'Learning transformed me - I wanted to transform others'

Lincoln's v-c has seen first-hand the academy's power to change lives, writes Rebecca Attwood

December 3, 2009

As someone who was once homeless, Mary Stuart, the new vice- chancellor of the University of Lincoln, speaks from experience about the transformative power of higher education.

In the 1970s, she was living in a violent and troubled South Africa. A sympathiser with the anti-Apartheid movement, she was concerned that it seemed "very difficult to do something positive", and decided to leave.

She met an Englishman, married and, in 1981, moved to England, where she worked as a drama teacher. But when she became pregnant with twins, she developed high blood pressure and could not continue the job. Her condition grew so bad that she was hospitalised for the last three months of the pregnancy. At the same time, she and her husband were evicted from their rented bedsit.

"After the girls were born, and with a lot of lobbying from my husband, we were given a place in a homeless hostel and, when the twins were six weeks old, a council house in south London. It really isn't that dramatic: it is just what happened," she said.

"It was a fabulous council estate where all the cliches about community existed," Professor Stuart recalled. "The day we moved in, we had neighbours come around, saying: 'I see you haven't got much furniture - we've got a few extra chairs.' It was just amazing.

"So even though it was a difficult time, I think I've been incredibly lucky and people have been wonderful to me."

When the twins were six months old, she decided to embark on an Open University degree in sociology. This marked a turning point in Professor Stuart's life.

"I fell in love with learning, thought 'this is transforming me', and as a result I wanted to find a way to help to transform others. It's the language it gives you to be able to understand the world, the confidence, the way your mind sees the world differently and the contribution you can then make."

Starting as a drama teacher in adult education, she went on to become a senior lecturer in special education at Lambeth Community College. In 1991, she earned a lectureship at the University of Sussex's Centre for Continuing Education.

There she completed a PhD examining the oral histories of women who had been institutionalised in convents that were being closed under the Conservatives' Care in the Community policy.

She wrote her first book, Engaging with Difference: The "Other" in Adult Education (1995), as assistant director of the centre, and Collaborating for Change? Managing Widening Participation in Further Education and Higher Education Institutions (2002) as pro vice-chancellor of Sussex.

Variations on a theme

Social division has been a constant theme in Professor Stuart's work.

"I have continued to use oral history, and always it has been about how people have made their lives in different circumstances," she explained.

She moved to Kingston University four years ago, where she was deputy vice-chancellor. Peter Scott, the university's head, "was the most fantastic mentor", she said.

"I'm the second of his deputies who has gone on to be a vice-chancellor - Caroline Gipps, now at the University of Wolverhampton, was my predecessor."

His work on "mode-two learning" was also an influence.

"The idea is that knowledge is no longer owned just by the academy but is a shared engagement. That is the heart of my vision for Lincoln - we share knowledge with our students, our business partners and our communities," she said.

Professor Stuart's latest research has focused on postgraduates and the need to extend widening participation to higher degrees. She opposes a rise in student fees, fearing it would turn the divide between those who do and don't go to university into one between access to undergraduate and postgraduate study.

"I'm genuinely worried about the amount of debt students are in and the impact it will have on postgraduate recruitment," she said.

"I know that all the political parties are concerned about social mobility, but they need to look very carefully to ensure that whatever they decide to do doesn't harm students of ability and quality."

In Australia and the US, she said, postgraduate study is "very much the domain of the upper classes".

New values, traditional setting

Professor Stuart's arrival at Lincoln follows its success story in the final research assessment exercise.

Lincoln received the most cash of any institution that won quality-related research funding for the first time, scoring particularly well in media and communications and computer science.

Research that is relevant to society and the economy will be a key focus for the institution, she said.

She expects all staff to be involved in research and scholarship, although "that's not the same as saying they all have to be involved in the research excellence framework".

According to the university's strategic plan, when it comes to students, Lincoln's key competitors are predominantly the large metropolitan institutions.

The plan states that Lincoln has "distinct advantages" over these rivals, not least its small, personal scale - it has about 10,000 students - and its historic location, with graduation ceremonies held in the breathtaking Lincoln Cathedral.

Professor Stuart described it as an institution that is "21st-century relevant but with old university values".

She also wants Lincoln to develop a focus on "research-engaged teaching" - extending opportunities for students to hear about staff research, help them with their projects and conduct their own studies.

Other plans involve strengthening the university's links with local employers, including a partnership with Siemens to form a new engineering school, and global internships for its students.

"It is a very exciting moment to come to Lincoln," she said. "We've very high ambitions about what we'd like to achieve."


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