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Meet Stewart Robinson, the Dean of Newcastle University Business School

20 February 2023

Professor Stewart Robinson was appointed to the role of Dean of Newcastle University Business School in July of last year, joining us from Loughborough University where he was Dean of the School of Business and Economics.

Stewart’s journey so far…

Stewart studied at Lancaster University where he originally planned on working in Maths but soon after starting his degree, changed his course to Operational Research, which he thoroughly enjoyed due to its practical focus on how maths could be applied to decision-making.

Following University, Stewart started his career at the British Shoe Corporation as a Business Analyst. After a year in this position, he moved roles and took up a position within the Operational Research team of the Rover Group, which offered consulting services and specialised in computer simulation, particularly modelling car production. The company eventually bought itself out of Rover and Stewart worked alongside many other organisations on big projects for companies including BT, British Steel and Ford.  It was in this role that Stewart had his first taste of education, providing training courses in computer simulation for external organisations.

After six years, Stewart saw a role as a Teaching Fellow at Aston University on a three-year contract and decided to apply. With no academic experience and no publications, to Stewart’s surprise, he was offered the role. This role was completely different to anything he had experienced and it gave him freedom and control of his own time and projects. Stewart learnt on the job and gradually picked up what a job in teaching and research entailed, and chose the theme of computer simulation as his specialism.

Professional image of Stewart Robinson

Stewart really enjoyed his first step into the education sector and realised if he wanted to keep doing this, he would need a PhD. Six years later, Stewart received his PhD certification from Lancaster University.

Following this, Stewart moved to Warwick University as a lecturer, where he spent 13 years and worked his way up within their Business School, progressing to Associate Dean and Head of the Operational Research Group.

This was followed by a move to Loughborough University where he spent 11 years as a Professor and a member of the Senior Team in the School of Business and Economics. He was appointed Dean of the School in 2015. He left this role in 2021 to take a period of sabbatical. Having led the School through the worst of the pandemic, he explains: “Living through running a virtual business school in a pandemic was an interesting and challenging experience.”

Stewart planned that following his sabbatical he would take up another leadership role, which was when the opportunity at Newcastle University Business School became available.

Joining Newcastle University Business School

When Stewart is asked how he is finding his feet in his relatively new role and a new city, he had nothing but positive things to say. He commented: “I have enjoyed the last few months and everyone has been very welcoming.”

Read our interview with Stewart below to find out how he is finding his role at Newcastle University Business School, his plans to take the School forward and how he is settling into life in the North East.

Other than growing the postgraduate portfolio and focusing on sustainability, what are the School’s other future ambitions?

Universities and business schools are being asked what value they bring and this is an area where we most need to develop. The Government puts a vast amount of money into the Higher Education sector and by nature, are asking what they get from that. A lot of the money goes into research and we need to show the value that is produced from that research.

If you compare business research to medicine or engineering, it is easy to demonstrate how they create value through innovative ‘products’. As a business school it is harder as we advance knowledge which is important for the economy, but how do you demonstrate it really is generating value?

We need to work out how we better take our knowledge outside the boundaries of academia and get companies, the policy makers, to use our knowledge to improve the economy and society. That is where the value comes from. We, along with the rest of the sector, need to get smarter and better at doing that. That is a big emphasis of what we will do.

Our horizon needs to extend beyond the North East to both national and global partnerships, but always based on that bedrock of the region that we sit within.

Professor Stewart Robinson, Dean of Newcastle University Business School

Now that you are eight months into your role, what have you learnt about Newcastle University Business School? Can you share any updates with our readers?

I've spent most of this time primarily understanding the place better, which is about understanding both the School and the Faculty within the university that we sit in. Anything we do is built from the base we've got. You have got to build from where you are and that affects how you take things forward.

A lot of my time has been about understanding the place and starting to work on the strategy for the School. We've pretty much agreed a top-level School strategy, which is very much about where we're trying to go and what our core mission is. A key element of that, which is quite important for us to get at, is what is distinctive about the School. This is not easy because you can look at a lot of business schools and on the surface we all do very similar things. It is not just one thing makes us distinct, it is about a number of factors and the way we go about research, education and engagement that makes us distinct.

What we have been reflecting on, was a lot to do with the region we're in and the way the region has transformed itself over the years from an industrial city to a more commercial hub. In that respect, it is then about reflecting on how, as a School, we need to be agile and flexible in the way that we move forward. We are working with the latest needs of business and industry these days, for example around data, AI and sustainability, which are all core elements of what businesses need to do.

We as a school now need to respond to that more than we have done in the past. This will help us ensure that when the next thing comes along, five years from now, we will be at the forefront of that trend. We can bring our expertise into it and help both students and businesses too, which is really important. So that's very much where we've been focusing.

Looking at the future of business schools, they need to be more engaged with the outside world. The traditional model is 50% teaching, 50% research, but we now have to bring in the engagement piece. I can see business schools moving towards one third of each – education, research and engagement. The question we need to  start asking ourselves is, how do we do that? How do we resource that? Because I can't just say to everybody, here's another additional thing to do. One of the things we're going to start looking at and raising the question of how we're going to respond to that agenda.

