#loveHE: The academy trek: a transformative journey into a world of potential

Sir Patrick Stewart describes the delights of higher education, the dangers it faces and how Huddersfield lured him home

March 11, 2010

After a long period of my life spent in the US, I began to think of a permanent return to England.

It happened eventually and the result would mark a rewarding new chapter in my acting career. But I needed a special spark to make me relocate again. It came from a university, which may seem unusual in view of my life story.

I suppose my own higher education took place with the Royal Shakespeare Company. After secondary modern schooling in West Yorkshire and a rather chequered and short-lived stint as a cub reporter on a local paper, I managed to break into repertory theatre in the late 1950s.

After seven years I made it to the RSC and stayed with the company for 14 years. It was my life and my passion. The company provided a superb theatrical education, as well as giving me the opportunity to mix with clever, highly educated colleagues and creative people from cultures all around the world.

While in the US, I was co-director of Acter: A Center for Creative Theater, Education and Research, based at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but had little contact with the world of education in the UK. So it came as rather a surprise when, in 2004, I was asked if I would consider becoming chancellor of the University of Huddersfield. The answer was yes, I would be delighted - but I wanted to be rather more than a figurehead who showed up once a year, donned the ceremonial robes and handed out certificates. I wanted to be as closely involved with the university and its development as time would permit.

And it was this prospect that helped me to make up my mind and move back to the UK. I had a career and property in the US, but I wanted to go home. In terms of my artistic development, it would prove to be an excellent move. I believe my experience stands as a metaphor for the transformative power of university education.

My own journey took me back across the Atlantic and towards a new phase in my stage career. At universities such as Huddersfield, students make a journey into their own potential. It is vital, not only for them but for the country as a whole, that as many people as possible take this road.

My involvement with the University of Huddersfield has worked out just as I hoped. I am proud to be thought of as a hands-on chancellor - and to have been appointed professor of performing arts. I am proud of the way that the university, with its deep roots in local industry and technical education, has expanded both in terms of student numbers - they stand at a record 24,000 - and the range of its research.

Huddersfield's campus is an exciting place to be. The range and quality of teaching and research - from science, engineering, health, social work and business to the humanities, music and drama - are a constant inspiration. The students and staff I meet here are making a difference to our future.

But the future of higher education itself is uncertain. It is fortunate that Huddersfield has placed itself on a sound financial footing, but we cannot expect immunity from the effects of government cutbacks.

Every sector of the economy faced with retrenchment will make a case for the impact to be minimised. Universities are no exception. Is it special pleading? I hardly think so. A reversal in the expansion and quality of higher education in the UK would have serious implications for individuals, for organisations, for the future of our country.

At Huddersfield, but at dozens of other universities as well, research is taking place that will create and develop the new technologies, industries and economic activity that we desperately need. The graduates who will nurture and develop those industries are vital for our future prosperity.

I am proud to be involved closely with one of our universities. The UK should be proud of and jealously guard its university sector as a whole.

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