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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Professor Zahir Irani talks AI, curry, and his love for Bradford

Professor Zahir Irani, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bradford, has already been named as a leading Bradford influencer by the Sunday Times, Bradford Means Business, and of course by Asian Standard.

In 2022 he was ranked the fifth best in the UK and the 31st best in the world for his scholarly work – largely due to the 22,663 citations and 294 publications (and counting) that he currently has to his name.

Originally from London, he has lived happily in Bradford for the last six years. We caught up with the insightful Deputy Vice-Chancellor at his office, tucked away on the second floor of the University’s magnificent Richmond Building, to tell us a little more about himself, his future plans for the University, and why he loves Bradford so much.

“I’ve been working for four and a half years as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor. I really like Bradford, and I say that having spent 18 years at my former institution – so I don’t move very often!” he tells us.

We asked him about some of his fond memories of Bradford. “When I first arrived here, I was the Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law over at city campus and I would on occasion come by train.” He would arrive at the train station and then hail a taxi. “As soon as I would say ‘Emm Lane’ the [taxi] driver would start a conversation asking what do you do in Bradford? What do you do at the University? I would say I’m the Dean and I’ve moved up from London. And, almost always, they would never take a fare from me” he laughs.

“I was embarrassed, I really was, and it took me a little bit of time to understand what was going on – [it was] because there was such a strong affection for the University. Either the taxi driver had a son, daughter, cousin, niece, or nephew [who] either worked at the University; was working at the University, is a student, or was a student. There was some connection. However, even if there wasn’t a connection, on those rare occasions, they just knew that the University was trying to serve its population. In the end… I stopped telling them that I was a member of staff! Because I was embarrassed for not paying them!”

When asked what his vision for Bradford looks like and about his future plans for the University, Professor Irani told us “We want to see a greater number of home students coming and we want to diversify our international student bodies in terms of the countries that they come from. So, I’ve been working and travelling a little bit to countries like Turkey, where we are trying to increase the number of Turkish students. We have got small offices based in China and Dubai and are hoping to increase the number of Chinese students that come to the University.”

As well as being a passionate advocate for the City Bradford, he loudly champions the University at every opportunity and is particularly proud of his recent work in the area of Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics. After successfully procuring some money from Office For Students, University of Bradford were able to develop an innovative Masters programme in the area of Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics, and were awarded some scholarships to serve underrepresented communities. “That whole package was worth around £800,000 and [we were] really pleased to be one of a select number of universities that were awarded that support, following competitive submission. That programme did very, very well, we recruit nationally and internationally into that programme and four years later we have the largest student by volume of postgraduate students studying AI in the UK, of any University.”

This is not the first time the University of Bradford has broken records. “The University is very famous for having developed the school of Management some 60 years ago, and we were the first to do that, but also we were the first to develop a capability on peace studies when the rest of the word were developing war studies, Bradford thought well you know what how about a peace studies department. Well, I think there’s an opportunity here for Bradford to say actually we’re taking a march in the AI space and we are going to really capitalize and build on that capability and I think that might be one of the big legacies that myself and colleagues will have for the University.”

Another lasting legacy that he hopes to help facilitate is the way in which the University gives back to the city and supports its wider community. “We’re working collaboratively with some of our organisations such as NatWest, who have agreed to come and have a presence on campus to support our students that are entrepreneurial. And local businesses – because we want local businesses to come on to campus. We’re not this Ivory tower, we want to drive people into campus, into our environment, to speak with us, talk with us, engage with our students, use some of our fantastic services.” Work is currently underway so that this service can be up and running by start of the next academic year.

Professor Zahir Irani tells us that in addition to supporting student entrepreneurs – there will also be an emphasis on helping staff entrepreneurs too. “We want to harness our really great staff and the ideas that they may have of developing their own businesses and give them an opportunity to do so.”

He agrees that the City of Bradford has a lot to offer. Speaking on the subject of the Bradford curry awards, which Asian Standard organises and will take place this July; Professor Irani told us what his favourite dishes were. “I love lamb karahi. Lamb karahi is my favourite, with kulcha naan. So very specific there – I like the sesame seeds on my naan. If I had to have a joint favourite, then it would be Fish Masala.”

Speaking about the future, he tells us “I think I have a lot more to offer the city and give to the city. And I hope the city will embrace and continue to embrace what the University is trying to do for them. Which is – trying to use our collective capabilities as a University to be impactful to the community that we serve locally, regionally, nationally and even internationally.”

“Noone has ever come close to similar experiences of what and how their university is having such an impact on their community. Don’t get me wrong, there is lots of work to be done in Bradford, we’ve got lots of opportunity. I’ve had lots of opportunities to move on and do other interesting things in the world and around the country, but there’s something about Bradford.”

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