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Professor Sir Jim McDonald

Professor Sir Jim McDonald is the Principle of Strathclyde University and the co-chair of the Glasgow Economic Leadership board. We spoke to Professor McDonald about his perspectives on The DNA of Glasgow

Photo credit: Artur Kraft via Unsplash.

Greg Clark

So I'm here with Professor Sir Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde University. Jim, thank you very much for joining us. What are the core elements of Glasgow's DNA as you see it?

Professor Sir Jim McDonald

Well, as a proud son of the city myself, I have a very positive bias towards what we are all about, where we've come from, but absolutely, it's all about the people in Glasgow. And there's a joie de vivre and to be more accurate, in Glasgow parlance, there's a gallusness about the people that are in Glasgow but a friendly approach to welcoming people to the city, working with each other. You know, we have fun as well, but for sure, this city is built on hard work and endeavour.

And what I would say, I come from a little part of Glasgow called Govan, which is famous for ship-building and many other things, but the motto for that part of Glasgow is Nihil Sine Labore or Nothing Without Hard Work. So I think there's this wonderful amalgam of friendliness, welcoming approaches to those that come to the city but hard work and endeavour. And you know what? A lack of pretentiousness, you know, just get it done, you know, a can-do attitude, and I'm proud to have inherited many of those traits from my family and from those that I was brought up with.

Greg Clark

Thank you, Jim. So Glasgow is also really a world-class seat of learning. Why is that? What's the history of Glasgow and education that makes it so important as a university city?

Professor Sir Jim McDonald

Yeah, we're blessed. We have three universities here in the heart of the city and just in the boundaries with Paisley, we've got the University of the West of Scotland, University of Glasgow, wonderful ancient university. There's my own institution, Strathclyde University, founded during the white heat of the Enlightenment, so established in 1796. And Glasgow Caledonian University, you know. That's been around for a long time. Although established in 1993, it was an amalgam of the Glasgow College of Technology and the Queen's College. And between all three of these, complementary, different, in many ways, certainly, this city benefits from having two universities - my own, Strathclyde in Glasgow - and the only city in the UK having two universities in the world's top 300 in terms of quality, research and intensity. But you add that together with three universities and the great colleges that we have, that here in the heart of the city, we have over 200,000 students, so unambiguously, this is a city of learning.

And of course, you can go back to, you know, the 18th and 19th centuries where your people like David Stow, who was really trying to democratise access to education. And my own founder John Anderson talked about useful learning when he left in his will, you know, the desire to have established a place that was connected to society. So, again, you see that Glasgow trait of lack of pretension, great ambition for the people in the city. And I think we can see now, with the institutions that are here, a place that's really got a very strong influence on world research and also the quality of the education that we provide for those in the city and for those across the UK and beyond.

Greg Clark

So, Jim, is there a hunger for learning in Glasgow, and where does that come from?

Professor Sir Jim McDonald

Yeah, I think that's a fair description of the city; understanding that education is a route to success. Not a route for leaving the city, but again, as a person that was the first in my own family to go to university-- I come from, you know, historically, a Hebridean family, but my father was a rope maker in the Glasgow shipyards, and my two brothers worked in apprenticeship jobs in and around the Fairfield shipyards. They understood that hard work was important, but they also understood from their own background and the lack of opportunities that they had that they wanted, in my father's case, his youngest son, and in the case of my brothers, their wee brother, to push onto school and take advantage of the family's ambition for success because success with a mission brought the whole family with them. And I think that is replicated right across this city even to today, and you hear mothers and fathers talking about their sons getting to college or getting to university.

In my own university, we take the highest number of young people from some of the most challenged communities both in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, but they come here with ambition, aspiration and talent. And that's true, as well, for my colleagues in Glasgow University and Glasgow Caledonian University. So it's seen as a vehicle for success, it's seen as a mark of an opportunity that the city supports its young people - and occasionally, it's not so young people - and we push on. So in many ways, it's ingrained in the Glasgow culture that education is good, and it's for doing good.

Greg Clark

So, Jim, Glasgow is also a city of discovery. What is it that's been discovered in Glasgow, and why was it discovered here?

Professor Sir Jim McDonald

Yeah, well, in many ways, a natural follow-on from the excellent academic history of this city is the fact that we've had fantastic men and women who have then taken that great learning, the fruits of the research and made a difference to health, to medicine, to society, to industry and to those things that have made us a great trading country. And this city was at the heart of that in the past and indeed, is building the same type of capability but with no particular order, some fantastic people:

And in fact, from my own institution, John Logie Baird, just a few hundred yards from where we're having this conversation now, was the pioneer of television, you know, developing the electronics and the communications methods that allowed him to capture images and have them transmitted. 

James Watt, as well, whilst he was walking across, reputedly, Glasgow Green, imagining how he might be able to control, better, steam and steam engines, he improved the steam engine and took us on through the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution and to the real mechanising of what we had to do. 

Joseph Lister, fantastic medical pioneer, the father of modern surgery you may say, coming up with carbolic acid as antiseptic. 

