AS pressure grows on undergraduates looking for jobs, John Hill meets the man steering Newcastle University Business School into a new chapter in its history.
WHY do people go to university? When the route to graduation was less well-travelled, a college degree promised wild nights, the chance to grow up away from the nest and a headstart in the jobs market.
Now there’s a furrow in the brows of many graduates, with increasing pressure to get in shape for the gruelling battle for jobs.
A survey of final-year students by High Fliers reported that 45% viewed their career prospects as very limited, and one in six admitted they would not have headed for university had they known how tough the jobs market would be afterwards.
As director of Newcastle University Business School, it’s a key issue for Ian Clarke. It hasn’t slipped his mind as a father either. His daughter Amanda is training to be a teacher, while his son Josh is doing a masters in sports coaching.
“I don’t think I was as savvy as kids have to be now,” he says. “Careers advice was something you’d get towards the end of your degree. When I was an undergraduate, about 10% or 15% of people went to university and the Government is now striving to get to 50%.
“How do you shine in a marketplace like that? Some people go on to do masters degrees but that’s still not a guarantee. It’s about the individual and the skills they have.”
So can undergraduates afford to soak up the sights and sounds of campus, or should universities become boot camps for job training?
“I don’t think we should be doing that,” he says. “That would be a backwards step. We shouldn’t be losing that longer-term development, that holistic element of developing the individual. But we’re adding another layer, encouraging them to think about what it takes to do a job, getting them to do live projects to gain experience of business.
“There’s a danger that people will say they’re going to university to get a job. In fact, you’re going to get an education but in that process we can help you develop skills that will put you in good stead.”
Nonetheless, it is a common complaint from businesses that many graduates banging on their doors don’t have the skills required to gain entry, and it’s something that universities have had to address in recent years.
NUBS recently achieved EQUIS accreditation from the Brussels-based European Foundation for Management Development, awarded to schools with strong links with business and a focus in developing important managerial and entrepreneurial skills.
He said: “I think the big government agenda, quite rightly, has been not to accept that what we do is just about research and teaching. It’s about what you do as a university and how the programmes you teach are meeting gaps in the marketplace.
“It’s affected the programmes we put on and the research and what we do with it.
“More importantly, it’s affected how we engage with businesses. We think carefully about how we position skills in relation to business. All universities are saying they’re doing it, but the key thing is whether it’s just talk or whether it’s the reality.”
Clarke arrived from Lancaster University Management School in 2008, and says that one of the attractions of the new job was the location of the institution.
He said: “We know one of the major attractions of Newcastle University is not just the calibre of the place but the fact that it’s right in the middle of a major city centre. It’s good for social life and being in the face of business.
“It’s a fantastic university and a great city. Newcastle needs a world-class business school and we have all the ingredients here to do that.”
A key feature of this development is the construction of a £45m building at Downing Plaza, on the site of the old Scottish and Newcastle Brewery in Gallowgate, in September 2011.
“The effect is going to be phenomenal,” he said. “Everyone will be under one roof and bumping into each other every day.
“We’re also trying to define areas where we’re going to engage with business by looking at strengths elsewhere in the university. There’s world-class work going on in ageing and health, with all sorts of business opportunities attached to it. I can’t think of that many management courses that focus heavily on health as a theme but it affects how you run most businesses.
“The university also has a worldwide reputation for marine engineering and we’re looking at how we can develop those skills. We tend to focus on large companies but there are so many SMEs crying out for help.”
Clarke is strongly influenced by his business experience in the mid-80s, when his PhD in human geography from the Australian National University secured him a job as site research controller for Tesco, making key decisions on suitable sites for new supermarkets.
He says: “At the time, people with PhDs going to work for companies was pretty unusual. In Germany it’s quite different, but there was a bit of a cringe factor in this country. However, I helped move the company along because it was recruiting in a specialist area of expertise.
“My PhD was about how multi-nationals were restructuring. At that time, a lot of multi- nationals were laying the foundations for the success they’re reaping now. ICI was very much a UK-based company, as was Tesco. Now they’re global companies and they’ve done that by shifting their centre of gravity and seeing their market as a global one.
“It was a young team and it was brought in because we had geographical modelling and forecasting skills that businesses didn’t have. Tesco was the first UK retailer to try that sort of approach and it was way ahead of everyone else.
“I had to learn to write for a company. If you can’t say it in half a page, it’s not worth saying. A lot rode on your words, your calculations and advice. It brought you very close to the centre of the business. There would be weekly meetings with senior directors, and a lot of my time would be out on the road visiting sites so that you could speak authoritatively about a decision.”
