Middlesex University v-c seeks inspiration from institution’s past as he sets future course

Tim Blackman is keen to build on successes achieved in his predecessor’s two decades in charge

November 19, 2015
People gathered at Middlesex University quad
Visible legacy: the transformed quad has improved facilities for students

It’s a grey, murky afternoon in northwest London, but Middlesex University’s main quad is still teeming with students.

Undergraduates sip Starbucks coffees, check their iPads and chat leisurely with friends unperturbed by the autumn chill affecting the rest of Hendon, thanks to a vast glass roof overhead.

This stunning piece of architecture, completed in 2006 at a cost of £13 million, is the most visible part of the legacy left by Michael Driscoll, who retired this summer after almost 20 years as vice-chancellor.

Driscoll took the helm in 1996 – four years after Middlesex Polytechnic gained university status – and proceeded to transform the institution with a number of ambitious projects at home and overseas.

During his tenure, a multitude of teaching sites dotted across north London were closed and sold, with about £200 million invested in the university’s impressive modernist campus in Hendon since 2000.

Middlesex was also one of the first UK universities to set up an international branch campus, in 2004, and it now has about 2,000 students located in Dubai in addition to smaller outfits in Mauritius and Malta.

So how does Tim Blackman, the new vice-chancellor, put his imprint on a university at the end of two decades of radical change?

“Michael has created some very good foundations for me,” admits Blackman, who was pro vice-chancellor for research at The Open University for four years and also acting vice-chancellor.

But there is scope to expand some of the activities in which Middlesex has excelled, Blackman believes.

“Middlesex has a terrific reputation for its partnerships with business, and a real strength is work-placed learning,” he explains.

“Many universities have pulled out of collaborative provision because they see it as a risk, but it is something we do really well,” he adds, citing the Asda-backed course in retail operations as a market leader.

The institution has had strong links to business since its earliest days, long before the idea of “industry engagement” became fashionable in higher education, Blackman says.

One of its predecessors – the Ediswan Institute, which later became Enfield College of Technology – was founded by Joseph Wilson Swan, the British inventor behind the first electric light bulbs, he says.

Community engagement by universities – another focus for Blackman – also has strong roots at Middlesex, he contends.

It was his experience at Enfield that Eric Robinson drew on in penning his influential 1968 book The New Polytechnics: The People’s Universities, cited as a major factor in the creation of the new universities that gained formal recognition after 1992.

“Robinson wanted study to have a real purpose, [with institutions] producing the best technology and being heavily involved in their communities,” Blackman says.

Middlesex’s highly diverse student population – about half are from ethnic minorities and 20 per cent from abroad – is testament to the university’s work in its locale, he says.

This diversity can be harnessed to improve classroom experience via more peer-to-peer learning, Blackman believes. “We have the best graduates coming back to teach, while second and third years who are doing well mentor first-year students, so I’d like to see how we can use this [more]…as it is very effective.”

The vice-chancellor is also keen on more student input into the curriculum – yet another development pioneered at Middlesex, he says.

“The sit-ins at Hornsey College of Art – one of our institutions – in 1968 were started by students who really just wanted to influence their curriculum. It started a massive wave of sit-ins and a whole movement across the country, but student engagement is something we take for granted now.”

It seems, for Blackman, that Middlesex’s illustrious past is as good a place as any to look for inspiration as he seeks to shape its future.


In numbers

20% of Middlesex University’s students come from overseas

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Print headline: Future direction of travel builds on pioneering past

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