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Interview: Gary Neville

Members of Manchester United’s famous ‘class of 92’ have partnered with Lancaster University and Microsoft to launch a new university focused on teaching leadership skills and wellness. Tom Walker speaks to Gary Neville and Lancaster University’s vice chancellor Mark Smith about the plan

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 1
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The Class of 92: (from left to right) Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes
The Class of 92: (from left to right) Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes

“When we do something, we don’t tend to do things by half,” says Gary Neville, former England defender and Manchester United legend. “We want this new project to transform education – our goal is for UA92 to become a new model for universities across the UK.”

Neville is describing his ambitious plans to establish a new university in his hometown of Manchester, just a stone’s throw from the Old Trafford football stadium, where he played for more than 20 years.

Called UA92 – short for University Academy 92 – it is the latest project driven by The Class of 92, a venture launched by Neville and four other former Manchester United stars – his brother Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt. The quintet has previously developed Hotel Football, an upmarket 133-bedroom hotel next to Old Trafford, which opened in 2015.

The group’s plan is for UA92 to transform higher education by placing as much of the focus on personal development as there is on academic attainment. The idea is to give graduates not just a degree, but a set of life skills and character traits that will help them carve out a successful career after their graduation.

At the centre of UA92 philosophy is something Neville calls the Target Talent Curriculum, which, he explains, will ensure personal development is a large part of the learning experience. It will focus on providing students with 10 attributes: academic learning, life skills, work experience, survival and coping strategies, leadership skills, self and peer group analysis, participative learning, fitness, presentation and financial skills.

“Most people go to university simply to get a degree,” Neville says. “But I don’t think it should just be about that. It should be more than a piece of paper.

“These days, employers aren’t merely looking for someone with a qualification, they expect more than that. They’re looking for someone who can display confidence, character, leadership skills, a good attitude and a real passion for what they’re doing.

“You don’t get those attributes and qualities without honing them and working on them. When I was coming up through the youth system at Manchester United, I learnt about football, but there was also an emphasis on the character development side of things. It was an important part of the ‘education’ there.

“That made me think that character building should be embedded into all education for 16 to 21-year-olds, and that’s where the idea for UA92 came from.”

Neville and his former teammates – now business associates – have already secured a number of important key partners for the UA92 project. Lancaster University will act as the academic lead and will also validate UA92’s degrees, while Microsoft has joined as technology partner. They have also gained the support of Trafford Council and property firm Bruntwood, which has been tasked with the regeneration of an old industrial site in Trafford – the preferred site for a new UA92 campus.

The plans for the campus are now at a consultation phase and if successful, construction work on the first UA92 buildings will begin in 2018. The first student recruitment cycle is set to begin in January 2018 and, if all goes well, the first intake of UA92 undergraduates will begin their studies in September 2019.

Neville says that UA92 will initially offer degree courses across three academic subjects: sport, business studies and media. He adds that sport and fitness will feature heavily in the curriculum.

“While taking part in sport won’t be obligatory, what we want to see is each student taking a wellbeing and fitness module,” he says.

“Those modules will be all about students looking after themselves physically, not about the student receiving a qualification in fitness. We’ll challenge them to improve their physical wellbeing, so they feel good about how far they’ve pushed themselves both physically and mentally.”

To support the wellness element of the curriculum, the UA92 campus is set to feature impressive sports facilities – including a new indoor sports centre and a number of playing pitches. The UA92 partners are also in talks over partnership deals with two of its future neighbours, Manchester United and Lancashire County Cricket Club. The exact details of the partnerships are expected to be revealed in 2018.

While character development will be a key focus of UA92, the involvement of Lancaster University – one of the UK’s top 10 universities – means that the degrees will have considerable academic weight behind them. According to Lancaster University’s vice chancellor, professor Mark E Smith, the initial contact from The Class of 92, which occurred in 2016, came at an opportune moment.

“We’re always keen to try new approaches,” says Smith. “We published a new strategy in 2013 and one of its key elements was for us to be open-minded and accepting of the possibility that we may need to look at new models for delivering education. So when Gary and his team came along with their plans, they fitted perfectly with that element of our new strategy.

“What appealed to us in the UA92 model was the inversion of the traditional university concept – placing the broader life skills at the heart of learning and then wrapping the academic context around it.

“It’s important to emphasise that the UA92 approach doesn’t diminish the importance of the academic content in any way. What it does do is change the way the learning experience is constructed and presented.”

Another element that appealed to Smith was the opportunity to devise an entire curriculum from scratch – and to do so with “non-traditional” partners, such as Microsoft and the former footballers.

“The great thing about UA92 is that, as far as the curriculum is concerned, we have a blank piece of paper,” Smith says. “So we can come up with entirely new ways of delivering a degree. From a Lancaster University point of view, that’s an opportunity, because there might be some learnings we can use back at our own university too.”

Both Neville and Smith say that the new approach will be designed to attract those young people who might not see a traditional university as “their thing”.

“We want to try and attract people from all backgrounds – and especially those who normally wouldn’t think of going to university,” Neville says. “But we also want people who do see the university as a route – we want to compete for and win those students over too.”

Smith adds that the alternative approach of The Class of 92’s new university will help broaden its appeal to a range of potential students.

“We want to attract the students who find this approach more appealing than a conventional university degree,” he says. “And I’m firmly of the belief that different approaches suit different people.”

As well as bringing something new and innovative to the UK’s higher education sector, UA92 will look to be a catalyst for development and regeneration in the local community. The plans for the university campus and its surrounding area – led by property partner Bruntwood – include a new community leisure centre that will replace the existing Stretford Leisure Centre as well as a large number of new sports pitches, which will be built at the nearby Turn Moss Playing Fields.

While the partners are tight-lipped about the exact financials, Smith says that the investment in establishing UA92 will be “significant”.

“The total initial investment will be more than £10m, and that will be shared by the partners,” he says. “We’re looking to other, new partners to contribute to that and there are active discussions going on, but I’m not prepared to reveal who they are just yet.”

For Neville, the partnerships will define the entire UA92 project. “Ultimately, this isn’t just about five footballers in a room dreaming up an academic university course,” he says. “We’re surrounding ourselves with world-class operators in education and in business to ensure this is an incredible proposition to young people. It’ll be something very different from what’s already out there – and it will give people choices.”

The Class of 92

Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt

A venture set up by the former Manchester United stars, named after the famous crop of young players which won the 1992 FA Youth Cup and went on to become an integral part of the club’s dominance of English football in the 1990s and 2000s.

UA92: The 10 principles of success

Influenced by the experiences of The Class of 92’s footballing careers, the UA92 concept is based on a Target Talent Curriculum (TTC). The TTC places personal development at the core of the learning experience and focuses on 10 principles of success:

• Subject knowledge
• Leadership
• Life skills
• Work experience
• Participative learning
• Survival and coping strategies
• Self and peer group analysis
• Fitness and wellbeing
• Presentation
• Financial skills

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