Teaching people to thrive

Teaching people to thrive

Pamela Gillies, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Glasgow Caledonian University, speaks of the school’s efforts to bring socially conscious educational techniques to the world.


What key strengths best encapsulate Scotland’s education system in your opinion? How does it differentiate itself from the larger U.K. ecosystem as well as others globally?

One strength in Scotland’s higher education system is that we are diverse in our excellence focus. We are autonomous institutions, and we know from Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development data that the more autonomous a university is, the more entrepreneurial and less risk-averse it is. Governments around the world always want to control higher education. There is always going to be tension there, but we have a good relationship with our government through Universities Scotland so we can push back on efforts to take away our autonomy.

We are a small group of 19 specialist institutions in Scotland. We speak to each other and know where our diverse strengths lie. Although we are quite international in our outlook, there is room for opportunity as a nation as well.

Some of us have reached out globally with partnership campuses.  There is much more opportunity in the world now for transnational education. Post-COVID, through digital development, we are engaging more in blended learning around the world. We reach out with our research investment and are very strong on research excellence based on our partnerships.

The diversity of the sector is also important in terms of research. Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) is a modern university, and research is critical for our success. The common good is at the heart of everything we do. One cannot act in that sphere unless you can demonstrate the impact of your research and transformational education. Those two are intimately linked. In terms of strength in research, health and life sciences are way up there. Historically, engineering and construction were always a priority, but now the focus on institutional sustainability means that we are looking at engineering and building environment projects through a sustainable COP26 lens. There is an emphasis on exploring how we can promote clean water, energy efficiency and building practices that do not spew CO2 out into the environment.

People are often talking about the need for more community development. Across Europe we have been saying that for decades. Fifty years ago, the project of social medicine in Europe and health promotion began. The World Health Organization, then the Ottawa Health Charter, was about health for all and promoting wellbeing. Nations engaged in that project, and then it became too expensive. There was a regression from investing in health infrastructure that actually promoted health. It was obvious when COVID-19 hit that the countries that had stronger public health systems, like Germany, did a bit better to begin with in being resilient. Now we know we have to rebuild our community resilience from the bottom up. Our anchor institutions, our universities, which contribute so much to industry, must also now contribute to social and individual health and wellbeing.

One of the strengths of Scots is that we have always been entrepreneurial and adventurous. However, we are not adventurous enough. We could do much more to reach out to the world and, by doing so, learn a great deal to help us tackle these complex problems of climate change, health challenges from viruses, and the next issues that comes along.


How does GCU stand out in the Scottish academic landscape? How would you describe your heritage and expertise? What are some of your flagship programs?

GCU stands out quite significantly because of our strong sense of purpose as a university for the common good. That has created a value led culture in the institution. The idea is that every single individual student and member of staff feels a really strong sense of purpose that they can contribute through their research or through their education to this idea of being for the common good. Creating and developing a strong healthy culture does not happen overnight. It takes years, and it has been absolutely central to our success.

Then there is a focus on key areas that we know we are good at internationally. We decided many years ago, to get behind the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, even before they were created, delivering on climate change, on reducing poverty and inequalities, and on socially responsible business models. We became Global Compact Members very early on in 2016; and for the last ten years, we have contributed to the United Nations’ principles for responsible management education. These are longstanding, authentic contributions to the common good, and they have become areas of excellence.

Our contribution to health innovation has been significant, not just because we produce the largest number of allied health professionals for Scotland, but because we host Health Protection Scotland. Additionally, we have been at the forefront of infectious disease control in partnering with Imperial College and UCL on HIV prevention.

That sort of authenticity makes us special in Scotland. Most people know we started a nursing college in Dhaka in Bangladesh, with Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus and based on the social business model. We managed to do it following Muhammad Yunus’ principles, and it has been running now for nearly 12 years. It is a new model for delivering higher education.

How you do things and the way you engage with people really matters. Process is important, but you must have your eye on having a real impact. An awful lot of people talk up what they do with lofty language, and they want to be top in this table for research or 10th in the world in some  well-known table for publications, but at the end of the day, it is the impact you have on society and to people that really matters.


As a public health epidemiologist by training, how would you say GCU has contributed to the research around the COVID virus and the response to the pandemic? 

In terms of our COVID response, it was two-pronged. Firstly, before we had a vaccine, our health professionals, our staff and 5,000 of our student nurses stepped up and worked on the front line. That was an astonishing response. They were, in a sense, completely unprotected at that time, but stepped up valiantly to care as part of the NHS, and also deliver food parcels for those isolating or in food poverty throughout the crisis. With the worst health inequalities in Europe, we were in a desperate situation, so we needed our staff and students to get out there and help support the most vulnerable in the community.

Hosting Health Protection Scotland meant we were at the forefront of developing infectious disease control measures. We set up a testing center for COVID on campus at our city center site so that the community could come in to be tested rapidly. The 3D-printing of materials such as face shields and other PPE for the NHS was also hugely important.

Perhaps the biggest thing for us internally was that we moved our distributed model of leadership in the University to the front and center. Most universities in Europe and America run top-down. Distributed leadership means that you work from the bottom up. Everybody feels responsible and has the authority to make change happen. We included our student president and vice-president in our daily COVID executive response meetings. That gave a huge signal to the university that the student’s voice was at the heart of the decisions we were making during the crisis. Hence, we had a very positive and responsive student body.


To what extent is the university working to build closer academic-industry partnerships and narrow the gap with the corporate world to enhance research impact?

