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Interview: Russell Marchant, Vice-Chancellor, Principal & CEO of Hartpury

PUBLISHED: 16:02 18 June 2019 | UPDATED: 16:03 18 June 2019

Russell Marchant, the Principal of Hartpury College and University Centre in Gloucestershire.

Russell Marchant, the Principal of Hartpury College and University Centre in Gloucestershire.

© Thousand Word Media

It's Russell Marchant's vision to make Hartpury College and University a world-leader. And he's succeeding

Walking into the building which houses Russell Marchant's office is a bit like walking into Hogwarts.

It smells of wood and polish and leather, all iron radiators and tiled floors and elaborate cornicing.

Ceilings are high and windows are huge - all the better for gazing at Hartpury University's magnificent 360ha grounds.

Rewind 80 or so years, and Hartpury College was welcoming through the doors of its rambling old building its first cohort of 50 students. This year, 3,600 full-time students have enrolled, from 16-19-year-old college students doing A-levels and BTECs to under-graduates and post-grads, enjoying courses from international horse racing business to veterinary nursing, applied animal science to zoology, sports business management to sports strength and conditioning. And pretty much everything agricultural, animal or sport-related in between. Fulfilling the needs of this diverse demographic can't be easy, I say.

"It's part of the uniqueness of Hartpury," says Russell. "We only became a university in September 2018, but we have been delivering degrees and post-graduate masters for 25 years.

"So it's sort of been an evolution at Hartpury, of further and higher education working together. We think it gives us a great advantage because we've got that progression right from 16 through to PhDs.".

One advantage is that every investment, every new building, every facility gets double the use.

Russell Marchant, the Principal of Hartpury College and University Centre in Gloucestershire.Russell Marchant, the Principal of Hartpury College and University Centre in Gloucestershire.

Hartpury has, for example, just spent £8.8m on a new Sports Academy, including state-of-the-art biomechanics and human performance labs and a rehabilitation suite.

It was opened last month by Dame Katherine Grainger, Britain's most decorated female Olympian and Chair of UK Sport.

Driving through this undulating parkland - peppered with hockey nets and rugby posts and a stunning rowing lake where members of the GB squad train - there's a lot of construction going on. It looks busy, vibrant.

I tell him I might have seen the new sports building when I drove in. I hadn't. I was looking at the College Learning Centre, a £3.5m glass-fronted teaching space which opened in 2015.

"Which is old for Hartpury," laughs Russell. "We do joke that if we haven't got a major building project at Hartpury in any one year, we're in trouble."

The scale and pace of development here is jaw-dropping. Russell, Vice-Chancellor, Principal and CEO, joined Hartpury University and Hartpury College in 2012 as Chief Executive and Principal.

An Edinburgh graduate, he had for the previous 12 years been in the Principal's seat at Barony Campus, an agricultural college in Dumfries & Galloway.

Russell Marchant, the Principal of Hartpury College and University Centre in Gloucestershire.Russell Marchant, the Principal of Hartpury College and University Centre in Gloucestershire.

He felt Hartpury was hiding its higher education light under a bushel and led the drive for university status. From the pine forests of the Highlands to the rolling hills of the Cotswolds, rugby-loving Russell has no doubt this was the right move.

At the time, his wife told him 'they've written this job for you', though he admits he barely knew one end of a horse from another. Of course all that's changed.

He's single-minded about Hartpury's offering. Sport. Equine. Animals. Agriculture. Veterinary nursing. It's the core business, and where it will stay.

It's something that helps set it apart from the University of Gloucestershire and the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, both just a stone's throw away. And that's because they're not fishing in the same pond, Russell insists.

Hartpury isn't the demure little sister of the three seats of learning; far from it. In the 2016-17 financial year, it ploughed almost £100m into the regional economy.

There are 445 full and part-time staff on the books - including the first cohort of professors - and Russell's payroll is an eye-watering £16.8m at the last count. It's Hartpury's aim, Russell says, to raise students' aspirations. Half of all college students go on to FE.

One of the business' great strengths is in agri-tech, and to that end, a new £2m Agri-Tech Centre, bankrolled by Gfirst LEP and the Clive and Sylvia Richards Charity, will open. Its aim is to be a world-leading education, training and research hub for Hartpury's students, and also the wider education sector, regional producers and processors. It's where the future lies, he insists.

Russell Marchant, the Principal of Hartpury College and University Centre in Gloucestershire.Russell Marchant, the Principal of Hartpury College and University Centre in Gloucestershire.

"It's an example of Hartpury trying to position itself slightly differently," he says. "We have a major commercial farm which is core to our business, supplying Sainsbury's and Muller, and we use that as an educational facility.

"We didn't want to create another research hub - there are many across the country already.

"We wanted to take the technology that's out there - which let's be honest, 80% of the industry aren't really utilising - and demonstrate it hands-on, on a commercial-scale farm, to show its impact on the bottom line and profitability."

The driver is to increase productivity in the farming industry, which he says is blighted by an ageing, tech-averse population and will be struck by a labour shortage. Automation and smart technology - individual sensors on animals, thermal imaging to detect sick livestock, automated segregation and weighing - is the future, and Hartpury is the hub. Russell's son is a hill farmer, and he can already see the attraction of using drones to watch his flock.

"Agriculture is ripe for that, using our people smarter," Russell says. "This hub will be of great value, demonstrating - with cutting-edge technology and bio-security - how one person can look after 1,200 sheep. When I was a student, if they were looking after 400 ewes they were doing a great job.

"Hartpury's always had a focus on 'where can we go next?'. We talk a lot about day-one skills, how we make people employable. And we talk a lot with industry about what they're looking for."

Elite athletes gravitate to Hartpury. Gloucester Rugby uses its pitches as its training ground and on the day I'm there, the Winter Dressage Championships are taking place.

Signage, Hartpury College and University Centre in Gloucestershire.Signage, Hartpury College and University Centre in Gloucestershire.

Next year, it's hosting the 2020 FEI European Championships for young riders in eventing and dressage. It'll be a chance to see future Olympians in action.

Equine is a huge part of what Hartpury is famous for - it's the largest equine educational facility in the world, and many of the UK's elite riders train there.

It's a breeding ground for Jockey Club staff, event riders and equine research scientists alike. But it's not just about top-flight sport, though Hartpury has a formidable reputation for that, working with many of the governing bodies.

This year, the football team won the English Schools & Colleges U-18s Cup for the fifth time in six years. The aim is to have an Olympic rower among the Hartpury ranks and its modern pentathletes are winning European Championships with one eye on the Tokyo games. All Hartpury students are encouraged do something, to be active. It's part of the culture, and it's that culture - a culture which Russell calls 'your Hartpury' - which encourages alumni to come back to volunteer at major equine events and host reunions.

"We look beyond qualifications to practical performance, work-placement performance, the enhancement," says Russell.

"We call it the Hartpury Advantage, adding value to the student beyond that certificate, beyond getting that degree.

"We're all about supporting students and the employer in that relationship.

"It's built into the DNA here at Hartpury, that we want students to be real, and ready for the real world."

Visit the Hartpury College website here.

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