk that disjointed approaches will continue to drive unbalanced development, with globally excellent R&D continuing to be more focused abroad than at home (a trend driven by the national Research Excellence Framework in relation to research impact). Successful university-led innovation can only benefit a local economy if the right incentives and governance are expressly put in place to nurture and capture those benefits.

The way to incentivise universities to make their expertise and know-how more accessible to their local economies is to expand the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) to cover a broad range of economic engagement activities. The green paper refers to HEIF supporting universities to “patent their discoveries and work with local businesses” but equally important to enable local economies in all areas to flourish, will be the use of HEIF to drive the provision of professional training and innovation in products, processes and services across the private and public sectors.

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The local economic advantages of a smarter, more sophisticated and innovative commercial and public sector are clear. University-led innovation can make a significant difference to the spiralling costs of health and social care for an ageing population, for instance. The development of a national knowledge exchange framework for universities, currently being developed by the Higher Education Funding Council, could prove an excellent mechanism to drive university-led innovation across all parts of the country, addressing productivity gaps in a locally sensitive way.

Finally, the potential for higher level or degree apprenticeships to serve as a route for people from poorer backgrounds to upskill, progress and reskill whilst in paid employment is largely overlooked in the green paper but is a valuable contribution that ‘locally-connected’ universities, like Brighton, can make.

3. How are you using your job as Brighton’s research and enterprise pro-VC to put that into practice?

I’m the university’s very first pro-VC for both research and enterprise. My predecessor’s post title only referred to research, so I have really tried to follow through that shift in organisational thinking in relation to how I approach my role.

My first big step was to place ‘enterprise’ (some universities call it ‘knowledge exchange’ or ‘innovation’) alongside ‘research’ as a key activity for academics to focus on and to aspire to. I’ve developed and published a “Research & Enterprise Strategic Plan” and I’m also in the process of reviewing the professorial promotion criteria to include enterprise activity – stemming from expertise in research and teaching – to be a strong career progression route at Brighton.

Nothing drives efficiency better than effective benchmarking. It opens your eyes!

Those kinds of visible initiatives send clear messages that enterprise is important for the university in order to grow its impact, its reputation and its income. It’s equally important too, for individual academic staff to take a practical and externally-engaged approach to their teaching and research – which in turn enriches our curriculum offer to students and ensures what we teach them is grounded in real-life environments.

4. Boosting STEM skills is in one of the pillars of the industrial strategy green paper and you’re passionate about promoting women in STEM subjects (which is your academic background). What is the best way to do this do you think?

That’s easy. Without a doubt, the Athena SWAN programme has been the most transformative initiative with this regard. Its impact has been been fantastic and I am pleased to have been involved with it at my previous institution and now at the University of Brighton as a gender equality champion and lead for Athena SWAN.

Athena SWAN means positive action at all levels. With commitment to it, you will see organisational structures and practices being improved, and a much greater awareness around culture and gender equality. For individuals, Athena SWAN has been valuable in encouraging aspiration, identifying and exemplifying role-models.

Other schemes, such as Soapbox Science which promotes women scientists and the science they do, are also important platforms. In September, we are jointly hosting the British Science Festival with the University of Sussex. Amongst speakers from the two institutions there are 25 female scientists and I am delighted to have been selected myself!

5. What changes have you seen at Brighton towards making it a more efficient university?

I have not been here long enough to see the result of many changes yet. The VC here and at the University of Sussex are both relatively new and have a very good working relationship. This opens up all sort of opportunities for both our institutions to be more efficient, so I expect to see lots of positive changes through closer partnership.

One initiative, ‘Operational Excellence’ is worth highlighting. It is an approach which uses a variety of principles, systems, and tools to achieve sustainable improvement of key performance metrics. We are applying this to streamlining the process of recruitment, something which will enable us to speed up the appointment of research staff, letting us get started on research projects more quickly which will definitely go down well with our industry partners!

On a personal level, nothing drives efficiency better than effective benchmarking. It opens your eyes!

6. You arrived in the UK from Iran at age 16 to complete your education, and personally clearly demonstrate the value of immigration to the UK. What can the sector do to better persuade the government of that benefit?

I am very proud of my Iranian heritage and, whilst home is the UK, I have adopted the best of both cultures and so have my children (I hope!). When I left Iran, I came to the UK to study. A higher education qualification from the UK is a very strong UK Plc brand and we should embrace it.

The sector can do a thorough scoping of the contribution of ‘immigrants’ to higher education. We actually help ourselves by bringing people to our universities and training them to be scientists and researchers and making the UK’s contribution to the knowledge economy even stronger.

7. What is your guilty pleasure?

Anything art deco!! Recently I bought an art deco cocktail cabinet that I have named Cecilia and I have grown very fond of her!