Campus close-up: St Mary's University, Twickenham

After a troubled recent history, the new university has a former diplomat as its new vice-chancellor

October 2, 2014

A former diplomat with no experience of university management may seem an unusual choice to lead St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

But Francis Campbell, who took over as vice-chancellor in August, may well prove a canny pick to lead the southwest London institution after one of the most tumultuous periods in its 164-year history.

While there has been good news more recently (St Mary’s gained full university status in January and the institution says there was strong undergraduate recruitment this year), the normally harmonious Catholic institution attracted less favourable headlines in 2012, particularly over the acrimonious fallout from the merger of its theology department into a new arts and humanities school.

In September 2012, head of theo-logy Anthony Towey  – who had publicly criticised management over the merger – was removed mid-lecture by security guards, escorted from St Mary’s premises and suspended from the university. The episode led to widespread criticism, student protests and eventually the resignation in January 2013 of the principal, Bible scholar Philip Esler, who cited negative publicity and “friction” within the institution for his departure.

Mr Campbell’s skills of diplomacy and conciliation, honed during Foreign Office placements in Europe, Pakistan and the Vatican, may prove useful in bringing the university together as it moves on from those fractious times.

The 44-year-old Northern Irishman stands by the merger, but said St Mary’s had learned a lot from those dark days. “From time to time, institutions go through difficult periods - my view is that the merger has strengthened theology here,” he said.

He pointed out that the intake for theology is up by one-third this year, bucking the downturn in enrolments in the subject elsewhere, adding that “theology remains a central part of this university”.

One of Mr Campbell’s tasks at St Mary’s is to uphold its commitment to Catholic values while also increasing student numbers, which currently total about 6,000 full-time equivalent students.

That Catholic identity was more straightforward when the institution was established in 1850 to train Catholic teachers, who in turn taught the children of Irish immigrants arriving in London.

Until the 1980s, about 70 per cent of its students were trainee teachers, but education now makes up only a quarter of its provision, with 31 undergraduate subjects taught at its Strawberry Hill and Teddington campuses.

Nowadays, the vast majority of St Mary’s students are not Catholic (Mo Farah, a Muslim, is probably its best known recent alumnus) but an ethos connected to the faith is expressed in the university’s commitment to social justice and treatment of its staff, said Mr Campbell.

Its school outreach work, its high proportion of poorer students, the decision not to outsource catering, cleaning and other campus services and the payment of the London Living Wage are evidence of this Christian tradition, he added.

Mr Campbell, a former private secretary to prime minister Tony Blair, and Britain’s first-ever Catholic envoy to the Holy See, said he believed St Mary’s links to other Catholic universities around the world will also help it to increase international student numbers, which now make up only 2 per cent of its student body.

That level is extremely low, given that non-European Union students account for 18 per cent of all students in the UK and 26 per cent of all those studying in London.

However, the lack of international students is understandable and reflects St Mary’s history as an academic institution - “It was run by Irish priests until 1992,” Mr Campbell pointed out.

Full university status will now give the institution more confidence to increase its intake, but only “in a sustainable way”, he said, adding that he was keen to build on strengths such as sports and health sciences. Its facilities are due to be used as a training base by New Zealand’s All Blacks and South Africa’s Springboks during next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Mr Campbell added that he saw nothing wrong in collaborating with other institutions on provision, despite controversy in 2012. Then, St Mary’s oversight of a clinical hypnosis course (whose academic quality had been questioned) was criticised by the Quality Assurance Agency.

“The mistake would be to not do any form of collaboration, as we now have the proper procedures and due diligence,” he said.

In numbers

31 undergraduate subjects now taught at the former teacher training college

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University of Sheffield
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