After seven years, he was attracted back into education by Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, which brought him in as a senior lecturer in retail marketing.
He says: “If you talk to people who have come into universities from business, there’s often that common ingredient. It’s a desire to have a broader impact rather than just focus on a narrow area in one organisation.
“You can be enjoying your work, but get to a point where you ask yourself whether you can make a difference in other ways. I don’t just want to do what I do. I want it to have an impact and alter people’s perceptions.
“I was bringing expertise about marketing from the retail sector into the business school when there were a lot of demands from companies such as Tesco, Morrisons and Asda. Retailers would target particular institutions with good courses in subjects such as geography, and the insight I had in that particular area was immensely useful.”
Just as businesses learned to reap the benefits of working with universities, Clarke is aware of the lessons which universities could learn from businesses.
He says: “There’s increasingly a move towards universities having a stronger vision of what they’re trying to do, rather than just existing as a collection of departments.
“I also learned the importance of working as a team. The old view that leaders are there to direct and to tell people what to do, that’s old hat now. A company might have a good figurehead but they’re usually very good at working in teams.
“Employers are looking for general all-round understanding of the pressures of business. They’re looking for people who are confident, get on well with people and have business and management skills.
“Organisations are much flatter now and they’re trying to promote agility rather than hierarchy. There are much shorter, team-based projects and you wouldn’t necessarily have people who are used to that speed of change in organisations 20 or 30 years ago.”
His interest in team projects also stems from his three-year spell as a senior fellow for the Advanced Institute of Management Research, which included a two-year study of the team skills of senior managers at BAE Systems in the UK and Australia.
He said: “We were looking at how teams worked together, thought strategically and made sense of the issues they faced. While we were there, the Government announced its aim to reduce the defence budget by 40%, but rather than see it as a threat, we thought of it as an opportunity to push for a bigger share of that market.
“One of the implications of that research is how you develop teams. There is a tendency for appointment panels to appoint people who are like them. There’s a lot of group-think going on in companies and they can go down corridors, and there are a number of companies that have become out of kilter with the demands of the sector in that way.
“There needs to be more variety in the mix, whether that’s different ages, disciplines, race or experience.”
NUBS, which was founded in 2002, itself has recently brought in faculty talent from across the world. Dr James Hayton from Italy’s Bocconi University is the new Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurship, while Dr Dimo Dimov from the University of Connecticut has been appointed Professor of Innovation and Enterprise.
NUBS is also in discussions with international institutions such as Tongji University in Shanghai, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Melbourne’s Monash University, examining how they can work in partnership to offer benefits such as research partnerships, curriculum development and student exchanges.
Clarke says: “Our aim is to build partnerships with high-quality institutions which do exciting things that we don’t do. That’s what a business would do, forming alliances to develop strengths. It opens doors for the business school and for the university, and it provides a viable access point for businesses.
“All of this is important in terms of the impact of what we do as a school, and the relevance of what we do for business and society generally.”
1977 – 1980: BA (Hons) geography, University of Wales
1981 – 1984: PhD in human geography, The Australian National University, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies
1985 – 1992: Site research controller, Tesco PLC
1992 – 1995: Senior lecturer in retail marketing, Manchester Metropolitan University Business School
1995 – 1998: Professor of retail marketing, Glasgow Caledonian University
1998 – 2001: Booker Professor of retail marketing, Durham University Business School
2001 – 2008: Professor of strategic management and marketing, Lancaster University Management School
2003 – 2007: Senior fellow, Advanced Institute of Management Research
2008 – Present: Director, Newcastle University Business School & professor of strategic management and marketing.
What car do you drive?
Audi A4 diesel.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
The Drunken Duck, near Windermere.
Who or what makes you laugh?
What’s your favourite book?
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
What was the last album you bought?
I don’t buy many now – I subscribe to Napster! But the last album I remember buying was Razorlight (by Razorlight).
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
A cabinet maker.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
"Get out of bed."
What’s your greatest fear?
Stopping enjoying my work.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Do what you do best, and ask others do the rest.
And the worst?
People will only do what they can.
What’s your poison?
Shaw & Smith Sauvignon Blanc, Barossa Valley.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Times, Telegraph, Guardian.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£6,500 as a university researcher.
How do you keep fit?
Running, hill walking, walking the dog.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Not listening to my wife enough. She’s almost always right.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Sir Richard Branson, Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Clive Woodward, Barack Obama.
How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who made a difference by what he did.