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Raising the bar for higher education

08 March 2019

Winners of the PFM Awards always provide the best place to start for further editorial coverage and 2018 provided another selection of high quality examples, including that of Colin Blair MBE, winner of the Peter Middup Lifetime Achievement in FM award.

Mr Blair is director of the university’s Estates and Facilities department and PFM travelled to Huddersfield University to hear more about his achievements, which he was quick to explain have been the result of close collaboration with departmental colleagues, the university’s nine-person executive group and the senior leadership team.

Working in partnership is, of course, a central theme of the PFM Awards and this approach can also be seen to have helped the university to record a number of successes, including a coveted Gold award in the Teaching Excellence Framework.

The University of Huddersfield was also the inaugural winner of the Global Teaching Excellence Award. Additionally, it is one of the UK’s most financially secure universities thanks to a policy of establishing realistic and meaningful targets throughout the institution.

“We take a lot of trouble to make sure that all members of staff are fully engaged,” says Mr Blair, who is director of estates and facilities.

“All major projects have an initial 12-month cycle, including three or four months’ discussion between the senior team to make sure they comply with our ‘3is’ of inspiring, innovative and international.

“I’m measured on my KPIs every six months, along with other senior managers, and all impacts are explained to all staff members of staff so we’re all fully aware of areas where we need to improve or devote more effort to keep everything on track,” he continues.

The approach of the Huddersfield University is no different to that of many businesses, including its insistence on ensuring that all staff have relevant professional qualifications.

This ranges from PhDs for teaching staff to chartered manager status qualifications for managers and a focus on continuing professional development (CPD) for all employees, including the facilities team and its partners.

“We have a 15-year corporate plan for the campus here, but we only sign off projects on an annual basis, apart from major construction projects,” says Mr Blair. “This allows us to adapt to any new academic requirements and changing market trends.

“This has worked very well for us and means that all our buildings are fit for purpose. Because we have money in the bank, there’s no borrowing – which is very unusual for UK universities – and we have lots more land available for further development with outline planning permission in place so we can react rapidly to changes in the market,” he says.

The campus includes 119,000 sq m of buildings for teaching and research in central Huddersfield, and while it does not directly own or underwrite any student accommodation, it students have access to around 8,000 study/bedrooms that that can be rented at high favourable rates.

“It’s unusual for a university like ours to have no debt, but it’s a great position to be in and holding a substantial amount of land with outline planning permission in place ensures that we can continue to develop the campus for the foreseeable future,” says Mr Blair.

He continues to be actively involved in the planning and delivery process of new construction projects as part of the plans of further development for the campus.

In addition to ambitious and architecturally innovative buildings for teaching and research – such as the recently-completed £28 million Oastler Building and the under-development £30 million Barbara Hepworth Building - Mr Blair and his colleagues have also overseen the refurbishment, maintenance and redevelopment of numerous listed buildings.

The University of Huddersfield is directly descended from a Mechanics’ Institution founded in 1841 – hence the fact that the campus includes a great many structures from the 19th century.

That was the town’s industrial heyday, but today’s University is central to local economic regeneration and it has created and owns the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre, which houses major companies alongside start-ups, including student enterprises.

The connection with multi-national 3M arose from the fact that its ex-CEO, Sir George Buckley, is an ex-student of the University. The University’s Chancellor is HRH The Duke of York, noted for his engagement with entrepreneurialism and enterprise.

Mr Blair states that the institution has benefited considerably from the Duke’s involvement, including the continued expansion of overseas contacts, resulting in strategic alliances with international bodies and increased recruitment of international students.

One of the central aims of Mr Blair and his colleagues at Huddersfield University is that all new developments are implemented with a view to providing benefits to the campus, while retaining a long-term focus on the viability of each investment.

“We run the university like a business and this helps us to make sure that we continue to improve the quality of everything we do and support everyone on site,” he explains. “You can see that universities in general are becoming more business aware and part of this strategy includes making sure that buildings are flexible and adaptable.

“For example, buildings constructed on the periphery of the campus need to have an exit strategy as part of the aims of long-term viability,” he continues.

“We’re constantly looking at making facilities more efficient as part of our central focus on customer service and if you don’t react to these needs then you’ll suffer in the future.”

Turning the discussion to the possibility of retirement, Mr Blair says that he has always maintained that he would stop work if he found that it was no longer enjoyable but continues to find his role highly fulfilling and challenging in the right measure.

“I still love what I do and I enjoy coming to work every day,” he says. “The university is one of the best employers you could have and they treat everyone correctly and in a fair manner, and you can see that this works both ways.

“We also make sure that the university remains apolitical to continue to aim to deliver the best for the local community, regardless of any other political influences,” he says.

Although the PFM Awards Peter Middup Lifetime Achievement trophy represents Mr Blair’s latest recognition, he has received additional accolades from the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) and was awarded his MBE in 2016.

He also serves as Deputy Lieutenant for West Yorkshire and continues to support charitable initiatives on both a personal level and through ongoing projects at the university.

Although academic institutions are frequently considered to be financial loss-leaders, the clear example provided by Mr Blair and his colleagues at Huddersfield University shows that adopting a business-first approach can deliver a model that is both economically sustainable and highly supportive of the needs of everyone on site for the short, medium and long-term future.

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