Let’s Chat: Guy Orpen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Bristol

Our Let’s Chat series shines the spotlight on our all-important stakeholders that form a vital part of Engine Shed. The University of Bristol’s new Temple Quarter Campus will form an integral part of the city’s future business district. We sat down with Guy Orpen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and the person in charge of its delivery to find out why the location was chosen and what the campus intends to do.  

1. For those that don’t know much about you, what are you doing at the moment and what is your background?

At the moment, I’m the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol for the new campus development which essentially means I am responsible for the successful delivery of the new campus in Temple Quarter.

I’ve been at the university for nearly 40 years, initially as a lecturer before becoming a Professor of Chemistry. Following that, I have had various managerial roles such as Head of School, Dean, Provost and now this. That equates to 30 years in chemistry and 10 years in the executive team with an overlapping career in the university. I was born a South African citizen in the West Indies and then immigrated to and lived most my adult life in the UK, having graduated from Cape Town University.

2. How does the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus build on the rest of University of Bristol?

We’ve got fantastic engineering and social science capabilities and a rather special centre of innovation, all forerunners of what we are doing in Temple Quarter. We have a place in the city but we need a different and complementary place elsewhere and this is what Temple Quarter offers us.

3. Why did the University decide to expand into a different part of the city?

Principally, because it offers a good complement to our existing places, which are fantastic, but the city of Bristol has more to offer. Bristol is a diverse city, there are very different parts to it: the city centre and particularly the East and South of the city are different from the environments we are operating in at the edge of Clifton. So the two sites are complementary yet different, allowing for engagement with people of the city, communities and businesses – this is what we are wanting from our Temple Quarter campus.

4. What do you hope that the new campus will achieve for the University, students and the city-region?

Well, it should offer our students and staff a better platform for engaging with communities and businesses that cluster around the centre of city; to work with them, learn from and with them and to create and discover in partnership. We want to do things that are important to the rest of the world not just our local partners. We want better ways of living to be invented in Bristol with the people and businesses here. This should have benefits for Bristol, its people and enterprises (social and commercial), and the University. That mutual benefit is critical for it to work sustainably.

5. What are the biggest opportunities or challenges for the University at present?

These are times of tremendous turbulence in higher education:  tuition fees for UK undergraduates, regulatory interest from the Government in Higher Education as it becomes a more political issue, the flow of people in and out UK – internationalisation is an extremely contentious and crucial challenge facing UK. How open do we want to be?  Universities, by their very nature, care about knowledge and its dissemination – and it is a global matter, one that doesn’t respect national boundaries. These are very competitive and turbulent times and Bristol has a key place in British Higher Education. So in short, there are challenges to remain true to our mission and prosper in these times.

6. What have been the University’s biggest achievements to date?

That’s an interesting question. So, for a relatively young university, we’ve established a major world presence in 110 years due to the quality of our graduates and their achievements, the quality of our education and our research achievements. We are a major force in the world of Higher Education, which is interesting given that we don’t have a massive endowment, or heavy state investment and are not based in a capital city, nor are we an ancient university. Equally those things pose challenges in the future. The good news is that we have a fantastic city to partner with – it’s a great asset for us, just as we are for it.

7. How do you see the future role that Universities need to have in a city economy?

I would challenge that it is more than just the economy. Universities in the UK are increasingly playing a role not just in creating and sharing knowledge but also operating facilities that have beneficial uses for society which are sometimes directly economic. We are participating in the enterprise agenda at Engine Shed and the National Composites Centre (NCC) and equally we look to facilitate and enable cultural and social benefits in society – we are in the midst of this by being a source of expertise and a major civic and institutional citizen. This citizenship role includes how we procure and operate our buildings, how we use our resources, and how we behave as an employer.

8. How would you describe Engine Shed?

A meeting place, a melting pot, a place to engineer serendipity, allowing different parts of the city ecosystem to meet and learn from each other.

9. How did you get to hear/become involved with Engine Shed?

At the time that Engine Shed was launched, it was an explicit part of our R&D portfolio to support and guide the development of our engagement with entrepreneurial activity inside the University and through partnership with the city.  I was directly involved in negotiations with the then Mayor and Bristol City Council regarding the use of this space and our commitment to supporting its success.  I was the one who shook hands with George Ferguson (Bristol’s Mayor) on the deal.

