EDP Business Awards 2017: Prof John Last of NUA presented with Outstanding Achievement Award
- Credit: Simon Finlay Photography
The winner of this year's Outstanding Achievement award has been an influential figure in shaping the economic profile of Norfolk for this generation and the next.
When Prof John Last took over as vice-chancellor of the then-Norwich University College of the Arts, he was told by a colleague it was a 'hidden gem'.
'But the clue was in the word 'hidden', not in the word 'gem',' says Prof Last. 'We were in the city, but somehow hidden from it.'
In the eight years since, much of Prof Last's work has been in raising the visibility of the now-university – forging links between education and enterprise, shaping the expectations and aspirations of the university's students, and driving Norwich's reputation as a centre for the digital creative industries on a national scale.
Those achievements will be recognised at the EDP Business Awards 2017, when Prof Last will collect the Outstanding Achievement award – credit for which he insists he shares with his team.
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But the work which has earned that recognition has also benefited the city and the county, returning £17m a year to the local economy and supplying a stream of talent to Norwich's burgeoning digital, creative and tech industries - a key strength sector recognised in succesive Tech Nation reports.
A key target following Prof Last's appointment – as well as achieving formal recognition as a university, which was done in 2012 – was to broaden the range of courses at the university.
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Already a distinguished fine arts college, it began to explore how emerging digital technologies were changing the arts, and swiftly added courses such as games design, user development and visual effects, as well as more traditional disciplines such as fashion and architecture.
Changes in the university have rippled out into the city, with today's 'more career-focused' students looking ahead at the job opportunities beyond university, with many choosing to stay to become part of Norwich's flourishing tech scene.
'Universities have incredibly important roles as placemakers,' says Prof Last. 'We aren't only thinking about the outcomes for our students, but the economic ecology in which they are going to be situated.'
For the university to become fully embedded in the city, it cannot be seen as a finishing school for talent which then moves inevitably on to London, he argues.
'A degree is part of a continuum. We are trying to rethink what we are saying to students. You don't come to Norwich for three years: you come to Norwich.
'You may choose to leave after three years, you may leave after four with an MA, you may stay and start a business here. It's a different way of presenting what happens when you study in a place.'
Especially in digital industries, students may be training for jobs which don't yet exist – not a new challenge for universities, says Prof Last, but one which underlines the value of transferability of students' skills.
Entrepreneurship, too, has been driven as a priority with the launch in 2015 of the Ideas Factory, an incubator for start-ups on St Andrews Street where student spin-outs can be developed. Its target is to create 195 high-quality jobs by 2020.
As the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership's chairman for the digital creative industries group, Prof Last has a focus on connectivity – putting the case for the improved infrastructure that would allow the moving of the huge pieces of data at the heart of digital work, and remove the perceived barriers to others setting up in the county.
But making better connections on a personal level has also been a key part of his, and the university's, recent success – being a good neighbour to the city, listening to businesses about the skills they need, and putting the facilities in place to allow entrepreneurial students to remain in Norfolk.
Against an educational backdrop which has focused on promoting STEM subjects in recent years, he believes speaking up for the arts is as important as ever, on a one-on-one and a national basis.
'The arts contribute £90bn to the economy. It's our students who go and do that work. It's highly resistant to automation, it's high value. And its cultural and social value to placemaking is not to be underestimated.'