GCU generates economic and social benefits worth $2.2 billion to the global economy and supports 14,360 jobs, generating $1.8 billion and $1.4 billion to the U.K. and Scottish economies respectively. Business wants to work with us in our areas of excellence, and this is demonstrated by over the 300-plus businesses we work with. Barclays Bank has their digital headquarters in Glasgow, and they want to work with us on special business models. The international links we have with the United Nations in New York have been absolutely critical to that kind of relationship. In terms of our smart city development, companies like Hewlett Packard, CIG, Scotts Tech are very keen to work with us because, again, with artificial intelligence, we are looking at social innovation in a new way. Big pharmaceuticals want to work with us because of the HIV related work and the infection control work we do, which is second to none. In sustainable developments, climate change and climate justice, our work with globally renowned people such as Mary Robinson makes companies take note. They see us working with Mary, helping to advance major issues such as just transitions, gender equality and mental health.

These partnerships are critical, and we know from the economic strategy for Scotland that renewables and sustainability are obviously going to be vital going forward. Companies want to work with us on that. We know we need to improve productivity and have a socially just approach from the economic strategy.

On productivity, we are the leading provider of graduate apprenticeships in Scotland. The companies that are working with us are using graduate apprenticeships to upskill and innovate in their current businesses. Large businesses like Hewlett Packard want graduate apprenticeship programs to discover what they need to about ESG (Environment, Social and Governance), or to control their carbon emissions, or to be more energy efficient. They know that upskilling their current workforce is the most cost-effective way of meeting the innovative challenge that is on our doorstep. That is a big shift. We still have lots of undergraduate and postgraduate students, but graduate apprenticeships—where people are enhancing opportunities at work—are key in Scotland.

We have been doing this in Africa for years. For instance, we have been working with a huge rail company, Transnet Freight Rail, for many years. In fact, they have reported that we contribute to a 4.2 percent increase in their productivity because of the upskilling of their staff. Many of their staff are actually living in townships. They left school with minimum qualifications, and we have been giving them in-work certificates, diplomas, degrees, master’s degrees and PhDs over many years. The company sees it has improved their productivity while improving the happiness and wellbeing of their staff. Again, that mix of culture and purpose is enormously critical.


How are you working to expand your international reach, to craft new partnerships and collaborations? Which areas are of interest to you at the moment?

We made a big investment in our Glasgow Caledonian New York College, and we have nearly completed the full range of accreditations needed. That investment was a big leap of faith that is now starting to pay off. To take a university for the common good to the heart of the commercial capital of the world and try to promote social business is a big thing. It also encouraged lots of other people to see us as an entrepreneurial partner who holds firm, is robust and resilient.

In fact, our international aspirations are twofold: to grow new partnerships for online delivery, and work with companies to develop new products in public health, health sciences and social innovation around business models and sustainability. Companies and countries are very keen for us to work with them across all domains of sustainability. We are developing partnerships in India, and we have a new one in the United States that we are developing for online offers. We are moving into that larger space of personalized online learning at a postgraduate level. Apart from Transnet Freight Rail, we are looking at another two or three companies in Africa who want to do the same low-cost upskilling with a high social impact.


How do you assess the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s higher education and research landscape?

There has been a 40 percent reduction in students coming from European countries to the U.K. We had less European students coming to us than some of our colleagues, so we suffer less in that. However, we have seen a huge drop in students who used to come to us to study the health sciences from Ireland because of the increasing fees.

We are so sad over Brexit because it is so important for the diversity of the culture to be able to encourage people from all over Europe to come and work with us. From a research point of view, it is so critical to solve the complex questions we all face now. You need to have researchers collaborating not just across Europe, I would argue, but across the world. If you look at how Oxford developed its AstraZeneca vaccine, a huge number of colleagues in Kenya were working with them to develop that vaccine product, as well as others around the world. This interconnectedness, this ability to work across the world and across disciplines, is going to be one of the greatest losses. It is not just about money, rather it is about the impact that you have and the outcomes that you can achieve.


How would you summarize your personal vision, priorities and ambitions for the time you have left at GCU? What do you have the most at heart to accomplish?

I am set to step aside and December this year after 17 years. Now, we really need somebody here for the long term, to deliver the next 10-year strategy, who will be there at the end of it. Transformational education takes a long time to deliver, as does culture change.

It has been such a joy to lead the university. When I came to the university, we had no research to speak of at all, and we had only one international partnership. I realized that to be a strong university in Scotland, we needed to develop a research culture, and we needed to internationalize what we did. I am very pleased to say that in the last research assessment, we were the top modern university in Scotland for our research power. We have delivered on that international agenda, and we now have partnerships around the world.

We have had to be bold, always focused on our areas of strength. Of course, we diversify in terms of gaze and interaction, but not in terms of the focus on the things that we are fantastic at. We have not diluted those.

I am very proud of the staff and students who have managed to achieve so much during my tenure. When I leave the university in December, I will know we are financially sustainable and that we have achieved many of the goals that we set out to attain. We have an ambitious new strategy, but we have the talent to deliver it and a strong sense of community in the institution based on that sense of purpose. That is not going to go away anytime soon. Thus, I can step aside in the confidence that we will continue to contribute strongly, and we are going to attract a brilliant successor for me.


Do you have any final comments for the readers of Newsweek magazine?

Universities with a strong sense of purpose and commitment to the common good make a massive contribution to the communities that they serve. This is not just economically as anchor institutions and engines for the economy, but in terms of innovation and the development of resilience in the face of some of the biggest challenges the world has ever taken on, climate change being the most acute. The common good is where it starts and ends.