At a time when all that is reported in the media is that universities across the country are not offering value for money and students are dissatisfied, it’s great to hear about a university going the extra mile to ensure its students are heard, and that their educational and pastoral needs are at the heart of decision making.
The University of Bradford is among those academic institutions that have undergone significant transformation, and Professor Zahir Irani has played a pivotal role in leading this change. In recognition of his outstanding contributions and his commitment to connecting with students and making a difference in their experience at the university, the Students’ Union has presented Professor Zahir with an award for Innovation and Motivation at their annual Students’ Union Colours Ball. This event, which celebrates student clubs and societies, was held on Friday, 28 April. It is noteworthy that University Professors are rarely presented with awards at this occasion, which makes Professor Zahir’s recognition all the more exceptional.
Professor Zahir Irani is the Vice Chancellor of the University and is also head of Professional Service; but to really get some background on this inspirational leader, we looked back at some of his achievements.
The professor completed his professional development in leadership and financial management at Harvard Business School (HBS) and the University of Cambridge.
He started his academic career at Brunel University London in the Department of Computer Science and, five years later, he became the youngest professor in the UK, followed by a period as Head of the Department, where he championed job skills and infrastructure partnerships.
Professor Irani moved to a senior management position leading the Brunel Business School and broadened his research interests with techniques such as Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping (FCM) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). His interdisciplinary background has allowed him to publish across Engineering, Information Systems, Operational Research and Business-related journals with high citations.
In 2014 and 2021 he contributed to two Impact Case Studies in the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF).
Throughout his career Professor Irani has attracted funding from many sources, including UK research councils (ESRC, EPSRC), industry, EU as part of FP-6, 7 and H2020, Australian Research Council (ARC) and Qatar Foundation (NPRP-6, 7 and 8) and more recently winning a further £800,000 to continue the successful “applied AI and data analytics” course.
If that was not enough, he is an adjunct Professor at Qatar University and a Hooke Distinguished Scholar at McMaster University in Canada.
Professor Zahir certainly has an incredible body of work, but his remarkable accomplishments extend far beyond his academic achievements. Faiz Ilyas who is a civil engineering graduate and now employed by the University as a Student Feedback Coordinator says Professor Zahir’s award is well-deserved and describes the award winning academic as a visionary.
Speaking to Asian Standard Faiz depicts the University environment pre-Covid, from 2017 – 2019 when he was sabbatical officer. He says: “The campus felt dead. Society numbers were dwindling, as were engagement numbers and, after Covid, there was a huge struggle in terms of student engagement.
“But since Professor Zahir arrived, he has turned the tide.
“The University is seeing exponential growth.
“Society numbers have gone up from 20 to over 100 societies. Sports clubs were in the tens and have now gone up to 30 clubs.
“Students appreciate Professor Zahir’s increase in numbers and his positive attitude – so you can see his vision and hard work; therefore, he truly deserves this award.
“Regardless of the struggle, Zahir figures it out – he can identify talent and bring people in. Not many academics are innovative and think ahead like Zahir and to my knowledge, it’s the first time the students have given such an award to a professor.”
Faiz adds: “it’s important to recognise the partnership of Professor Shirley Congdon and Professor Zahir, as Shirley recruited Zahir, and together they’ve created this fabulous vision for the University which seems to be working incredibly well. They are not resisting change but adapting to change.”
Looking at the university today post Covid, you can really see the difference positive staffing has achieved. Engineering graduate and sabbatical officer Iqra Tabassum also agrees Professor Zahir is deserving of his award. She said: “It’s the first time the students, staff, particularly the sabbatical officers, have awarded a professor for his vision, and Professor Zahir Irani’s biggest vision is engagement offering a recruitment strategy that has worked.”
Iqra says Professor Zahir Irani is an “unsung hero and must get the recognition he deserves” Iqra was a student starting a civil and structural engineering degree in 2018, going through Covid and all the problems that it brought.
She says: “Five years on, changes have come on leaps and bounds – the executive is on board making the Uni better, a better relationship between the students and the staff.
“As a Union we are appreciative of all the efforts made by Professor Zahir because for us to succeed we need more students and engagement, and Professor Zahir has done this through his recruitment strategy which he does behind the scenes. We just want to say we appreciate and realise how integral he is for us and he is truly making our experience a wonderful one, which shows from the increase in numbers.”
In Iqra’s words, Professor Zahir Irani is “inspirational”.
Hazmin Ahamed, former Academic Affairs Officer at the University agrees wholeheartedly with Iqra. He told Asian Standard: “Watching from outside of the University Professor Zahir’s vision and operational strategies have resurrected the University from a very vulnerable place to where it is today.
“It has been an amazing transformation to see, given the hostile financial and business climate higher education operates in. Zahir is a leader with a strong vision to turn organisations around and the University of Bradford is testimony to that ability.”
Today the University is known for its MBA courses, for Peace Studies and now for AI, proving that it is a growing and forward-thinking institution. The University has also been praised by Ofsted in a report released on 5 May, stating that the University is making “reasonable progress” in improving its Ofsted rating after being told it required improvement last year.
To further add to the success of the University of Bradford, according to the latest figures from the HESA Graduate Outcomes Survey 76 per cent of the University of Bradford’s known UK domiciled graduates secured employment 15 months after graduation. Of those, 78 per cent secured high-skilled roles, compared with 72 per cent nationally.
With happy students, visionary leadership and improved Ofsted rating the University of Bradford certainly seems to be heading in the right direction and deserves all the recognition it’s currently getting.