10. How has Engine Shed informed the strategic vision of University of Bristol?

It has given us more experience and insight into different ways we can support the development of this city and its various communities. Engine Shed is more focused on enterprise and business development and incubation, and has a particular city centre setting. It’s not the same as how we work at the NCC, which is very engineering dominated in the north of the city. It illustrates the need for complementary interventions – there isn’t a single way of working that can do it all. It’s a great proving and learning ground for us and has built our brand. When I brought my colleagues from the Russell Group universities* here, they were extremely impressed by the nature of interaction Engine Shed offered with the city. The city draws substantial advantages too and that is essential.

*There are 24 universities in the Russell Group: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Imperial College London, Kings College London, Leeds, Liverpool, London School of Economics & Political Science, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Queen Mary London, Queens University Belfast, Sheffield, Southampton, University College London, Warwick and York – these universities have a shared focus on research and a global reputation for academic achievement.

11. What do you feel have been Engine Shed’s most recognisable successes?

To be busy, to be cited, to be noted nationally and internationally. It was a speculative proposition, risks were taken on all sides and it is greatly to the credit of all involved that it has been the success it has been.

12. How will Engine Shed contribute to the new development?

It gives us lived experience of working with city-region partners and continues to complement our core academic activity which will have learnt from the outward facing nature of Engine Shed. It acts as a bridge. As the development moves from Phase 1 to 2, Engine Shed helps us to continue to understand what draws people in from beyond the campus. Engine Shed is not wholly ours, we operate it on behalf of a wide stakeholder group. Engine Shed is good for us as it complements and creates an interface with the core activities in the university more focused on staff and students. We have learnt a lot already and will do more.

13. What else could Engine Shed do to support the University’s contribution to an inclusive and growing economy?

I don’t think I know that answer – others are closer to it than I am. I think Engine Shed is on the right track in seeking to draw in a more diverse set of stakeholders. The future lies in more inclusion and that is the ambition of the Engine Shed and University leadership, but it’s a never-ending task for both alike. What comes next for future success, is for us to be relentlessly innovating. In 5 years time, what felt right 10 years ago won’t be right for then so it should remain a place for risk taking, innovation and inclusion.

14. How do you see the relationship between academics and entrepreneurs and investors developing?

There will be more and more of it, I’m sure of that. More and more of our students want to be able to innovate and be enterprising in their own lives. Where students lead us, the University and academics will follow. This isn’t just in developing commercial enterprises – we are interested in social enterprise, looking at different ways of creating shared prosperity (which isn’t always about money). This motivates people in a way that wealth doesn’t. People care what the organisation they work for is about or for. Engine Shed seeks to play to that agenda, and the University does too.

15. What is next for the University?

Reimagining its role as a global civic university. Temple Quarter is part of that process. Turbulent times mean we have to be bold but not reckless, and clear-sighted in realising our long-term strategy and mission. The challenge with turbulence is to remember what we are here for – to create public good, value for our students and staff, and also for wider society in which we are embedded. The good news is that we are in the midst of great city from which we can learn and to which we can contribute. If we get it right, in our city and place, these are messages that the rest of world will want to hear and benefit from.

16. What is next for Temple Quarter?

Clearly the physical development will take considerable time to come to fruition. We’ve completed the demolition, now we are engaging with people across the city to help us design and build. In the interim, we are exploring how we are going to be in this part of the city: pilot some of the activities and also deliver off campus activities, for example in the Barton Hill Settlement. The construction contractors will be tasked to see how they can employ their workforce from within the city, and there is work with partners (local and regional government, communities, businesses) to see how we can marry our ambitions in Temple Quarter.

At its heart, the Temple Quarter campus is not just a building; it is a way of working with the outside world. Education and research are deeply joined in what we do. In the Enterprise Campus we need to experiment to see how we develop them with our city partners in the future. So we are doing that now and learning how to create value with our neighbours in Temple Quarter – both reaching out to them and drawing them into the University.