As the needs and demands of students evolve, the UK Higher Education (HE) sector must keep pace with change or risk falling behind. No one understands this more than Neil Robinson, Chief Operating Officer at the University of Hull, who has recently returned from 20 years in Australia to spearhead Hull’s Strategy 2030.
Neil sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of the Interview, to discuss the challenge of engaging staff across all departments, the similarities and differences between Australian and British universities, and his pivotal role in shaping Hull’s ten-year strategic plan.
I’m the Chief Operating Officer at the University of Hull. Not many people know that we’re the 14th-oldest university in England — our centenary is coming up soon!
I’m originally from Blackpool in the UK. I went to the University of Sussex and worked for various non-profit organisations before I moved to Australia in 2000. There, I started a career in HE, working at the University of Melbourne for 20 years. When I was younger, I never imagined myself working in education, but I get enormous satisfaction from seeing students grow. Then, after Covid, an excellent opportunity came up at Hull, and I’ve been here ever since.
The university had been working on it before I arrived, but they hadn’t publicly launched it. It was one of the things that really attracted me to Hull: it stood out as something different in the HE sector. Most universities talk about teaching, research, and knowledge excellence, but at Hull, we’re putting that in the context of environmental sustainability and social justice. Since its inception, Hull has been strongly committed to social justice — it was founded by donations from the local community. We’ve kept to that tradition: most recently, we’ve been working to raise awareness of modern slavery. At its core, the university has a passion-driven and mission-focused vision. That resonated with me, as I have a background in non-profit organisations. Since I arrived, I’ve had the opportunity to deliver on that strategy: developing estate plans, optimising our digital infrastructure, and improving our program offerings. It’s an exciting time to be here: it feels like we’re on the cusp of a huge leap forward.
I think it’s a matter of scale. There are around 39 universities in Australia, and they’re all massive: for example, Melbourne has almost 60,000 students, and it’s not even the biggest. Here at Hull, we have about 15,000 students on a small campus — you can walk across it in 10 minutes. So that brings changes, but it doesn’t reduce complexity. Another major difference is the level of monitoring and government oversight. In Australia, I worked at an institution with its own income streams largely independent of government funding. But here in the UK, there is a lot more regulation, and there is a far higher level of reporting. There’s also a regional aspect: in Yorkshire and the Humber, there is a strong sense of place and a unique sense of humour. In the UK, the HE sector is going through profound change. No matter how big or small, all institutions are challenged by that, and all need to respond in their way.
I’ve had the opportunity to develop my work around human-centred design, which means working with end-users to design the service you are delivering. For universities, that is students: talking to them and engaging with intent and empathy. We also extend that practice to working with staff. One of our early initiatives was redesigning the campus, and we opened that up to suggestions from students and staff. We had some brilliant practical ideas, such as extending WiFi access to the whole campus, as well as some more wacky ideas, like building a monorail between the campus and the city! I’m very interested in space design, and we’ve done a lot of research about how students use the campus. Many of our initiatives are based around our Net Zero target, and we’re always thinking of new ways to take the community with us on that journey.
I think you need to focus on the outcomes. If you have positive outcomes, it helps you build a solid core of activist employees who will strive for change. We’ve just come out of a tough winter, so one of our initiatives was a clothes swap, encouraging people to bring in warm clothes so no one had to go cold. If you want people to go along with your ideas, you need to show them the benefits and prove to them that you can deliver. If they see you do that, then people will be more enthusiastic the next time you ask them to join in. It’s about small steps that build into bigger opportunities, and we’ve seen some green shoots coming up as a result of that.
It’s a process of constant dialogue. You shouldn’t just be talking: it’s important to listen, too. I always thank people for doing their jobs — that goes a long way. I bring my lunch to the office, and I make sure to eat with someone different every day. It helps you to get to know about their daily lived experiences. We need to prioritise our people if we want to find opportunities, overcome challenges, and build the momentum to generate change.
We need to prioritise our people if we want to find opportunities, overcome challenges, and build the momentum to generate change.
If you say you’ll do something, then do it. You need to deliver outcomes. If people see that things are happening, then they’ll be willing to go along with you.