Believe it or not, James Goodfellow, an industrial innovator in the '60s, having invented the cash machine and the need for PIN codes-- could we have imagined then that this was effectively the roots of fintech in the digital revolution and banking? 

Waterproofs that we all benefit from, Charles Macintosh, the rubberised fabric in the early 19th century.

Of course, ultrasound technology - back to medical technology - where engineers and medics worked together. And Ian Donald's discovery around using ultrasonic measurement, you know, that's critically important now for medical diagnostics. 

James Blyth, another son of Anderson's institution, now Strathclyde University, gave the first demonstration of electrical generation being produced by a wind turbine, beating his American counterparts in the late 19th century by a few months to be the first man to demonstrate wind energy which you know is a critical part, now, in modern society about dealing with climate change. 

And James Paraffin Young, another Anderson Institute graduate, father of the modern oil-refining and, in many ways, came up with a new chemical process which has powered industry and transport. 

And a bit more parochially, there's Irn-Bru of course. You know, this is the drink that we are very much associated with, alongside whisky, of course, but Glasgow can claim Irn-Bru which has now just produced a new version of its original recipe. 

And one that I smile at: chicken tikka masala invented in Glasgow.

So we go from medical technology to manufacturing, to energy, to modern communications, to food and drink which, again, hints a little bit at the fun that we have in Glasgow. Whilst we're innovating and making a difference, we can have a bit of fun doing so.

Greg Clark

So, Jim, you've studied many of these things, and you've been associated with the institutions that have produced these discoveries. What is it about Glasgow that made these things be discovered here?

Professor Sir Jim McDonald

I think it was a sense of collective ambition. We talk, but sometimes, we can be flippant about the can-do attitude. I think Glasgow epitomises a city and a population that whilst it’s modest-- and I have to say that is a characteristic, in the main, of Glaswegians. There's modesty and humility that sits alongside that sense of ambition. But there's a real sense of values in this city. And I think through the mid- to late-19th century, where we got the ambition and the entrepreneurship and the enterprise of the merchants that made Glasgow the second city of the empire, in many ways that brought investment into the city. It created jobs and wealth. Of course, that's important. But what it also did, it created that sense of, you know, 'we can achieve things together', and I think that's inherited in different ways, now, into the 21st century.

And in many ways, I think the confidence that we have is showing through. I mean, I have the privilege of being co-chair of the Glasgow Economic Leadership board. I see this loud and clearly from the senior business community that we engage with. It's certainly embedded in the higher and further education activities, and the ambition of the city leadership, you can see, now, through the civic leadership here.

In many ways-- we wouldn't have called it, back then in the 19th century, the notion of 'triple helix', where we've entwined, you know, civic leadership with business and industry alongside academia, but certainly, that's what we're doing and that's been the roots of that genetics that produces the Glasgow DNA that really is clearly being driven forward in the same way in the 21st century. And I think confidence, ambition and inclusive growth is extremely important because we want all of Glasgow to benefit from the excellent education and the increasing value and quality of the infrastructure that we're creating around this fantastic place.

Greg Clark

Jim, one of the things that you've said, which is very clear when one looks at Glasgow, is there's a very powerful nexus around engineering, technology and innovation. What are the key edges of that now in the 21st century, and how is Glasgow different to other cities in this respect as you see it?

Professor Sir Jim McDonald

I think the engineering one is one that's particularly interesting for me naturally - I am an engineer of the Rolls-Royce General Electric power systems - but we can't get away from the fact that this has been a proud ship-building city for decades and certainly a century and more. Now, in many ways, that set the aspirations for many families and indeed, a lot of young people, predominately men at the time, but thankfully, these days, more and more young women are considering engineering technology. 

But if we refer to the shipbuilding history of Glasgow, that's where the trades such as, you know, welding, shipwright activity, metalworking, carpentry, it was built around the capability to create these wonderful ships which became iconic in terms of representing Glasgow's contribution to the world in terms of engineering technology. Rail as well, you know, the ability we had to design transport systems. There were power stations in this city up until not too long ago in the mid-'50s where we were generating electricity here. So people saw engineering around them: they saw it in the ships, they saw it in power stations, they saw it in factories. You know, you had tens of thousands of people employed in Clydebank at the Singer sewing machine factory, where people worked manually, but they worked very skillfully. So in many ways, Glasgow was a reference point for engineering and technological excellence which through the entrepreneurism of the merchants and the traders turned that into value and enhanced their reputation globally because we exported much of what we produced.

These days, you know, the means might be somewhat different. I'm happy to say, we still have shipbuilding on the Clyde, and the Clyde will still be a reference point nationally and internationally for shipbuilding. But in the city now, we have world-class capability in quantum technology, in photonics and lasers, in artificial intelligence and data science, in fintech, in health tech. Glasgow's one of the biggest European hubs for space technology. So in many ways, we're recasting the Glasgow engineering, science and technology capability in the 21st-century aspect. And the ships of the future, many of them will be full electric propulsion. Some of the new ships will be robotic, and many of those technologies will have been conceived of, researched, designed and delivered by the academic and industrial partnership that's represented here in Glasgow.

