Aston 50th Anniversary: Keith Robson Q&A

50 Aston Greats: Keith Robson

Keith Robson

When Keith Robson started his degree at Aston in 1963, it was a College of Advanced Technology, but by the time he graduated it had become a university. In the year that Aston was granted its Royal Charter, Keith was elected as President of the Guild of Students, making him the first person to hold this post at Aston. After leaving Aston with a BSc in Biological Sciences, Keith has enjoyed a diverse career, working for British Motor Holdings, Rootes/Chrysler, Perkins Engines and Varity Corporation. Having been given the opportunity to join Massey Ferguson’s Head Office in Canada, he relocated, later moving to Hamilton Port Authority, based at Lake Ontario, where he held the post of CEO. Today he continues his links with the University as a member of the Advisory Board of Aston Business School.

How did you first become involved with Aston University?

My first involvement with the University was as a student applicant to what was then the College of Advanced Technology (CAT) in 1963. I was offered a place in the General Science Department and I was fortunate in also being offered a place in Gracie Hall - at the time the only student accommodation provided by the College. The first year, I made sure I made it to the second year, and then became much more involved in student activities - something that ultimately led to being elected President of the Guild of Students. The Guild represented the students of the CAT - the College of Commerce and College of Arts, which were all on the same campus.

What was your experience of being Guild President like?

In 1966 the CAT became a university and that was the year I became President of the Guild.  Becoming a university provided all sorts of complications as the funding came under the University Grants Commission [UGC] and the other two colleges remained under the auspices of the Local Education Authority [LEA]. These two bodies had very different cultures. At the same time there were plans approved for a new Students' Union building that was due to start being constructed that year. It was very important to retain the joint Guild with the other institutions to support the Union building. It was even more important to retain the involvement of the students of the other colleges in the Guild. They supported much of the activities of the Guild and provided balance to the predominately engineering student body of the CAT. 

What was your greatest achievement at Aston? 

With the support of [then Vice-Chancellor] Sir Peter Venables we were able to retain the joint Guild and the first thing we had to do was prepare a new Constitution which would involve a lot of negotiation with the UGC and the LEA. We were able to put an interim structure in place which enabled us to operate. I was fortunate in being able to select some of my own Executive so chose able and committed people. The result was a very successful year with lots of student activities as well as political involvement in a number of causes, including, inevitably, student grants and also social causes of the time, such as legalising abortion.

The second major task was the planning of the building of the Students' Union, obtaining funding and staffing for the Guild now that it had a much bigger administrative role. In those days, all the Executive were full-time students and I was in my final year as well. One of my enduring achievements was persuading the University to allow the President to have a sabbatical year as it was obvious that it needed more than part-time administration. Now the Union has three full-time officers. This is great experience as it is a sizable business, managing staff, dealing with customers (students) and outside agencies, suppliers; maintaining the assets and not making a loss!

What has your experience at Aston given you personally?

More than anything, I think that my experience at Aston gave me a much broader awareness of the world, its diversity and opportunity. It also gave me a lot of self-confidence that I could succeed in doing whatever I put my mind to. My career changed dramatically as a result and I have been able to work with people at all levels of society. Sir Peter Venables was a great mentor. It also convinced me of the benefits of courses that incorporate work experience.

What is the best advice you can give to today’s graduates?

The best advice I can give is to keep an open mind and always be prepared for opportunities that arise where and when you least expect them. With today's technology, maintaining your network is so much easier, and many opportunities come from people you know. Personal networking through industry associations is also important and valuable experience. Keep on learning and retain a sense of humour.