Revenge of the nerds: How the university took back control of the AMRC
The inside story of how two of Sheffield's most successful institutions went to war
By Dan Hayes
You’d have to be crazy to turn down free money, right? Fair enough, make sure you’re not signing your soul over to the devil. But if it’s genuinely no strings attached. You’re taking that cash everyday of the week. Or at least I am.
However, according to the minutes of an otherwise unremarkable meeting of the South Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership board which took place in November 2018, that’s exactly what happened. The University of Sheffield was offered £10 million to double the size of its training centre for apprentices at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Rotherham, but turned it down.
The £10 million was to come from the Sheffield City Region (now the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority), a sum which would then need to be match funded by an additional £10 million from local businesses. But a spanner was thrown in the works. Amazingly, the person lobbing the unforgiving hunk of metal into what had until then been a rubber stamping exercise was the university’s own vice chancellor, Koen Lamberts.
“Koen Lamberts said he didn’t want it,” one source with knowledge of the meeting told us. “It shocked the room.”
What seems on the face of it to be outlandish behaviour usually has some logic to it, and it’s no different in this case. To the outside world, the University of Sheffield and the AMRC seemed joined at the hip. What was good for one was good for the other. But over the last few weeks I have discovered that wasn’t true.
The meeting was the breaking point in a relationship that had been deteriorating for years. A slow-motion car crash involving two of the most successful organisations in Sheffield. A year later, five of the AMRC’s founders would resign, with newspapers citing a “clash of cultures” between the more entrepreneurial AMRC and the academia-focused university.
At this point you might question why you should care — a few suits in boardrooms falling out with each other is hardly front page news. Except that in this case, there was collateral damage. Over the last nine years, around 1,700 young people have graduated from the AMRC Training Centre. Many of these students wouldn’t have got to university through traditional academic routes, and have since gone on to get good qualifications and jobs in industry. Had the centre been expanded in 2018 there could have been almost 500 of these young people graduating every single year. As it is, there are still just 250.
According to two people with knowledge of the situation, after the shock of the meeting had subsided, the then Sheffield City Council leader Julie Dore fired off an angry letter to the new vice chancellor. For Dore, this was personal. Before starting her career in local politics she had worked in industry as a quantity surveyor, and knew very well the difference that access to good quality training and education could make.
“The real concern of Julie and others was that it showed a change in the direction of travel from the previous vice chancellor,” one told us. “[Previous vice chancellor] Keith Burnett had been hugely supportive of apprentices and of trying to get the university to reach out more into the city. This curtailed that and moved it back towards just academia.” Another source told us the letter said the decision had set back the relationship between the university and the city it serves by 20 years. A spokesperson for the university said they had no record of this letter.
But it was also about more than that. Sheffield is famous the world over for manufacturing, and the training centre was created to increase our region’s workforce skills, productivity and competitiveness. “The one thing at the top of every single company’s risk register is lack of skills,” one source added. “That just shows how shortsighted the decision was.”
We’re not the first news organisation to report this. Two years ago Times Higher Education revealed that the University of Sheffield had pulled the plug on the training centre expansion at the last minute. In the piece, Sheffield’s University and College Union branch said that the university was failing in its civic duty to the city region. At the time, the university said the expansion plan was withdrawn because it had not gone through the necessary governance structures. No plan has ever been put forward to bring it back, however.
A spokesperson for the university told The Tribune: “The University of Sheffield has a strong commitment to delivering quality apprenticeship training. We are very proud of our apprentices, the AMRC Training Centre and all of our achievements in providing vocational education. The AMRC Training Centre continues to grow year-on-year, and is currently training more than 600 apprentices. We work with 500+ employers (the majority of which are SMEs in the South Yorkshire Region) and more than 300 of those have taken on apprentices.
“The AMRC Training Centre is also part of a collaboration of educators and employers from South Yorkshire who successfully secured over £12 million to establish a new South Yorkshire Institute of Technology (IoT). The IoT will allow us to develop the pipeline of talent businesses need to thrive and prosper in the region, and will give people better opportunities to secure better-paid, highly skilled careers.”
However, it almost didn’t stop there. According to one document we have seen, after the expansion plan was shelved, discussions took place on offloading the training centre to a third party in its entirety, with Barnsley College mooted as a potential option. However, after one of the senior AMRC partners questioned the decision, it was ultimately kept in house.
The accusation levelled at the university is that it wanted to have its cake and eat it. They say management still show off the training centre and its apprentices to Secretaries of State and other luminaries when they visit Sheffield. But privately they have a different view: that apprentices could be a “reputational risk” to an elite Russell Group university, hampering their ability to compete with competitors like the University of Cambridge.
For former University of Sheffield vice chancellor Sir Keith Burnett on the other hand, apprentices were “a religion”. When it was set up by Professor Keith Ridgway in 2001, the AMRC was ten people in a shed on the old Sheffield city airport runway. It now has a staff of around 700 people. In 2014, they won £14 million from the then coalition government to create the AMRC Training Centre. Shortly afterwards, Hamid Mughal, the global director of manufacturing for Rolls Royce visited. “If I was 16 and had 100 choices about where to become an engineer,” he said in a speech at the centre. “I would choose here.” The £20 million expansion was intended to build on that huge success.
However, it seems not everyone within the University of Sheffield hierarchy shared the same zeal for apprenticeships that leaders at the AMRC did. The Tribune has been told that some at the university felt that by providing a route to degree level education for students with lower grades, the AMRC Training Centre was “diluting the academic prowess of the university”.
