Bob Murray: Proud to lead university into new era

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WHEN I was first approached to become Chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University – it is renamed Leeds Beckett today to coincide with the start of the new academic year – it was a completely unexpected honour and I felt incredibly privileged.

I studied accountancy at the university in its former guise in 1972 and it has always been a special place to me.

Even in 2008 when I was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university, I couldn’t have imagined holding the prestigious role I now have.

There is something about education that excites and inspires me.

I am living proof of how education makes exceptional changes to your life.

It gives you that edge which makes you think you can do anything; achieve more, be better; whatever your field. Higher education transforms lives.

But alongside that, universities are now also big businesses – Leeds Beckett has more than 3,000 staff and more than 32,000 students in Leeds, in the UK and overseas.

Leeds Beckett is a big regional player. The university contributes £450m to the economy and has a turnover of 
nearly £200m.

And maybe in the good old days, when Government funding was expected – taken for granted even – considering universities as businesses in their own right was not the norm.

But these days education is an important driver of the whole economy and the university needs to be profitable and offer exceptional opportunities and service to their customers – students in this case.

Leeds Beckett has seen a massive turnaround under the exceptional leadership of Vice Chancellor, Professor Susan Price, who joined the university in January 2010.

This university transforms lives, it offers opportunities that money can’t buy, and inspires the leaders of the future; but I know that when Prof Price took the helm, finances were a priority. The accounts in 2009 showed a historical cost deficit of £5.4m.

When Prof Price took over, it was against the backdrop of extraordinarily difficult times for the higher education sector amid a brutal economic downturn.

Fast forward to the most recent accounts and the university recorded a significant surplus.

It’s difficult to put into words really the significance of that achievement alone in the period in question.

Crucially, the university has emerged from a challenging period vibrant, much stronger and in great position to move forward.

This year income has grown again and the surplus is equally impressive.

The recent results for the financial year to July 31, 2013, show that with total turnover of £188.9m, the university’s surplus has increased by an impressive 104 per cent from £13.1m to £26.7m.

These results demonstrate exceptional performance under the stewardship of Prof Price but also the strength of the executive team that is now leading the university.

As an accountant, stunning is a word I rarely use, but is one which is befitting of that turnaround.

But add to that the other indicators at the university which are demonstrating real progress – the increasing rate of graduate employment (93.7 per cent of students in work or further study within six months) and the accolade of being the only university in the UK to hold both the Customer Service Excellence and Investors in People gold accreditations, and you have a university which has seen exponential change in just a short few years.

In a competitive market, universities can all seem much of a muchness.

It can be hard to stand out from the crowd.

With the Government lifting the cap completely on the number of students universities can recruit from next year, now more than ever being distinctive is so important.

But what makes Leeds Beckett so special is the way they do things.

There are no gimmicks, no brash statements.

Just people transforming lives – and taking the university another step forward – every day.

That’s why I’m really proud to be the Chancellor of this great university, combining my lifelong passions of business and education, and supporting a formidable team of people who motivate me enormously.

• Sir Bob Murray CBE is a businessman and Chancellor of the newly-named Leeds Beckett University.