6 December 2019 Campus Heart, Southfield Rd, Middlesbrough TS1 3BX, UK

With the latest milestone in Teesside University's £275 million,Campus Masterplan - the brand new Student Life Centre set to open in the new year - I sat down with Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mark Simpson, to talk #StudentLife and a lot more besides

"It’s really exciting!" exclaimed Pro-Vice Chancellor, Professor Mark Simpson, after he had outlined what the the brand new Student Life Centre is set to offer Teesside University Students.
And with understandable justification.

The latest, glass fronted edition, to the University's Campus Heart, housing 3,000 square fleet of floor space, constructed out of 252 tonnes of steel, sat upon 172 pile foundations and boasting some 62km of cabling - that's more than the distance between Middlesbrough and Newcastle as the crow flies - already stands as a most beautiful and impressive structure.

But Professor Simpson was keen to point out that this digitally enhanced facility will be "more than just a building."

He said: "We’ve worked on a concept, whereby we’ve put the students absolutely at the heart of what we do."

"The idea with Student Life is actually we have all these services within one building.

"So rather than just having a series of doors that you need to go through the right one, there will actually be some individuals who will meet and greet you and will be able to resolve hopefully most of your questions.

"We’re using a lot of technology, so we are creating a knowledge bank so that the people that are at the front line are empowered with a lot of knowledge, that they’ve got technology they will be able to do things like if you’ve lost your password – which I do all of the time! - they will be able to reset your password, if you’ve lost your library card, issue you with a new library card."

"We're at the forefront of Ed-Tech"

Looking to dig a little deeper into what else would be on offer, it became clear there is plenty for existing and perspective students to look forward to.

"There’s all sorts within there" Professor Simpson said.

"It’s very much a student owned building, so we want students to feel absolutely at home in Student Life, and that will also enable students to book spaces as well, to be able to work in there."

Alongside fun things, such as "a big catering offer" featuring a now much trailed pizza oven, traditional student services such as counselling and financial support will also be accessible under the one roof.

And in line with Teesside's wider Digital Cities ambition, tech is to play a big role in the advancement of #StudentLife.

"We’re at the forefront of that" commented Professor Simpson, pointing to the 42 Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts (MIEE) experts, including himself, that are part of Teesside University - "far more than any other HE institution in the country" - as just one measure of this.

"We’re really at the forefront of Ed-Tech within Teesside and it’s great to see that this building will continue to add to that journey."

"We’re going to start to use really new technology in that space and look at how we can create more interactive learning materials, working with students and staff, so real co-creation of learning and look at new technology in that space, and what works and doesn’t.

"I’m very excited about the whole thing."

From politics student to Pro-Vice Chancellor

The clear passion that Professor Simpson holds for this latest campus project becomes instantly understandable when you peer into his personal history with the University.

Having first arrived on Teesside in 1992, as a politics undergraduate before going onto pursue a PHD in Criminology, Professor Simpson's professional life charts a growth that rivals the University's own impressive transformation.

Asked about his own personal journey within Teesside University whilst sat on a top floor conference room of The Curve, itself an earlier £20 million development for the University, Professor Simpson takes a moment to glance out of the window at the "the barely recognisable" campus when comparing it to the place he knew as a student all those years ago.

He said: "You know the School of Health didn’t exist, Olympia didn’t exist, the Library didn’t exist, obviously Student Life didn’t, The Curve didn’t, there used to be a main road that run’s through here."

"I remember the day The Dickens Inn opened - even that didn’t exist when I first started!

"It is a completely transformed place and - you know - it is amazing to see that transformation and the impact that the University is having both for our students but also for the wider region as well."

But when put to him whether his early experiences as a student, which included days out to read journals at the British Lending Library, near Wetherby, played a significant role in the way the Student Life Centre has been positioned, Professor Simpson was respectfully modest about his own contribution.

He said: "It is a building that’s had lots of people involved in it, both students and staff."
"We’ve been seeking feedback and we’ve been piloting a lot of the ideas through the library, and again, constantly moulding and constantly thinking about what we’re doing, reflecting the feedback from students.

"So it’s been an absolute team effort.

"But yes, living and breathing the institution for all these years, I know some of the challenges that we’ve had and you know, my view is this will be game changing for us."

Focus on creativity

In preparing for the interview, a check of Professor Simpson's Twitter feed resulted in finding a series of tweet's from early November, that demanded further investigation.

Featuring self shot video footage from the Adobe Max Conference in Los Angles, Professor Simpson was fortunate enough to be able to mix serious business with a side helping of pleasure, as his collaboration with fellow technology enthusiasts and creatives types at the forum coincided with key note speeches from a host of star studed names from the world of film and music.

Those names included breakout indie pop star and performer at this summers Radio 1 Big Weekend, Billie Eilish, and legendary film Director M. Night Shyamalan (Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village).
But from the tweets, it was clear that one guest speaker in particular had caught Professor Simpson's attention, that of musician, Dave Grohl.

Describing it as being "a real privilege to be in the same room as him" Professor Simpson cited it was his "down to earth" nature that really impressed this self-confessed Nirvana and Foo Fighters fan.

"The things he was speaking about was just really heart felt, really honest and just really nice bloke. To be so honest and such a cool bloke, was really nice – there was certainly no diva about him at all!"

But away from that moment of unashamed fandom, Professor Simpson was also to reveal that the conference had played a key role in affirming his understand of how Teesside University needs to direct it's teaching of subjects, across disciplines, to ensure graduates are fully equipped with the skills to satisfy the demands of the future job s market.

"One of the things that we’re really trying to focus on now is creativity.

"With the advent of digital and the advent of AI - and I can tell you all sorts about the things that we saw and the clever things that AI can do and will be able to do in the not too distant future - the retrieval of information now is going to get easier and easier and jobs that are currently some of those are very well-paid jobs - in the future will either be done by computers or won’t exist at all.

"What we then need to focus on are what the skills of the future are.

"Some of those are around those skills that can’t be replicated currently by a machine, which is around creativity, is around collaboration, it's around what’s been seen in the past as kind of softer skills.

"Softer skills will become more and more important.

"So therefore no matter what discipline you’re in... creativity becomes really, really important and we’re really keen to start to push and work in that creative space right across the University.

"The art of the story telling.

"It’s much of what I do now. If I’m trying to convince the board that something is a good idea like Student Life, you bring that to life through a story, through a narrative.

"And that’s the skill set we want to develop within our student population."

We would like to take this opportunity thank Professor Simpson for taking part in this interview.

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