According to critics, echoes of this can be seen in the decision to scrap the university’s archaeology department two years ago on the basis that there were too few applicants (a decision that has since been partially rescinded). At the time, the department staff suggested that the entrance requirements be lowered to attract more students. University deputy vice chancellor Gill Valentine was quoted in The Star as saying that accepting lower achieving students was damaging to their brand. “If you shop at Marks & Spencers,” she reportedly told a group of students. “And then Marks & Spencers brings in Aldi-level products, then people won’t want to shop with you any more.”
A spokesperson for the university said Gill Valentine’s reported comments in relation to the archaeology department did not reflect any of the discussions around the AMRC Training Centre. They added that current vice chancellor Koen Lamberts has written extensively celebrating the vocational education and apprenticeships that the university offers.
After I contacted the university for a comment on this story, I was invited to the AMRC Training Centre to have a look around. I didn't really feel I needed to for this story but after consulting with my editor I thought that it was only fair to give them a chance to fill in any gaps in the story. In the building’s canteen overlooking the “shop floor” teaching area, two AMRC press officers and a representative from the training centre gave me a very interesting talk about what they did and the huge positive impact they have on the young people they work with. I was also later given a fascinating guided tour of the high-tech facility.
But that clearly wasn’t the only reason I was there. It was also an attempt to get me to reconsider my story, or maybe even pull it. According to the press officers, the case for the training centre expansion didn’t hold up to much scrutiny. There was no guarantee that the match funding from businesses would have been found, and no guarantee that there would have been the demand in the area for a doubling of the number of apprentices. The director of the training centre Nikki Jones told me that they had never turned anyone away despite the decision not to expand and that the building could have lain empty. Would that have been a wise way to spend £10 million of public money? She added that in her seven years at the centre, the university had always “really embraced” apprenticeships.
These are all valid points, and I’m grateful to the university for giving me the opportunity to speak to people with direct knowledge of the situation. But they also beg one important question. Why, if the case was so poor, had the idea been proposed by the training centre’s industry board in the first place? And why had the combined authority agreed to fund it? At that stage the bid was merely an expression of interest which could have been turned down at a much later date. Why kill it at birth?
A spokesperson for the university said the proposal for an extension of the existing training centre facility in 2018 was “at an early stage”. They added that the university team reviewing the proposal for the building looked at both the governance arrangements and the levels of industry demand. Following this, the application for public funding was withdrawn.
From the university’s point of view, the key word there is governance. Over the years, as the AMRC had grown, it had developed its own culture: can-do, entrepreneurial, risk-taking. This worried some in the university who felt they no longer had control over the loose cannons in charge over at the AMRC. After the training centre was pulled, a “governance review” of the whole organisation was instigated. Four years ago, The Star reported that the review was believed to have played a part in the departures of Ridgway and the other AMRC leaders in 2019.
“There’s no doubt that [previous vice chancellor Keith] Burnett pushed things,” one source told us. This included setting up new AMRC offshoots centres in North Wales, Preston and even Malaysia. Some of these projects had university approval before they were begun, while others reportedly came as more of a surprise. Concerns were also raised that much of the value of the AMRC was being exported to parts of the world which had little relation to Sheffield or South Yorkshire.
Seen in this context, what happened at the LEP board meeting in November 2018 was the university reasserting control. For two years afterwards, the relationship between the AMRC and the university has been described to us as a “war” and a “battle of wills”. But it was a war that the University of Sheffield came out as the clear winner. In 2019, five of the AMRC’s original founders including Keith Ridgway, his wife Christine Ridgway, Adrian Allen, John Baragwanath and Richard Caborn all retired from the organisation within weeks of each other. The Tribune has been told that several of the staff who left at that time signed non-disparagement agreements (NDAs) with the university.
One source claimed that as well as killing off the expansion of the training centre, the breakdown in the relationship has also stymied the AMRC as a whole, making it less agile in its relationships with the private sector, a suggestion vigorously denied by the university. From the outside, it does seem a strange decision for the university to make. According to one study in 2019, the University of Sheffield became the number one university in the UK for engineering research income and investment, taking the top spot from Imperial College London. It isn’t anymore. Why on earth would they want to damage that?
Was this breakdown in the relationship inevitable? Was it the logical conclusion of a highly successful part of the university’s vast empire that had become too big and successful? Maybe not. One source told us that rather than bringing the AMRC to heel, what was needed instead was a new governance structure that could manage the reputational and financial risk to the university while maintaining the AMRC’s entrepreneurial ethos. “The system wasn’t fit for purpose,” they admitted. However, in the end, the university wasn't prepared to consider such an arrangement.
After spending a couple of weeks with this story, I feel I can see both sides. The university is quite within its rights to have foreknowledge of what the AMRC was up to. Organisations need to run on accountability and a hierarchy of decision making if they are to be sustainable in the long term. But the people who made the AMRC such a success felt it had to be agile in order to react to the needs of business and rapid advances in technology. While former vice chancellor Keith Burnett was in place the relationship just about worked. After he stepped down, the academics took their revenge.
Back in 1905, The University of Sheffield was founded with £50,000 in penny donations from steelworkers, coal miners and factory workers. It had a civic mission within which vocational education played a major role. Over the years, as vocational education became perceived as “less important” than academia in the UK, that link has waned. The AMRC represented a rekindling of that link. It seems strange that those who made it what it is are now out in the cold.