GM Business Connect were recently invited to Hotel Football to chat with Gary Neville and Professor Craig Gaskell – Principal and CEO of Trafford’s brand new University – UA92.
Gary – what attracted you to the UA92 project initially?
“Initially, our involvement was more around the conversation of the challenges of modernising an academic space – I was thinking about football coaching and how it is changing and modernising. I was also thinking about the pathway the Class of ‘92 took – finishing football at 35/36 years of age with a belief that we wanted to create businesses and opportunities for young people, which upheld our values and principles.
“Initially the view was to have a football academy for young players to go in to. The concept of a University came through extended talks with academics. We asked ‘Could we do something new and exciting and fresh?’, so we funded a feasibility study to look at where this could lead to – and we ended up with UA92.”
How did your sporting career influence your approach to the concept of a University?
“As the class of ‘92 we finished playing football as possibly the most famous group of young players in the past 50 years since the Busby Babes. We felt that the same ethics of the youth system and already established pathways to playing for Manchester United would be flowing through us, post-career.
“We strongly believe in pathways and opportunities for young people. In thinking about how teaching and coaching approaches and values are changing, we are intending to help other young people at the start of their path be ready and more prepared for the reality coming by embracing those approaches and values.”
Same question to you Craig – what appealed to you about UA92?
“What attracted me to the concept of UA92 was really the fundamental principle of ‘changing lives’.
“Front and centre was that a social mobility ethos came out; making a new university. The fundamental principles on which it is built are phenomenal. The chance to innovate and do this public-private partnership as a new model is genuinely unique. It is not just making a University, it is creating a new academic model. I think it is going to be transformational for individual lives but it will also play a key leadership role in transforming the higher education sector.
“To be part of such an amazing partnership is absolutely what attracted me.”
What sort of business engagement are you looking for from the Greater Manchester business community?
Gary: “Bespoke partnerships. We have some already and are talking to others. No two partnerships are the same. None are off the shelf. We look at the individual business needs and they look at us – and we strike a deal (if and where our values align). Is it a skill shortage? Is it mentoring? Why do they want to be aligned to a university?
“The partnerships are exciting because they want to be true partners and invest. They are embedded in the project. Lancaster University came on board, then Microsoft, KPMG and numerous others including Bruntwood, Trafford College and the LCCC. They are all buying in to the ethos and values. What we all want to know is ‘can we get our people good jobs at the end of it?’ Simple as that.
“We can ‘oven-bake’, prepare the right individuals with the right skills for our business partners who come in, and this is a prime driver for engagement. We are an academic institution that is industry facing. We co-design curriculums with industry, making them different, with different modules and timetables. The whole premise behind the concept is to be industry and value aligned.”
Is there scope for small business to be involved?
Gary: “Absolutely there is. The idea that a small business came along and would like to do, say, five degree-apprenticeships, is fantastic. If a business comes to us with such a requirement and we aren’t flexible enough to provide, then we have failed.
“As long as our values and principles are aligned and the request fits within the curriculum parameters of what we do, then we should be agile enough able to make it happen. Our three top areas are business, media and sport – which covers a great deal.”
Craig: “We are also talking with a new partner about developing a whole new curriculum area. It’s an ongoing process where development and needs will change and grow over time with many cutting edge thinkers and innovative charities coming on board and contributing in various ways. We are always honest about what we can do – it’s about being authentic – and so our partnerships are all value and culturally aligned.”
Gary: “Every agreement we have on the table or signed, is completely different. For example, the new curriculum that Craig has just mentioned would have to run the life cycle of a student signed up for it – typically a 3 year period. We are looking at different lengths of contracts too with renewals according to what is needed – just like with football players.”
Craig: “A partnership is where you each have something at stake. We are reliant on our partners to provide and so there has to be longevity. Again our partnerships must be culturally aligned as it’s about becoming part of a team.”
Craig – what lessons have you learned from your tenure at CU Scarborough that you can bring to UA92?
“That was effectively a micro-institution start-up project, but in a different context. The lessons I learned at Coventry were great – they are ‘disruptive’ and do things in a different way.
“I learned that you don’t have to follow the pack and if you see a good reason to do something a different way, then you do it. I think that where systems and processes stop you doing things, it is the systems and processes that need to change. We need to be ready to challenge. Also, that particular project wouldn’t have got off the ground without really strong partnerships around it. In many ways the partners completely owned that project – the partners were the driving force for social mobility and economic change. Coventry as a group learned so much about how to do partnerships all over the world, learning from a wider audience. It became a flagship project.”
Gary – how much support do you enjoy from the Class of ’92 – and does the fact that you were all teammates help in the corporate world?
“Being part of the Class of ‘92 can open doors through a level of interest and intrigue. In the real estate and hospitality side of things, we end up talking a lot about football – people care a lot about their teams and latest scores. It’s easy to break the ice and easy to relate in such introductions. But there has to be substance beyond football and social talk.
“The reality is that before we sit down with people we work on a feasibility study. For this project we worked on a 6 month feasibility project before we started to talk about partners. We didn’t announce we were going to do a University for 18 months. I ask myself: Do I believe in it?’ ‘Would I invest in it?’ and if the answer is ‘yes’ then I know we are ready to go talk to a partner. So it helps in ‘getting through the door’, but we still need to have the substance behind it. For nearly all of the projects we do we have thought of the idea, created the concept, worked on the feasibility directly – invested our time and money.
“This gives us a level of credibility. We embed ourselves in the projects. We know every aspect of what is involved and what is happening – it is not like a tabloid headline of ‘footballer opens pub’.
“How many people can say they have opened a university? If this University works, it will be our greatest achievement.”
‘If it works?’ It will work, surely?
“If you are to ask me ‘Will Salford win on Saturday?’, I’ll simply say ‘yes’, but if you were to ask me whether or not Hotel Football will be here in 20 years time, I’d say ‘I don’t know – a lot of work needs to be done and done right’.
“For the University to be here in 20 years means that Lancaster University, the Class of ‘92, and all our partners need to be committed to the hard work. We haven’t gone in to this thinking it’s going to fail, but we need to be prepared for the hard work and be ready to do our best.
“I won many titles under the greatest manager of all time and I never once heard him say ‘We are going to win this weekend’ in a press conference. Instead I heard him say ‘We are ready, we’ll give it our best and fight to the end, the players are in good shape – and now we need to go and perform’. In respect of the university, we are ready too, and need to go and perform.
“When that first student walks through the door in September 2019, it becomes real. I’ve been through that in football matches and here in this project (Hotel Football). When that first customer came through that door for a room they have paid for, it was then ‘game on’. We are live. When you are live you can have a good pass, a bad pass, you can score a goal… or you could crash and burn. All the things that could go wrong have to be considered and you have to make sure that everything is spot on every time.”
“We are greatly appreciated by our customers with great reviews on TripAdvisor – we are a 4.5 with 1,500 comments, but if we don’t keep up the work, in a years’ time those reviews will be gone. With Universities there is choice – so much choice. We need to win people’s hearts and minds. There is a lot of work to do.”
How do you keep focused?
“I’m not an academic, but what I can do is ensure that values and principles are retained. Lancaster University have bene absolutely wonderful from day one. To get them to take a chance, to invest when they don’t need to take any risks (they are already ranked near the top of the leader tables), is immense. I feel a responsibility to them.
“What has excited me most in the past few weeks is having Craig come on board. When I look at the curriculum, timetable and modules – I know that this is our strongest point. That curriculum alone makes me more confident than ever that we have our values in alignment and
we are ready to go up on open-day stages and meet students and say ‘I believe this is right’.”