President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS

The power

of people

President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS has confirmed his long-stated intention to retire following his 65th birthday and will step down later in the year. We asked him to reflect on his time leading the University of Sheffield.

Just over a decade ago, I became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield. I applied for the job on the recommendation of another Welsh scientist, Professor Gareth Roberts, who served as Vice-Chancellor from 1991 to 2000, and who had a deep love for the city and University. But my connection to Sheffield was also personal. My daughter was studying architecture, hard at work in the Arts Tower, and it was in Sheffield that she met her husband-to-be, also an architecture student. As a physicist, I already knew some of the important scholarship which was being done in Sheffield. So I agreed to put myself forward.

What I found here was both new and yet familiar. I grew up in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales, a place which had once been home to industries founded on steel and coal. I knew that these communities were full of talented people, but that opportunities had been hard to come by in the difficult decades during which these industries had contracted or, in the case of coal, almost disappeared.

As a scientist who had worked in the US, as well as at Oxford and Imperial, I also knew that knowledge could make a powerful difference in the world. Industries and jobs depended on productivity. Excellent hospitals needed highly trained doctors and research into the diseases which are no respecters of geography. I knew that a university could change a place, and that the staff and students who came to it from around the world could be part of something that benefited the communities in their adopted city, as well as reaching out to make a difference right across the globe.

Sheer determination to use knowledge to do good.”

Eleven years later, I have seen much to make me deeply proud. I have, of course, also felt frustration and dismay at decisions made nationally and internationally. You cannot be part of a global community like the one at Sheffield without events around the world directly impinging on staff and students. I have been moved by their dedication to scholarship, generosity and sheer determination to use knowledge to do good.

As I prepare to hand over to the new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Koen Lamberts, I wish him all the very best in the face of the challenges which lie ahead. It isn’t an easy job to lead a university such as ours, but it is a deep privilege to stand for an institution which means so much to so many and which has, for over a century, been a powerful force for good. What follows is a selection of work which makes me proud. In every case, this work also reminds me of the people who do it, and who are the true guardians of the University for the future.

Outstanding scholarship

Sheffield is a top 100 research-intensive university with scholarship at its heart, across every faculty. However, as a physicist I wanted to pick out those closest to my own field. I particularly want to acknowledge the work of Professor Maurice Skolnick who conducts leading-edge research on the physics of semiconductor nanostructures and quantum data. I was also thrilled for my fellow physicist Dr Ed Daw, whose dedicated work over many years helped to open a new window on the universe with the detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes. For the first time, ripples in the fabric of spacetime were detected, confirming Albert Einstein’s 1915 prediction made in the general theory
of relativity.

Teachers who inspire

Whenever I speak to alumni around the world, they tell me about the teachers who inspired them. These memories of a person who shaped a career or who lit a flame of curiosity remain vivid for decades. I hear of the rigour and work which stood graduates in good stead in the years which followed. As a teacher, there is no greater accolade than the respect and affection of your students – I have heard this said about teachers here in Sheffield and at our International Faculty in Thessaloniki.

Professor Tony Ryan gets ready to ride around Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan run by the UN Refugee Agency. The trailer on the back of the bike will be used as a school bus: “It was a co-creation with the refugee team we work with at Zaatari, and a welder called Rahim was my principal partner in this project. We were just about to set off without a chaperone (this had been an ambition of mine since my first visit) to film camp life passing by. The guy in the back is a camp journalist called Omar and there is a 360-degree camera above him.”

Work with refugees in Jordan

One of the greatest tragedies of our time is the experience of peoples displaced by conflict or natural disaster. Often, we wonder what we can do in the face of such human suffering. I am proud that our University has continued to offer sanctuary to scholars, working with the Institute of International Education and the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics. But we have also gone out to refugees where they are. I burst with pride when I think of the work of Professor Tony Ryan and his colleagues in Jordan, applying new techniques to growing food and developing sustainable technologies to create work within a camp for refugees from the war in Syria.

Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience

A determination to use knowledge to discover the causes of diseases and to treat them more effectively was one of the University’s founding missions. It is entirely fitting that world-leading research on neurodegenerative conditions such as motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease is undertaken in Sheffield – work which brings together researchers, hospitals and patients themselves to make a real difference to the lives of people in the greatest need.

Volunteers from Forge Radio in the Students’ Union introduced primary school children to production, broadcasting, using a mic, voice projection, vox pops and more.

Student Volunteering

Sheffield Volunteering is a truly remarkable venture, bringing together students with more than 100 local charities, encouraging them to draw on their own skills and talents to develop their own ways of helping. In my time as Vice-Chancellor I have rarely been prouder of students than when I have seen them dedicate their time, not only supporting homeless people through acts of generosity but also, as they identified specific needs, setting up a company which offers employment and the chance through that to move into housing, work and opportunity.


Sheffield is a university which is proud of its local roots, and grateful to a city which welcomes international staff and students with open arms. But our identity is global, and I am personally deeply proud to have founded the #WeAreInternational campaign with the President of the Students’ Union, Abdi Suleiman. This commitment to being a place of welcome for scholars and students from around the world has now been adopted by every university in the country, but it began here in Sheffield.

Industry 4.0 and apprentices

One of the greatest feelings of pride hits me every time I visit our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), built on the former Orgreave Colliery site and now an internationally important research campus with over 100 companies. The site includes the world’s first fully reconfigurable factory. What is most impressive to me is our Training Centre, where over 1,000 apprentices have now been sponsored by industry, with some taking Degree Apprenticeships in Engineering. The AMRC is not only attracting inward investment to this region, but it is increasing productivity at operations in Wales, Scotland, the US, South Korea, Oman and China. In all these places, knowledge is helping companies to become more productive, creating jobs and wealth along the way.

Pioneering partnerships with China

Surely one of the most important global developments during my time as Vice-Chancellor has been the growth of China. From a country in which poverty and even hunger were once common, China has become a global superpower – and Chinese students now make up 10 per cent of our student body. We have been determined to build partnerships for the good of both countries. Today, we work with four of China’s top five universities, partnering in everything from work on antimicrobial resistance to green energy, quantum computing and the Chinese space programme.

The Diamond

In September 2015 we opened the Diamond building on the site of the old Jessop Hospital. A state-of-the-art home for Engineering and Social Sciences, the Diamond welcomes thousands of students each day and has allowed major growth in the Faculty of Engineering in particular, fulfilling a real need in the UK and around the world for high-quality engineering graduates.

Developing technicians

All my working life I have known that science was often dependent on the skills of exceptional technicians. From medical breakthroughs to the Large Hadron Collider, leaps in knowledge need technicians of the highest calibre. For that reason, I was delighted to continue this work in Sheffield where we now host the National Technician Development Centre for Higher Education.

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