Professor Neal Juster, the University of Lincoln’s new Vice Chancellor, holds in his hands the beating heart of Lincoln’s economy.
As 4,000 new students embark on their journeys with the university this week, so too does its new leader, in a new post-pandemic world no less.
The university, which now contributes £430 million to the local economy each year, has in many ways been the making of the modern Lincoln. From humble beginnings, with just 500 students, it is now home to almost 18,000 in total.
It’s the job of Professor Juster to continue the institution’s trajectory of growth and success, a path which he anticipates will encompass the education of between 25,000 and 30,000 students in the next decade.
Neal steps up to the helm after Professor Mary Stuart announced her retirement. Mary held the position of Vice Chancellor at the university for 12 years, seeing it rise from 117th to 17th in the national league tables – and it was this year named the Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year.
Neal joins Lincoln from his former role as Deputy Vice Chancellor and Senior Vice Principal at the University of Glasgow, where he oversaw strategies encompassing a £1 billion expansion and redevelopment of the campus.
His career in education spans 30 years, including key roles at the University of Leeds and Strathclyde. He holds directorships of several successful business start-ups and has written a number of books and papers on the subjects of design education, computer aided design and manufacturing, and rapid prototyping.
Neal, who was born in Kingston, South London, was sponsored through university (a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering at Leeds) by the Royal Navy. His time in the Navy, passing out at Dartmouth and onto ships including HMS Antrim when the Falklands War started, gave him officer training he has appreciated when embarking on leadership roles.
Remembering what pulled him to the job at the University of Lincoln, Neal said: “It’s really the whole story of Lincoln and the difference that it’s made to the city, where Lincoln has come from in 25 years.
“That whole narrative arc is just a chapter in a book and I would hope that, in 200 years time they look back and I could help write the second or third or fourth chapter of the university. I really think it’s a university where I can help make a difference.”
Keeping a steady pace, a new building has been developed on the Brayford campus every year for a decade, and Neal now wants to focus on making sure the estate is fit for purpose.
“New buildings always look very sexy, and you can raise money for new buildings, but you can’t forget the existing stock.”
Neal hopes to help build “an agile and curious university that thinks for itself… a bit like The Lincolnite,” he added. “You have to adapt to the world around you.”
The university was certainly tested on its adaptation abilities when a global pandemic rolled in.
“Has university education changed forever? I don’t think it will go back to exactly how it was, but I don’t think there will be a huge shift,” Professor Neal Juster told The Lincolnite.
“Students are social animals. They come to university to develop their minds and their social skills, and they are building networks.”
Lessons from the pandemic may well mean online learning is retained in some form permanently, as course items or possible short courses to reach more students.
While Professor Juster did not agree with calls for COVID student refunds, he said he sympathised with the pressure students have been under: “We have worked really hard to ensure the learning outcomes are there, and their social, health and wellbeing are being looked after as well.”
He has a vision of a more international university, expanding on the 140 nations currently studying there.
“Many universities across the UK might say we’re overexposed to China at the moment. And although we will clearly accept, and would like to attract Chinese students, I think this is a different university that has a really broad spread of countries from which we attract students.”
Neal wants to expand postgraduate studies, and incubate home-grown research and enterprise which leads to “products and services that are actually helping society to live healthier, longer and better.”
“I’d like to bring people back after they’ve done their first degree, so they remain able to contribute to the local economy.
“It’s working then with the city, with the major companies, and also helping graduates to create new companies. So there’s that ability to grow the economy.”
For Neal, the first few months of his reign will be spent writing strategies for the university’s future. An important focus, he explained, will be the student experience. One of his first duties was to meet with the team at the university’s Students’ Union.
His work in the Navy meant he missed out on the right of passage dubbed Freshers’ Week, but he fondly recalled his first student days meeting friends he remains close to today.
Whilst he has politely declined to make up for lost time, and won’t be spotted at a foam party this week at Quack! at the Engine Shed, he did share a message to students stepping onto the campus for the first time:
“Get out there and enjoy it, but don’t go overboard. Try and meet new people, and if you are finding anything tough, a friend or a member of staff can help you.”