Steve West, Vice Chancellor, University of the West of England

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We welcome Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England and Chairman of the South West CBI to our regular series of interviews with leading figures in the South West business community. Steve was the first Vice Chancellor in the UK to be appointed a CBI Chair. His other roles include President of Business West and Chair of West of England Academic Health Science Network. He is also Chair of the University Alliance

Hello Steve, can you tell us about University of the West of England and your role as Vice Chancellor?

UWE is in a large phase of investment, we are putting our resources in to people, infrastructure and buildings to create a campus fit for the 21st century and the future. We want to make sure that the research work that we are doing feeds into the curriculum so that students can benefit from it. We have a strategic plan that goes up to 2020: we asked ourselves “what is UWE good at?” and worked from there. It is important to realise that universities are now operating in a global marketplace and need to capitalise on it. There are around 140 universities in the UK and thousands globally, so we are all competing to bring in talent. This is why it is so important we are connected to businesses and professional bodies so that we can produce graduates with the skills needed. 

UWE has a very comprehensive subject offering, from Fine Arts to Robotics. Our next centre in development is in care, assisted living and medical technology to explore how technology can keep our society fit and healthy. We are developing our creative site in Bower Ashton to benefit from the creative community in the city centre. We have good partnerships with art centres such as Spike IslandWatershed and Arnolfini

UWE has an excellent reputation for engaging with local businesses. Can you tell us more about that?

We have a lot of support from the industry sectors in the region. We want to join the dots between education and industry to create an attractive proposition for everyone. Universities need to create work-ready graduates capable of excelling in a changing world, but it’s not just down to us: Businesses need to get involved with schools, colleges and universities to develop the kind of people that they would want to work with. 

Can you tell us more about the proposed Business and Law School?

The Business and Law Centre aims to create a truly collaborative work space. Consider companies like Google and Apple: they are market leaders because they provide a space where different people can share ideas and viewpoints, then develop these ideas into practical solutions. This is what we are after. We are spending £50m into creating the new build. We are also refurbishing old buildings and developing other campuses in Bower Ashton and Glenside

What challenges are you facing?

The stadium challenges have been well-publicised. It would be a great tool for connecting to the community, but it is not the be all and end all of our plans. If it falls through, I still have 26 acres of land with planning permission! Staff costs are also a concern: wages and pensions make up 56% of all our costs. This needs to be very carefully managed.

Funding is always an issue, especially around student fees. The current government has plans to create barriers for international students, not allowing them to stay after they complete studies, which makes it difficult to attract the global talent that we need in the UK.

Can you tell us about your priorities for the South West region as CBI Chair?

Talent and skills are a priority. We need to generate the people that businesses need to maintain growth and having a secure talent pipeline is critical. There are a lot of economic plans that hinge on the region having enough talent. Currently engineering and construction have critical talent issues that are limiting their potential. Another important issue is how we are going to pay for this talent to be generated.

Access to funding and cash flow are also problematic; I don’t think there is adequate infrastructure for SMEs to access the resources they need. We also need to promote collaborative working: if you are working on a product or service, look around to see if there is someone doing a similar thing and work together. 

Transport infrastructure is also important. Whether we like it or not the pull for businesses is towards London and the South East, so we need to redress the balance and attract businesses here. The South West needs to create a high-end environment including: strong businesses, universities, transport, living space, housing, local communities and talent pool.

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the South West economy? 

The South West is a net contributor to the treasury and has the highest GDP per capita outside of London. We have a good mix of sectors and industries in the South West, our strength is the diversity: we are not reliant on any one sector, so if one falls down another can pick up the slack. 

Bristol is a world class creative hub with the likes of BBC and Aardman based here, but they are supplied by many small businesses and freelancers with real talent. We need to be a magnet for creative types. Business organisations can benefit by finding out more on how creative events get organised and facilitating more of them. 

Bristol 2015 European Green Capital will showcase what we are capable of, not just for dedicated green companies but all other businesses that are taking the green agenda seriously. The construction of Hinkley Point will have massive ramifications for the local economy.

What do you think makes a good business leader?

A business leader needs to believe in people. Listen, test ideas and create the desire in others to follow you. I have read Dale Carnegie, which got me to understand more about myself and being authentic. I’m a clinician at heart and wanted to enter the profession to make people’s life better. I’m more business orientated now, but I still want to help people by communicating with them. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

I have 5 kids that I probably don’t spend enough time with due to the demands of my job. My three older daughters are in accountancy, medicine and teaching. My boys are 13 and 11 and both football mad, I do take them to see some Rovers games. I also scuba dive: I used to dive a lot more, but now the pull of a freezing dark quarry is not what it used to be, so I stick to warm water.

Who is your hero/personal inspiration?

Mandela is my hero. Perhaps a bit of a cliché choice, but there are certain reasons why I admire him. He had a passion and love for people, but he was also a practical problem solver. He was able to assess a difficult situation and come up with manageable solutions that would work, putting his personal feelings aside. 

What are you reading right now?

I have never been a big reader and most of my reading nowadays is reports. Most people take books on holiday, but I prefer to be up and about doing things. I am reading David Walliams’ books with my sons and they are very funny.

UWE and Moon Consulting have a long and strong relationship promoting co-operation between the university and the business community. Why is this important? 

UWE have great relationship with Moon Consulting, it is successful because it is long-term and mutual. We both understand the importance of education and business engagement. I want our academics to be alive in the community, not dwell on past or present ways of doing things. Academics can benefit from working with a different audience and putting their research to practical use. On the other hand, businesses may have excellent operational knowledge but are unable to ‘step back’ from their businesses and explore new ways of working and thinking like academics can. Research can refresh and energise such businesses.