Interview: Prof Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool
The University of Liverpool plays a key part in developing skills for business success, but how can more talent be retained in the city region after graduation? Vice-chancellor Professor Janet Beer speaks to Move Commercial about creating the right conditions for the area’s industries and job offering to grow.
Words by Natasha Young
It’s been an eventful two years since Professor Janet Beer took the helm at the University of Liverpool.
Following a seven-year stint at Oxford Brookes University, where she held her first vice-chancellor role, she was enticed to the top position at the North West institution in 2015 with the belief there was “a job to do” there.
Whilst the university is currently drawing a “healthy” influx of applications from prospective students sizing up the city, Professor Beer is keen to drive up the numbers of those who settle and find jobs in their field in Liverpool after graduation.
“In the Liverpool City Region we have to grow jobs in our knowledge economy,” she tells Move Commercial. “We’re working very hard to embed entrepreneurial skills into students’ programmes of activity so that they’re more likely to stay here if they’re going to set up businesses or go into small and medium enterprises, rather than thinking they have to go and work for a KPMG or Marks and Spencer.
“One of the problems is that we don’t keep enough highly qualified people here in terms of starting their own business and really engaging with local growth.”
The change Professor Beer can put in place to help Liverpool retain its talented graduates is by no means confined to the campuses of the University of Liverpool though. The academic leader is also chair of Knowledge Quarter Liverpool – one of the area’s largest development sites attracting billions of pounds of investment – which has potential to further strengthen the city region’s science, technology and research sectors and drive business and employment growth.
“If we can really galvanise the Knowledge Quarter as a hub for investment for biotech, for instance, there will be creation of large numbers of jobs that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be in the city region, but we have to make sure the conditions are right for those companies to thrive in,” says Professor Beer.
“We also have to make sure they get access to expert advice on the entrepreneurial side from colleagues in our University of Liverpool Management School.”
“If we can really galvanise the Knowledge Quarter as a hub for investment for biotech, for instance, there will be creation of large numbers of jobs that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be in the city region.”
The progress of the Knowledge Quarter – a collaboration between the university and other authorities and institutions including Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and Liverpool City Council – really gathered momentum in 2016.
It was revealed that the expanding district, with university campuses and the new Royal Liverpool Hospital at the heart of it, will spill out onto the former site of Liverpool’s Archbishop Blanch School to create the Paddington Village mixed-use community.
Early large-scale commitments to the regeneration have come from Kaplan International, with plans to develop its 45,000 sq ft Liverpool International College live/learn facility, and the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) which will establish RCP North at the site.
“The RCP move is a very significant coup for the city and Kaplan is investing serious money in the Knowledge Quarter,” adds Professor Beer. “These are important flagships, alongside the new Royal Liverpool Hospital.”
Professor Beer, who helped officially launch Knowledge Quarter Liverpool as a brand and investment opportunity during last year’s MIPIM UK showcase in London, also highlights the district’s Sensor City and Materials Innovation Factory projects as key to future growth for the city region’s universities and industries.
“There’s no doubt that digital is going to be really significant and that’s another area we have to invest in to make sure students are empowered in that sector, but sensor technology is very important for all the industries that are present in Merseyside,” says Professor Beer. “To name health as one, and then shipping is another when you think about the movement of containers and fleets around the world.”
Collaboration is key to the creation of Sensor City, which will provide a place for knowledge and experience in sensor technology alongside businesses working on sensor systems and applications, as the University of Liverpool will deliver it in a joint venture with LJMU.
Meanwhile the university has joined forces with manufacturer Unilever for the Materials Innovation Factory, where start-ups will work alongside scientists and the firm to learn from each other.
“We think we can really maximise the innovative capacity in the region,” says Professor Beer.
But while there is much to be optimistic about in the Liverpool City Region, universities haven’t been immune to the cloud of uncertainty created by the outcome of last summer’s EU referendum.
In Liverpool, the government’s forthcoming Brexit negotiations will prove important to the city’s thriving student population and prominent growth sectors.
“We have to make sure that if we’re taking ourselves outside of the European Union we don’t put up any unncessary barriers or borders. Research challenges do not stop at national boundaries.”
“The UK punches well above its weight in terms of getting grants from Europe and, of course, we have many European staff from outside of the UK in the university,” explains Professor Beer.
“Often one of the reasons they come here is, in doing their work as academics, they can also access European funding for research projects and most of their projects are collaborative and international.
“We know the efficacy of international collaboration is great – there is much more impact attached to projects that have more international collaboration – so we have to find a way of maintaining the collaborative nature of our work.
“Our scientists, social scientists, humanities and academics want to work with the best in their particular area and they could be located anywhere in the world, so we have to make sure that if we’re taking ourselves outside of the European Union we don’t put up any unnecessary barriers or borders.
“As I’m fond of saying, research challenges do not stop at national boundaries. Climate change is global, disease is global, and so the major challenges of our age are literally borderless.”
When it comes to the University of Liverpool’s ability to continue attracting international students from the EU, Professor Beer is hopeful that the institution can avoid a fall in numbers.
“There might be a downturn unless the government decides it is going to provide a very positive environment for international students from all over the world to study here, and that’s obviously what we want.”
Regardless of what lies ahead for the wider Liverpool City Region and also Britain outside of the EU though, Professor Beer has “very specific ambitions” for the university moving forward as part of its 2026 strategy.
“It’s about our global reach,” she says, highlighting that the University of Liverpool already attracts overseas students from around 120 different countries and is the biggest recruiter of Chinese undergraduate students in the UK.
It also has a “fantastically successful” joint venture campus out in Suzhou, China.
“It’s about growth, not necessarily all here in Liverpool but we’d like to set up another joint venture campus somewhere else in the world where we’re doing some work.
“We need to maintain and strengthen research partnerships worldwide, and we want to be a destination that’s absolutely first choice for the best and brightest students at undergraduate and post-graduate level.”