Christ Church is delighted to welcome Gillian Youngs, Professor of Creative and Digital Economy, who has recently joined the University as the new Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Here, Gillian speaks to Inspire about her rich experience in academia, media and business, her vision for the Faculty and her innovative plans to help stimulate the creative and digital economy in Kent.
Gillian had a portfolio career route into academia, providing her with experience across media and entrepreneurial business and as a mature university student. When she left school, she worked first as a journalist: “I undertook a newly launched one-year pre-entry course followed by an apprenticeship after my A-levels. Although I could have gone to university, I wanted to go straight into the working world. I loved journalism and had success as a news journalist and in newsroom management roles. By my mid-20s, I felt I was ready for university life, so I set up my own communications consultancy and went to the University of Sussex, where I studied international relations.
“University was a wonderful experience for me – completely transformative – and I was surprised as a postgraduate to get such great feedback from my tutors and students when I had the opportunity to do some teaching. I began to feel that higher education was somewhere I wanted to be, so I went on to research for my PhD part-time alongside my first full-time teaching job at Nottingham Trent University.”
A period in Hong Kong followed: Gillian did some teaching at Syracuse University’s International Centre and carried out research on the political economy of the handover of the colony from the UK to China. She completed her PhD thesis on the challenges to state-centred thinking in an era of globalisation and, in revised form, this became her first published monograph, International Relations in a Global Age (Polity, 1999). Her interest in social and technological transformations in the information age had already begun to develop, in part arising from her participation in the UNESCO project, ‘Women on the Net’.
“University was a wonderful experience for me – completely transformative.”
On her return to the UK, Gillian spent 13 years at the University of Leicester in what was then the Centre for Mass Communication Research, now the School of Media, Communication and Sociology: “It was an ideal location for me, a truly international centre with predominantly postgraduate students from all regions of the world. In addition to launching one of the first MA programmes in the world on internet studies, I was able to supervise case study-based PhDs by a wide range of international students, many of them mid-career professionals, aiming to take what they had learned back to apply in their home country contexts.”
During her time at Leicester, Gillian had periods in all the leadership roles in the department through to Head of Department, and also served as Deputy Director of Research in the College of Social Sciences. She was then part of a Government-supported strategic skills import of Research Chairs into Wales. Gillian was appointed at University of Wales, Newport, as Professor of Digital Economy and Academic Director of the Institute of Advanced Broadcasting, working on knowledge exchange across academia, business and policy. Since then she has continued to work on strengthening the links across those areas.
This was clear in Gillian's next appointment at the University of Brighton as Professor of Digital Economy and Deputy Director of Research in Arts and Humanities. Her strategic work included leading the research ethics area in the Faculty and developing new processes which contributed to a wider university review. She also led a project related to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded Brighton Fuse research on the creative and digital cluster in the region. The Fusebox Knowledge Exchange Project in collaboration with Wired Sussex featured a radical new 24-week programme, combining creative arts and design with lean business techniques to develop innovators and entrepreneurs to be sustainably successful in their ventures. Gillian was also academic lead on the core concept of ‘Internet of Place’ for the launch and establishment of Innovate UK’s Digital Catapult Centre in Brighton, where the University of Brighton and Wired Sussex are lead partners: “This role was especially rewarding for me because I had led an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) seminar series on digital policy that had contributed to agenda-setting for the main Digital Catapult Centre in London with which I have continued to engage,” explained Gillian.
“It became increasingly clear to me in this work that the student experience should be at the core of how we think about innovation in higher education.”
“At this time, my understanding of creative arts and design, and media and humanities, as drivers of innovation was developing on a number of research-based and applied fronts across business, academia and policy. This related directly to the SME sector of small and medium-sized enterprises and the ecosystem that supports them, including, importantly, the talent pipeline of students from higher education.”
Gillian’s most recent post was as Professor of Creative and Digital Economy, Head of Innovation and Impact, and Associate Dean at the Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design, University of Westminster: “My role as Head of Innovation and Impact was based in the Faculty but extended across the University to emphasise interdisciplinary approaches to academic programmes and teaching as well as research,” said Gillian. “It became increasingly clear to me in this work that the student experience should be at the core of how we think about innovation in higher education and that it is important to make links across teaching, research and partnership work to constantly enrich and renew the student experience.
