Building for the future

PUBLISHED: 09:08 08 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013

Colin Riordan

Colin Riordan

Essex University's new vice chancellor has ambitious plans involving thought-controlled robots and a reduced carbon footprint. Pat Parker explains

ESSEX University's new vice chancellor, Professor Colin Riordan, is about as far removed from the stereotype of a stuffy, absent-minded academic as it's possible to get.
Appointed last October at the age of 48, Colin is one of the youngest vice chancellors in the country. He is dynamic and sporty - a keen triathlete who thinks nothing of cycling 80 miles for fun on a Sunday morning - and also an impassioned environmentalist. He has ambitious plans to reduce the university's carbon footprint and his personal green credentials include recently buying a gas-electric hybrid car.
Colin was head-hunted by Essex from Newcastle University, where he was appointed Professor of German ten years ago at the age of just 38, and gained rapid promotion to become pro-vice chancellor in 2005. A Liverpudlian who taught in Wales before coming to Newcastle, this is the first time he has worked in the south east. Moving to Essex has been far less of a culture shock than he expected, however.
'It isn't that much different, surprisingly. You get the same obsession with football, there are strong military associations in Colchester as there are in Newcastle both towns have Roman connections, and both areas have a mixture of stunningly beautiful countryside, mixed with some economic deprivation.'
When he told his colleagues at Newcastle about his move, he says he was subjected to the usual tired old jokes about Essex stereotypes. Colin is keen to help dispel the county's negative image - not least because there is a belief that it could deter some prospective students from applying to the university.

'The stereotype is grossly unfair and untrue,' he says. 'Essex is a fantastic place. There is an amazing wealth of culture, as well as fabulous scenery, friendly, lively people, excellent communications to London and Europe, and great schools. There needs to be a concerted effort to rid ourselves of this stereotype and I think if we form a coalition of influential bodies and individuals to market Essex in a positive way, we really can make a difference.'
He is holding ongoing talks with Essex County Council leader Lord Hanningfield, and other interested parties, to see what can be done to enhance the county's reputation not just nationally, but internationally too.
He has equally ambitious plans for the university itself, which has regularly been ranked among the top 12 UK universities for the quality of its research. 'This is a university which has huge potential, some of which has been realised, but perhaps not all,' says Colin.
Colin is keen to pay tribute to his predecessor, Sir Ivor Crewe, whose name now adorns the sparkling new lecture theatre at the Wivenhoe campus. 'Ivor did a brilliant job of developing the university, doubling the intake of students during his 12 years as vice chancellor. He did an extraordinary job of putting Essex on the map, helping to make it a regional university, with campuses in Southend and Loughton, working with the University of East Anglia to create the University Campus Suffolk in Ipswich, and by forming partnerships with institutions such as Writtle College. And that's something I really want to develop. I want Essex to have a really strong university which has a huge impact not only on the region, but also nationally and worldwide.'
Colin aims to use the university's already strong international reputation to form a strategic alliance with universities of similar standing around the world. 'I want to create an international alliance on the level of research, teaching, and marketing which could allow us to punch well above our weight on the global stage.'
Although something of an academic whizz-kid, Colin's education was far from ivory-towered. He comes from a military family - his father enlisted in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a boy soldier at 16, and rose to the rank of colonel.
His early childhood was one of constant upheaval. He was born in Germany, but shortly after his birth, his father was posted to Hong Kong, where as a two-year-old, he apparently could speak Chinese with his nanny. His brother was born in Liverpool, his sister in Singapore, and his second sister in Glasgow. More international postings, including one to Bahrain, followed for his father, before a return to Liverpool when Colin was nine.
At this point Colin's mum put her foot down and the family stayed put, while his father continued to work abroad. Colin was sent to the Liverpool Collegiate, a school which was just changing from grammar to comprehensive, and which was situated in a tough, run-down inner-city area. 'It was still surrounded by bombsites, even in the 1970s,' says Colin. 'The kids came from the local high-rise flats, and there was quite a lot of poverty and violence. It toughened me up - you had to watch out for yourself, because there was quite a bit of bullying.' Holly Johnson, of Frankie Goes to Hollywood fame, was a fellow pupil.
Colin's initial ambition was to follow his father's footsteps into the army at 16. But he was academically bright, and had developed a love of languages, particularly German.
He went on to achieve a First in German at Manchester University, which he followed with a PhD, and his first teaching post at Swansea University, where he met his wife, Karin, who worked in university administration. The couple have two daughters, aged 11 and 14.
His research interests are primarily post-1945 German literature, and the environmental movement in Germany.
'Germany is way ahead of us when it comes to recycling, reducing carbon emissions and alternative energy initiatives,' says Colin. 'It's far more deeply embedded in their culture.'
At Newcastle, he was pro-vice chancellor for conservation, and he is keen to - develop a sustainable strategy for Essex University too, to enable it to reduce its carbon footprint.
Universities these days have to behave increasingly as businesses, as only 30% of their income comes in the form of a Government block grant. They have to compete to attract research grants, and to win sponsorship and funding from local businesses and from former students in the form of donations.
The university's turnover is £92 million, and Colin compares his role to that of the chief executive of a large business. As such, he will be working hard to strengthen links with business and alumni. 'People forget that universities are charitable institutions, and we're on the look-out for people who can support us,' he says. 'We have an economic impact of £65 million on the region; we are a major local employer and we act as an intellectual beacon for the entire area.'

Cutting edge
Any operational surplus will be re-invested into improving facilities for students, and into research, which Colin says is the university's most precious asset.
'We have an international reputation for research, which we must build upon,' he says. 'There are some fantastic things going on here. We have an incredibly strong reputation in social sciences - economics, politics and sociology. But we also have a world-leading group in telecommunications, and there are some amazing things going on in robotics, where we are developing thought-controlled robots. In the area of health and biological sciences, we are developing a very early test for breast cancer. This is cutting-edge stuff. Universities are all about innovation - discovering new things and bringing them to society.
This is what universities should be doing - having a real impact on people's lives.'

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