Greg Clark

Now, Jim, you're also, amongst your many roles, co-chair of Glasgow Economic Leadership which is public and private and institutional sectors working together. Firstly, just tell us a little bit about what Glasgow Economic Leadership does, but more importantly, what is it that motivates the principal of a university to become a civic leader in that way in his city?

Professor Sir Jim McDonald

Well, just around nine years or so ago, I was invited by the city and the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce to be the independent chair of an economic commission. It was 2010, just coming out of an enormously damaging and challenging economic downturn, globally of course, but Glasgow had its fair share of challenges as we came through that period. And I think epitomising Glasgow's ability to rise to the challenge, we wanted to reimagine our economy, identify opportunities and make sure that the population of Glasgow had the benefit of investment and job opportunities. So I, again, took on that role, and it was a great privilege to be invited to do so.

I'd three senior business executives alongside me - at the time, the Chief Executive of the Weir Group, the Chief Executive of Tesco Bank and the Chief Executive of Edrington Group - so we had engineering, technology, food and drink, and international technology represented. And of course, we had Bailie Liz Cameron who was a fantastic contributor to that as well who also helped us consider the cultural and creative economy dimensions. It came up with around 25, 26 recommendations, just about every part of which was embraced by the city in the chamber, and they took those recommendations forward. One part of this was to continue the strong industry and business engagement with civic Glasgow, with the leadership of the Glasgow City Council and with the academic partners to take that fantastic community of individuals that had this shared vision for a successful Glasgow.

And this is now some eight or nine years later. I am just fueled every time I go to those meetings because I get the sense of commitment and love for this city. And whilst it sounds emotive, I think in many ways that's what fuels this sense of common purpose about Glasgow working together to create jobs, to improve society's opportunities, to improve health, to attract investment into the city, and that's the easy answer to the question. It's a joy because we have a shared vision and that is Glasgow as a wonderful, internationally important city, and we're well on our way to that. And we can look around us. If we have a rather informal barometer of investment, then let's count the cranes  around the city of Glasgow - and their numbers are growing month by month - and the quality of the jobs that we're creating, the number of jobs that we're creating, the inclusivity of what that means for the city of Glasgow. And the companies that we're bringing in here are fantastic. And as we say, the reputation of the universities and the colleges are a real part of that magnetism for the city.

So I hope I convey to you, to some extent, the enthusiasm that I have for working with my colleagues in the Glasgow Economic Leadership board. And never has that enthusiasm waned because we have over a hundred business leaders who are challenging each other, who are challenging the city, and they expect support from universities and college to get after the prize and that is Glasgow in that same notion of the second city of the empire as it were but now, as one of the leading cities of science, technology, life sciences, higher education that can be absolutely counted among the very best in the world.

Greg Clark

Jim, one of the interesting things about the city at the moment is the very rapid population growth the city's having, going back towards some of its historic peak, and a key component of that might be the growth of international students and faculty at the universities. What's your sense of how important the universities are in the population growth of the city?

Professor Sir Jim McDonald

Yeah, this is an entirely important aspect of any modern city. You know, we want to make sure that we're seen as welcoming, we're seen as respectful of multicultural backgrounds, and in many ways, for me, it's exciting to see Glasgow becoming an unambiguously plural-city whether that's, you know, background, nationality, belief systems. But again, those that come to universities are a fantastic example of the cosmopolitan and multicultural society that we should really value. Again, giving an example from my own university, we have students from around 120 different countries. Over a third of my academic staff are non-EU, and this is a joy because it brings not just diversity of background, it brings diversity of thinking, and it brings a richness to the cultural experience of those that these individuals interact with.

And very importantly, I think Glasgow and Scotland, in particular, can take a leadership role here as we inform and persuade the UK government and others to make sure that we have such an enlightened immigration policy that we make it a positive to bring visitors and students and professionals into our country and to cities such as Glasgow because they are wealth creators. They come here with ambition, they come here with talent, and again, if we apply the Glasgow welcoming culture, we want them to stay here. So, for example, in the university landscape, we've recently, thankfully, gone back to a very important dimension of having post-graduate work visas. We're expecting now, for two years after graduation, that those from an international background can stay and work. And hopefully, they stay, work and remain here to start a family, to create a business, to make a contribution to wealth and to enjoy the culture, sport and just the general ambience of being here in Glasgow in the West of Scotland.

So in many ways, the universities that we have and, to some extent, the colleges as well, they are magnets for international talent. And the big players that we've got in Glasgow from the finance and business services sector, from engineering and technology, from life sciences; they are critically dependent on that feeding of talent. They want great research ideas, they want access to innovation, but the real driver is the access to people: you know, their ambition, their talent, you know, their drive. And ultimately, I think universities in this city are a particular asset. And, as I say, with a population of students already over 200,000 and the fact that we're all on an upward trajectory, I would see the universities playing a bigger role going forward, even more than the fantastic contribution we're making already.

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