One thing I've learnt about Newcastle University Business School is we have some very good teaching programmes, we have great students and we have staff who are very committed to that. We also do some great research and we do have significant pockets of activity where we engage with business, both with our educational programmes and our research.

I think the other thing that we're doing is trying to rebalance our teaching portfolio to build a stronger portfolio and brand around our postgraduate education. We’re starting to introduce new programmes. Following this, one of the things I'm excited about is we're planning a sustainability management programme and there are very few of those at the moment. The programme will look at how you conduct management in a sustainable way, which is a major need for business going forward. I think there's a lot more we can do around that domain, given our expertise in the area of sustainability.

Examples of where we could share knowledge with businesses and the community is through our Executive Education programmes, which is a direct route of sharing research straight from our Business School to others.

Can we also commercialise knowledge? For example, can we turn knowledge into an app, something people can use to make decisions to learn? We need to implement regular seminar series aimed at businesses and not just academia. This will involve getting our researchers to share with businesses what we are doing, but also for businesses to share what they need from us. That should direct our research and help us to understand what is needed to create great research that addresses the issues of today. It all interconnects, the way we do our research, deliver our teaching and the way we engage with organisations.

I think for me as an academic, some of the best moments are when I have found businesses using my research. I have a lovely quote from someone who wrote to me from the USA to thank me for my research which helped them on a multibillion-dollar project. They had been looking to crack a problem for the last five years and the research I had done helped them. It makes me think about how many other people may have read my work and used the research to help them, but I don’t know about it.

For all of us as researchers, it is not just about the research, it is how it makes a difference. To make a difference requires a broad mix of skills, across disciplines and from a theoretical orientation and a practice perspective.

How are you finding living and working in the North East?

I'm enjoying it. I'm normally here four days a week, I come up Monday morning, go back to Derbyshire on Thursday evening. I also spend some weekends up here, which has been nice to explore the area. I visited Hadrian’s Wall recently, doing a seven-mile walk along the wall.

My partner is planning to visit once a month and we want to get to know the area a bit more because the only bit we know is the Northumberland coast, which we've visited for holidays, but we have not really explored anywhere else. We're keen walkers, so we tend to get out and explore on foot.

The North East is an area I didn't know, and it has got a lot of positives. It is a lovely city with lots going on and a great countryside. I am not particularly a city person, so I enjoy getting out into the countryside and there’s lots of opportunities for that. The nice thing is you get the mix of the coast and inland locations here.

I also get very excited as my apartment is by the River Tyne and I get ships going past my window. As a man from Derbyshire, which is the furthest you can get from the sea in the UK, that’s quite something!

When it comes to working in the North East, the main thing I would say is having been almost locked away with COVID for two and a half years, suddenly coming back to a workplace and seeing people, you realise just how much better it is than talking on Zoom. It has its benefits, but not all of the time.

I have very much enjoyed getting back into working in an office and into a space where there's people meeting with people.  I have found this a very welcoming place. People are very keen to talk, think and discuss what we're going to do, in the collegial environment that we've got.

Between the academics and the Professional Service staff, I think the School has a real strength. One of our distinctive elements is our very strong collegial approach. I don’t think it is unique, but there are certainly business schools that don't have such a very strong collegiate approach.

What are your views on the region and the business landscape in the North East and how does Newcastle University Business School play a role in this?

As I mentioned earlier, I think we've reflected on the way that the region has reinvented itself. There are very strong elements in areas like the creative and the tech industries within the region. These are areas where we as a school have been doing a certain amount, but need to do more, so watch this space. We'll be doing a lot more particularly around data analytics and we're starting to run some programmes around that.

The creative industries is an area we are also looking to do more in. We'll be making an announcement fairly soon about a significant piece of work we're doing in that area. These are all opportunities for us to use our expertise, to go back to the engagement piece and how we work with organisations.

I think many of us would say we do engage outside of academia, but we haven't done as much as we could. An important area for us to develop in this respect is with post-experience programmes including short courses.

We should become more of an integral part of the region, working with businesses within the region and the businesses in return, working with us. This is one of the things that students get very excited about. I met with some students yesterday who said one of the great things is bringing local businesses into the classroom and having opportunities to hear from them, learn about them and in some cases, work with them on projects and internships opportunities.

We can build a very strong ecosystem as a School, which is home to nearly 4,000 students, and 170 academic staff. All of whom can work with these organisations to mutual benefit. It is about the students gaining from the experience, but also the organisations gaining from what the students can offer. Part of what we'll be aiming to build is that much stronger ecosystem and connection with the region, and then beyond the region. Yes, we are based in the North East, but we are a well ranked leading global institution. Our horizon needs to extend beyond the North East to both national and global partnerships, but always based on that bedrock of the region that we sit within.