Five week focus on Education: The inspirational career of Professor Seamus Higson

14th February 2020
Elizabeth James
Partner & Head of Practice

Professor Seamus Higson might well be referred to as a polymath. His illustrious academic career has spanned numerous disciplines, a range of managerial responsibilities (including time spent as the Dean of Faculty of Medicine and Biosciences at Cranfield University and a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Chichester), and commercial success via a spin-out company. 2018 saw him being awarded a prestigious (and rare) Doctor of Science title on account of his outstanding contribution to research.

In week one of our ‘Five week focus on Education’, this interview explores some of the themes present throughout his career and ultimately explains how he has managed to maintain the balance between all of the activities he has been involved in over the years.

As an undergraduate Chemistry student at King’s College London, many of Seamus’s peers were seduced by the prospect of working in the City, but having fallen in love with the subject, Seamus knew that he wanted to study it in far greater depth. Academia naturally appealed, but not purely for its own sake. From the outset, Seamus was clear that he wanted to achieve tangible outcomes and saw no reason why one could not both enjoy the academic freedom of working in a university and combine it with commercial outcomes, which, of course, he did via his spin-out company.

Fresh from his PhD, Seamus identified a number of people with whom who he wanted to work and in his words he “pestered them” until they were fully aware of him and his research. He admitted that you have to grab opportunities when they arise, but you also need to balance the odds in your favour; “you might rattle ten door handles but only one will open.” It was this thinking that got him his first post-doctoral role at the University of Manchester, which was then swiftly followed on by a lectureship at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), which was also gained via the networks that he strove to develop.

Seamus was enjoying his research and soon had the funding for two PhD students, which brought him to the attention of the Manchester Materials Science Centre which was then the only joint department between what was then UMIST and the University. He thrived being back in a research-intensive environment and his enthusiasm was noted, which led to him being tasked with setting up biomaterials courses. This was no mean feat, as Materials Science was a subject that was falling out of favour with students and some institutions were choosing to close it; this initiative proved invaluable for student recruitment with more than 60% of the undergraduate cohort for the department entering through the new Biomaterials courses within 3 years of their launch With characteristic determination, Seamus tackled this whilst simultaneously growing his research group from two to 12 – while coincidentally writing what has now become the established flagship Oxford Textbook, ‘Analytical Chemistry’.

Naturally this was a tremendously busy time for him, particularly as he also had a young family. Yet he cherished the momentum at this point in his career and believes that it was at this time that he began to become a “name.”

“Never missing an opportunity” is a key part of Seamus’s personal philosophy and whilst he is not naturally a risk-taker, he has paradoxically taken quite a few (carefully evaluated) chances in his career. For example, his spin-out company involved both Manchester Metropolitan University and UMIST, as the original patent was filed at MMU but the research continued to be developed at UMIST. A partnership of this nature was highly unusual and Seamus had to use his tenacity and tact to bring the parties together in a way that was beneficial to all parties.

Seamus is clear that the spin-out company helped him enormously as he was able to approach grant applications with two ‘hats’ on; academic and industrial. This in turn drove his research and PhD supervision/examination activities which got him on the radar of his next employer, Cranfield University, where he remained for 13 years. The research environment suited him well and his outputs were published at a rate of knots. As might well be expected, he rose within the institution and led on a range of tricky administrative projects, including aspects of the international portfolio and research performance.

People management also featured highly within his workload and Seamus soon developed a clear strategy for this aspect of his work. Quoting Mark Twain, he stated that “if you only ever tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything” which summarises his transparent style. He is clear that “what you see is what you get” with him and his door is always open. He acknowledges that it often takes people time to appreciate that he does not have a hidden political agenda but when they understand this, they respect his approach. The human aspect of Seamus’s job matters a lot to him and his commitment to staff and students is central to his modus operandi.

It is perhaps this sentiment and hunger for further career progression that brought him to the University of Chichester, where he did what might be referred to as a “heavy lifting managerial role”. As Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Seamus was charged with putting Chichester on the map for STEM provision, which was a new agenda that needed money as well as administrative nous. Seamus operated at a typically fast pace, setting up 33 new degree courses and degree apprenticeship provision, as well as delivering a new £35m, 6000m2 building. He readily admits that it was tricky to keep all of the plates spinning, whilst steering the institution through the largest single development in its history as STEM provision was brought on campus for the first time. Yet he persevered, and to good effect.

Seamus does view himself as being resilient, yet not in a thick-skinned way. He can take things to heart but prides himself on the extent to which he can “bounce back.” He does not believe in the adage, “the organisation comes before the individual” because ultimately staff make the institution.

Seamus has now completed that which he set out to achieve at Chichester and, after being awarded his Doctor of Science title, he is looking forward to returning to his research.

For more information please contact Elizabeth James, Partner and head of the Education Practice at Berwick Partners, specialising in recruiting academic and professional services leadership appointments across the Higher Education sector.

Categories: Education