Supporting businesses is at the core of our strategy, says Hull vice chancellor
Yorkshire is a great exporter of home-grown educational talent, but the trade goes both ways, and Professor Susan Lea must surely rank as one of our best “imports”. She is one of the many academics attracted here from across the world, in a kind of reverse diaspora that serves to stiffen the region’s intellectual backbone and broaden its cultural horizons.
The vice chancellor of the University of Hull grew up in South Africa, but, she says, she doesn’t feel 10,000 miles from home.
“If you ask most people where they come from, they have an answer, but I don’t,” she told The Yorkshire Post. “I don’t really feel like I belong anywhere. I’ve moved about a fair bit, and that’s great. It’s exciting. I like it.”
She admits that before she took up her post in Hull four years ago, her acquaintance with Yorkshire didn’t extend much beyond the odd conference in Leeds or York. But her connection with the region turned out to run far more deeply for reasons more connected with history – and Hull’s connections with the abolition of slavery – than with geography.
“Almost the minute I stepped into the city, I was struck by a couple of things,” says Prof Lea. “Firstly, the people: their friendliness, commitment, passion and pride in the region.
“But I’m also driven quite heavily by personal values around social justice and environmental sustainability, and when I came here I saw a university that has always been about those things in its very DNA.”
She feels the university should be “part of the community rather than an island floating within it”, and that includes working with businesses to further those values.
The university’s progressive spirit is embodied perhaps most obviously in its Wilberforce Institute, named after William Wilberforce, the celebrated Georgian-era abolitionist who was born in Hull and became its MP. The institute continues his legacy, working to end modern slavery, which affects an estimated 25 million people around the world. Its Risk Assessment and Training Service works with companies, auditing their supply chains to eliminate any input from slavery and forced labour.
“If you think of the impact of that on people’s lives, it’s really very significant,” says Prof Lea. “It’s one of the many things we do here to support businesses – they’re right at the core of our strategy.”
She also points to the university’s Flood Innovation Centre, which works with small and medium-sized businesses to develop their flood reliance, and offers innovation support packages of up to £20,000.
“About 2.4 million people in England are in immediate flood risk areas and about one in six homes are actually at risk of flooding. We have a high number of SMEs in this area, and the Humber is the most flood-prone area after London – so this is something that’s hugely significant for businesses in this region,” says Prof Lea.
“We also have the Aura Innovation Centre, where we do something very similar, looking at low-carbon innovation and providing specialist funded support to enable over 1,000 SMEs to look at how they can become more sustainable through innovating in their businesses, and there are support packages there so that they can access funding and specialist expertise.”
The university is also doing its bit to help business by plugging various skills gaps. In support of the Humber’s status as the Energy Estuary, it has worked with industry to develop Master’s programmes in Advanced Energy Technology, Energy Engineering, Renewable Energy, and Offshore Wind Energy.
It is also collaborating with Hull City Council to look at digital skills across the region, embedding them within its undergraduate courses, and introducing a Master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence and Data Science.
“We’re mapping those skills gaps and working in partnership with others so that you get that pipeline of people across all levels, so that you have the right skills for the region,” says Prof Lea.
It is perhaps no surprise that an educator should see skills as somewhere she can make a difference. But she also sees the human, rather than physical, factor as the crucial ingredient to the region’s resurgence.
“For me, as somebody who’s absolutely passionate about social justice and equality, the Levelling Up agenda is vital,” she says.
“But it’s a lot more than infrastructure that we’re talking about. If we really want inclusive economic growth, we need the health and well-being of the population at large to be maximised. So we need a focus on health, on social care, on education, and on employment. These are the things that are going to be really important and will enable people to progress through and become productive and skilled members of our workforce.
“We can’t just build roads and buildings – levelling up is about people, and addressing the inequalities that are putting a ceiling on our ability to become a productive, and inclusive economic growth nation.”
This values-led, person-centred approach may leave some of the more hard-nosed beasts in industry cold, but they might do well to keep an open mind, not least because it seems to be working wonders within the university itself.
Under Prof Lea’s leadership, the University of Hull is in the ascendancy. Over the last three years it has streaked up the The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, climbing 51 places to 52nd in the table, and now ranks number 4 in the North. It also rose 19 places in the 2022 Guardian University Rankings, also published last week.
It must be very gratifying for someone who, by her own admission, “didn’t have a personal, burning ambition to be a vice chancellor”.
“What motivates me,” she says, “is if I can make a bit of a difference in a certain area, at a certain time, and people believe that I can do that, then that’s what I would like to do.
“This is an amazing university in an amazing region that has got a huge amount of potential, and if there’s a way in which I could make even the smallest of contributions in helping those agendas, then I am honoured to do it.”
Brought up in South Africa, Susan Lea gained two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s, all in different aspects of psychology, from the University of Cape Town, where she was also a lecturer for six years.
She earned a PhD in social psychology from Loughborough University.
She spent 16 years at the University of Plymouth, where she held several senior positions and continued her research into domestic and sexual violence.
In 2010, she moved to King’s College London as Dean of Education and Professor in the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience.
In 2015, she became deputy vice chancellor of the University of Greenwich.
She took up her current role as vice chancellor of the University of Hull in 2017.