The new RGU principal comes to Scotland with bold ideas – and he is not afraid to voice them
It would be fair to say that Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski is a modern university principal. A prolific blogger and tweeter, the new Robert Gordon University head even has own Facebook page where he will be encouraging students to contact him directly.
Underlying the principal’s enthusiasm for social media is a natural inclination to communicate. He comes to Aberdeen from Ireland where as President of Dublin City University, he was an outspoken commentator – writing a regular column for the national newspaper The Irish Times – and a prominent public figure. And he is not going to enter the Scottish scene quietly. With ten years’ experience at the helm of Ireland’s leading business university, the principal has ideas for Scotland, and he is wasting no time in airing them.
Despite Ireland’s current financial woes, its success in attracting foreign investment in the last twenty years has been the envy of other small countries. With a highly educated workforce and a favourable tax environment, the nation of 4.5 million people managed over the last twenty years to draw in multinational companies like Google and Intel. And key to its success, according to von Prondzynski, was a coordinated strategy between government and universities. His own institution was pivotal in securing two of those major global firms. Now taking over the reins at RGU, the principal is keen to bring his insight to bear, not just on the university but on Scotland.
“By the time I came [to DCU] in 2000 it was clear that we were going to have to look for the next wave of innovation that would produce foreign direct investment. So we worked very closely with the [Irish] Government in attracting relevant companies. I would regularly be on trade missions with government. And two of the very large foreign direct investment initiatives that took place over the last ten years were actually initiated by DCU,” says the new principal.
“We would actually do quite a lot of prospecting ourselves. I would send people out to look at potential companies that might have an interest in investing in Ireland, then we would send a team of relevant academics there who were doing things either in teaching or research that were of interest to the companies. And I would go with them and we would meet senior management. If there appeared to be a prospect of them biting we would then alert IDA Ireland [the Irish industrial development agency].”
Having taken on the top job at RGU in March after his tenure at DCU ended, von Prondzynski is keen to perform a similar role in the Scottish economy. And whilst some might scoff at the notion of taking lessons from Ireland in the current climate, on this agenda, he believes Scotland lags well behind its Celtic neighbour.
“So coming to Scotland, I think there’s a need for all of this and while people at the moment might be reluctant to use Ireland as a model for anything given its financial problems, this kind of agenda was got right in Ireland, still is, and nothing that’s happened has called that into question.
“And I think in Scotland we are still behind in that and need to move forward. For example, the level of university engagement with the economic development agenda, while there, is still quite muted. It’s not anything like the level at which it’s at in Ireland.”
Indeed comparing different systems may be second nature to the principal. Born in West Germany in 1954, five miles from the East German border, he says some of his earliest memories are of walking along the River Elbe, which separated the two states, and seeing East German border guards on the other side. At the age of seven his family moved to Ireland before returning to Germany when he was 15. After finishing school there and working in a bank for two years, at 20 he decided to go back to Ireland on his own to study law at Trinity College Dublin. He is now an Irish citizen, having spent more than half of his life in Dublin.
In the current political context, university engagement in economic development is even more critical for Scotland, the principal argues. With a majority SNP Government preparing to present an independence referendum and pushing for more financial powers in the meantime, greater fiscal autonomy of one form or another is on the cards. And if a more financially competent Scotland is to become a successful economy, its universities will need to be fully aligned to that strategy.
“One thing we presumably are looking at is a much higher level of fiscal autonomy which in turn also means that we’re much more reliant on the revenues generated in Scotland. So it’s no longer in future going to be about developing or redeveloping a formula for revenue distribution from Westminster. And that really means we need to have a significant development of industry, of modern, high-tech, life science and so on industry in Scotland, in terms that will be sustainable. And really, therefore, there’s an urgent need for this agenda to be addressed by government and by universities,” he argues.
“We really do need to ensure that our reliance here on the public sector is reduced, that there is significant investment both in terms of foreign direct investment and indigenous start-ups. These both need to be in knowledge-intensive areas. We’re not going to create call centres here any more.
“And we need therefore to ensure that there is a coordinated strategy between government and universities under which in particular we target areas where we need to develop the numbers of skilled graduates who will sustain the kind of investment level we’re looking for. And also, that there is a clearly focused research agenda which again will sustain an investment agenda.”
And the newcomer is keen to kick start that debate. “My initial intention is to try and stimulate a discussion which I hope will also stimulate some action.”
And the principal is no less ambitious about his own institution. RGU is in an excellent position, he believes. The 15,000-student university has won a number of plaudits in recent years, ranked the best modern university in the UK in The Times Good University Guide for the last three years and consistently amongst the top institutions for graduate employment. Construction has just begun on a £170m development at its Garthdee campus that will provide “state-of-the-art facilities” for staff and students. But von Prondzynski wants to set the bar higher and help RGU gain “global recognition”.
“Obviously there’s a record of achievement there but we now have to move to a new generation of ambition and one of the things that I’m particularly keen on is to make sure that RGU gains global recognition for certain areas that we’re really going to prioritise. And I mean, therefore, not that it’s amongst the best in Scotland in those areas but actually in the world.”
The principal does not foresee the need for restructuring or compulsory redundancies just now. Collaboration is on the agenda, however. RGU is currently in talks with the University of Aberdeen with a view to closer partnership, including shared provision of courses and shared services and facilities. These negotiations should complete shortly with announcements to follow.
Indeed, the principal is just as outspoken about local priorities as he is about national. He wants RGU to be at the centre of economic development in Aberdeen and the North East.
“I will be spending quite a lot of time talking with people locally about how we as a university can help the development of expertise in a number of areas, including oil and gas and energy, renewables.”
Beyond the economy, Aberdeen needs “urgent” attention, according to the principal.
“We also need to look at Aberdeen itself as a city. I think there’s an urgent need for Aberdeen to get some attention. It’s actually a wealthy city, in fact I understand that it is statistically the second wealthiest city in the UK, but you walk through it and it looks neglected.
“So one of the things I’m going to be banging on about is, if we want to be an attractive location for investment, for example, we absolutely need to ensure that the city looks attractive because that’s one of the things people take decisions on. I think it’s been neglected, I think that needs to stop.”
The statistics which show relatively high income levels in Aberdeen have partly held regeneration back, he believes.
“So people don’t think we need to pay attention to [Aberdeen]. We do, we do. It’s very relevant. If you take Union Street, which is just down the road from here, it should be a kind of showcase; Union Street is terrible, absolutely terrible.
“And there are all sorts of obvious things, like it should be pedestrianised and trees should be planted in the middle of it. All sorts of things that will cost a little bit but actually won’t cost the earth and will make a huge difference to how the city feels to people who are there.”
The principal could not be accused of sitting on the fence. His approach to university headship is an outward looking one. He can see the bigger picture beyond his own institution and is keen to contribute to it. Indeed this is what he believes the role of a university principal should be.
“University heads should be well-known people. I’m a believer in making a lot of noise.”