From twinkle toes to Nobel heights

June 1, 2001

Sue Law finds that chivalry, diplomacy and a large dollop of charm are the perfect recipe for a Manchester pro vice-chancellor.

Innovation has always been an important part of tradition at the University of Manchester, which has produced 22 Nobel prizewinners and the world's first computer during its 150-year history.

It is a strategy that Michael Bradford, the new pro vice-chancellor for teaching and learning, is certain will be key to its future. A long-time innovator in teaching himself, he takes up the role in July during the university's anniversary year.

The city-centre campus is a jigsaw of modern red-brick blocks fitting neatly alongside the elegant architecture of the original 19th-century buildings. Gallantly wielding an umbrella to shelter me as we hurry across the courtyard in torrential rain, Bradford combines chivalry with genial banter, despite the effects of jetlag after a trip to the United States.

He has a voice like warm chocolate and a relaxed charm that will come in handy chairing committees and greeting visitors in his new ambassadorial role.

A cautious diplomacy underlies our talk, which he carefully tape-records. But he is not afraid to voice strong opinions when it comes to teaching and the negative effects for students created by the research assessment exercise.

He says the bureaucracy of external assessments means it is harder to give students individual attention. "It's pretty useless for a personal tutor just to meet the student once and say 'come and see me if there are problems'. They need someone who sees them regularly.

"As I have got older and greyer, there is a danger that you are less approachable to students, so I wander round and talk to them in the middle of lectures."

Drinking coffee from his selection of Arsenal mugs - "yes, I'm a lifelong fan" - he says as pro vice-chancellor he plans to keep teaching at least one course to stay in touch. "I have an interest in young people and a lot of satisfaction in seeing them move forward. They can ask questions that sometimes seem naive but they aren't. I like to challenge them and like them to come back to me."

He has enjoyed running field trips for first-year geographers, watching them grow in confidence and develop the close bonds that can provide a support network for the rest of the degree course.

Bradford has always been fascinated by teaching and decided he wanted to become one while at primary school. His father was a semi-professional performer who would have liked his son to go on the stage. But although he was a talented tap dancer, Bradford turned down the chance of an audition for a television show to concentrate on his studies.

After a geography degree at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, he did a year's postgraduate research as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin, United States, before returning to Cambridge to complete his PhD. He arrived at Manchester as a lecturer in urban geography in 1971.

One of his goals is to raise the profile of teaching so it is not viewed as an alternative to research. "I want to bring them much closer together so they are seen mutually to reinforce each other. It's a two-way process but since the 1980s, they have been pushed apart.

"Academics have less time and more pressures, which means it is more difficult to give time to students. We have moved rapidly from an elite to a mass higher education system," Bradford says. "It is a matter of balancing individual attention with teamwork. You can find effective ways of using small amounts of time to get similar outcomes for students."

He advocates improving the personal tutor system and introducing more teamworking exercises for students. Team projects can cut time for marking and supervising. They also help produce the "oven-ready" graduates employers want.

Bradford has recently written "Improving Students' Team and Personal Skills", for the Geography Discipline Network. In the booklet, funded by the Department for Education and Employment, he argues against staff and student resistance to the personal skills emphasis, particularly the idea of reflection. Students may argue that they need to get on and learn instead of spending time reflecting, he says. But there is plenty of evidence that they gain in self-confidence and improve their learning.

"If we are to promote lifelong learning, then it helps to see ways in which learning can be embedded and ways in which the process of learning can be understood and encouraged," he writes. "Self-reflection then becomes an accepted and 'natural' part of learning that continues after higher education."

Sharing good teaching practice and student assessment are also high on Bradford's list of Manchester teaching essentials. Manchester has retained a strong disciplinary culture and Bradford sees his task as breaking down subject barriers so that good teaching techniques are shared and tailored for different disciplines. He also believes that disciplines should consider a wider variety of assessment models.

Bradford is well practised in figurehead roles, and he enjoyed a brief sabbatical since ending a four-year term as head of the School of Geography and a year as president of the Geographical Association.

"As head of school, you have to juggle detail with the wider strategy; it is an extremely hard job and I think you eventually run out of steam," he says.

The city has undergone many changes in the 30 years Bradford has worked there, especially in the aftermath of the 1996 IRA bomb, which was used as an opportunity for regeneration. Warehouses have been converted into student accommodation, and a vibrant nightlife is a big attraction for prospective students. The university has worked with the local community in east Manchester on a variety of teaching projects.

Although the University of Manchester is the oldest of the city's four institutions, Bradford rejects the word traditional: "I prefer to say it's a widely based university that is up there in the international league. If you call it traditional it sounds as though nothing is changing and that's just not the case at all."

150 YEARS OF MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY

  • Founded March 1851 by Manchester merchant John Owens. Moved to Oxford Road in 1873
  • World's first computer ran its debut program in 1948. Other landmark achievements include Rutherford's work on splitting the atom, development of the Lovell Telescope, and the establishment of modern economics by W. S. Jevons
  • One of the largest universities in the United Kingdom with 23,000 students and 2,500 academic staff
  • Legacy projects for the anniversary include a £5.25 million music and drama building, a biomedical research facility and a £15 million scheme to open the John Rylands Library to the public
  • 150th celebrations include a thanksgiving service in the city's cathedral, special honorary degree ceremonies and a staff garden party.

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