At the age of 50, the University of Warwick is now one of the most distinctive voices within British higher education and, increasingly, a force to be reckoned with on the global stage.
As we head towards our 50th anniversary celebrations and the final year of Professor Sir Nigel Thrift’s nine-and-a-half-year tenure as Vice- Chancellor, we sit down with him to discuss what makes Warwick a ‘visionary’ place – in prime position to imagine and embrace the future.
As one of the younger institutions within the top ten UK universities in national league tables, it is clear that the University of Warwick has come a long way in a very short amount of time. Rubbing shoulders with institutions established up to 900 years ago, Warwick is proof that good things don’t necessarily come to those who wait.
This restless spirit is important to Professor Sir Nigel Thrift, who has been Vice-Chancellor for over nine years and has overseen many of the new developments that have contributed to Warwick’s reputation as forward-looking and entrepreneurial. “It is important to challenge things, to lead the charge,” Sir Nigel confirms in his book-strewn office. “There are elements of Warwick that are like no other institution out there.”
One example that springs to Sir Nigel’s mind is WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group). “It can be difficult to fit academic research into what a business does, but the relationship and the level of trust between the group and companies is completely unique,” he affirms. “The group now has an academy involving people from the age of 14, which, in turn, produces talented, skilled individuals who can go on to work within these companies, ensuring we are contributing to the future success of the automotive industry.”
While Warwick enjoys a close relationship with regional industry, the University’s footprint goes far beyond this. Much has been written about Warwick’s international ambitions – its strategic partnership with Monash University in Australia, its partnership as the only European university in NYU ’s Centre for Urban Science and Progress, and the creation of a campus in northern California, but Sir Nigel is of the firm belief that this is just the beginning in the evolution of a new, global model for higher education: “It is crucial to be where the action is. In Coventry, we’re close to the automotive sector; with our presence in the Alan Turing Institute for Data Science in London, we’re at the cutting edge of the information sector.
The Business School’s base at the Shard in London places us at the heart of the financial capital of the world. In Australia, in collaboration with Monash University, we are doing hugely interesting pharmaceutical scientific research, and my hope for California is that we will be close to the innovations of Silicon Valley.”
This international expansion also puts Warwick’s students ahead of the curve. “We move more students around than most other institutions,” Sir Nigel says. “Typical student exchange programmes aren’t conducive to letting large numbers of students experience new countries and cultures, so we knew we needed a new model.” This new model is currently underway in the global alliance with Monash University, where around 80 student exchanges take place each year. “In three to four years’ time, we hope that there will be closer to 400 student exchanges – more than any other university with one significant partner university.”
The chance to study abroad and take advantage of new facilities and developments in far-flung destinations is most definitely an attractive proposition for students, but Sir Nigel believes Warwick appeals to a certain group of individuals, or, as he puts it “those who want something a bit different.” Warwick is well known for its active and enterprising student body, as likely to be involved in music and the arts as they are in politics and commerce. “Over the past nine years, it has been my job to give students the maximum range of opportunities,” Sir Nigel explains. “This involves working in the future, as much as the present, preserving academic excellence and the quality of output, while looking outwards and spotting new opportunities. At Warwick, we are effectively building a machine for producing opportunities.”
The success of this ‘opportunities machine’ can be witnessed in the 190,000 Warwick alumni around the world who have graduated over the past 50 years and gone onto “figure large among UK and global influencers”, Sir Nigel attests. “We have become much better known over the time I have spent here, and this is partly down to the achievements of our alumni, as well as our staff and students.”
And what has been his proudest movement over this period? “I am proud of the sheer number of things we have achieved in the last nine years, from massive research success to international expansion to the campus cycle path to Kenilworth,” he says. As Sir Nigel looks around his office, and the collected memories of the past nine years, it seems an apt moment to think about what could be next for an institution that prides itself on its visionary outlook. Sir Nigel has some simple advice for the University and his successor, Professor Stuart Croft. “Keep innovating, keep adding. We must preserve our restless spirit and our ability to be more nimble than larger, older institutions.” he nods.
“This role is about ensuring future success – producing a series of booster rockets. And never stand still – it’s what sets the University of Warwick apart.”
|You can find out more about our achievements since 2006 here.