“Being in London also gave me lots of opportunities to engage further with SMEs and to begin linking to the investment sector. I am active in Capital Enterprise, which is a key organisation in that context. I am also active in the Creative Industries Federation and the Council for Higher Education in Art and Design to which I have recently been elected as a Trustee.
“I feel I’ve arrived at Christ Church at a time when there’s a lot to play for and that our existing and new partnerships locally, nationally and internationally are key to future success.”
“Many people are not aware that more than 99% of businesses in the UK are SMEs (with 0-249 employees) and that 96% of those are micro businesses (with 0-9 employees). These figures alone highlight how important it is to prepare students for a world of work where there are huge opportunities for them to start and grow their own businesses and social enterprises. Also, employment in such enterprises puts a premium on innovative, creative and flexible skill sets, backed by specialist knowledge and information-gathering and assessment competences.
“I am excited to be joining Christ Church at a time when it is expanding its employability work with students. I am keen to contribute to these efforts, including in the entrepreneurial area, where I am ambitious for our students and the regional economy. I am looking at the excellence we have in the Faculty and the University more widely and new ways in which we can apply this with partners to create new possibilities and support our students to be part of those possibilities.
“The interdisciplinary potential is strong with the creation at Christ Church of the Kent and Medway Engineering, Design, Growth and Enterprise (EDGE) Hub and also the new medical school in partnership with the University of Kent. These game-changers, in addition to our new Arts Building opening in the autumn, made my decision to join the University an easy one. I feel I’ve arrived at Christ Church at a time when there’s a lot to play for and that our existing and new partnerships locally, nationally and internationally are key to future success.
“Inside the University, our transformations include growing dramatically the ways we connect students with external activities, including through live project work, volunteering, placements of different kinds, international exchange and experience opportunities, to name a few. These encourage students to combine their thinking about their academic work with their aspirations for the future, where and how they want to work, as well as what kinds of contributions they want to make to society and the economy.
“The new Arts Building is important because it will be a space for students to work together and learn in new ways. It will also showcase student work and share it through partnership activities with stakeholders.”
“From my standpoint, the more chances we can offer students to link their thinking about their studies with the opportunities the wider world offers them, the richer and more valuable their time at the University will be. It is important that this happens at individual levels, but the range of talents among the University’s students also offers potential for collaboration. With all the new developments here at Christ Church, there will be a lot of stimuli for interdisciplinary groups of artists, creatives, scientists, engineers and social scientists to work together across teaching and research.
“And while text-based learning remains fundamental, the more we can bring students out from behind their desks as active learners, engaged with real-world processes and honing their individual and collaborative skills, the better in my view. The practice-based and applied nature of much of the teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities is worth highlighting here. Creative subject areas are valuable in stimulating individuals to draw out their unique ideas and individual strengths with direct relevance to the skill sets needed for the future.
“These areas also help to develop an innate sense of adventure, confidence and self-orientation in students, and these are very much part of the entrepreneurial mindset. Recognition of this is crucial in a broad definition of innovation, extending beyond technological terms. Together with insights from humanities and social sciences, these aptitudes bring critical and ethical lenses to the table and a general capacity to think ‘outside the box’ about social and cultural impacts. This is vital in the major transformations ahead, embedding digital infrastructures and processes even further in everyday life through, for example, artificial intelligence and automated transport.
“The new Arts Building is important because it will be a space for students to work together and learn in new ways. It will also showcase the students' work and share it through partnership activities with stakeholders, including schools, teachers, local businesses and economic leaders, digital and other innovators, arts, culture and community organisations, among others. The building will also be a new space for the Faculty to further develop its creative economy identity and contributions to the cultural richness and success of the region.”
Christ Church already has a strong relationship with the local and regional arts community, and works closely with cultural organisations, including through the long-term partnership with Canterbury Festival as its principal sponsor, and Gillian is enthusiastic about building on this important link: “Heritage is at the core of Canterbury, and a great deal of work that we do in the Faculty relates to that heritage as well as to contemporary arts and future thinking. Growing all this work and refreshing our approaches to it are important.
“Our Faculty and students are part of one of the UK’s major success stories. Creative industries are growing at more than twice the average rate across the UK economy and contributing nearly £92 billion a year. I am sure there are new forms of value and identity we can bring to our region and beyond to increase its profile and success. Together with colleagues and students, I feel privileged to be part of those possibilities. I’m a great fan of the approach – she who dares wins.”