The University of Huddersfield is riding high after being named University of the Year 2013 at the Times Higher Education Awards, as well as scoring higher than any other university in THE’s Best University Workplace Survey. We spoke to Sir Patrick Stewart, Huddersfield’s chancellor, to find out more about his life in acting and higher education.
Where and when were you born?
The town of Mirfield, in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1940.
How has this shaped you?
I am from a working-class family and an industrialised area. This has shaped my political views and my connection to those who must struggle to make something of their lives.
You have mentioned in interviews that you were never academic. If you could, would you go back to your schooldays and apply to university?
Things have changed so much since my teens. University was then a serious option for very few working-class youngsters. If I had been born in the 1980s, say, my attitudes and aspirations would probably have been very different and yes, maybe I would have applied to the University of Huddersfield. All my life I have been sensitive about my limited education. My dear friend Sir Ian McKellen, who is a grammar school boy and Cambridge graduate, often teases me about my educational hang-ups.
What would you study and why?
Well, English, naturally, because I would feel that I already have a head start in that field of study. But as I have become more familiar with the sciences taught at Huddersfield, I would love to spend my days in one of our magnificent laboratories. But as our vice-chancellor, Bob Cryan, knows only too well, I don’t have the maths.
You’re a proud local lad – where were you and what were you doing when you heard that Huddersfield had won the THE University of the Year award?
I was in New York, where I have been performing in [Harold Pinter’s] No Man’s Land and [Samuel Beckett’s] Waiting for Godot with Sir Ian at the Cort Theatre. When Professor Cryan emailed me with the news I was naturally delighted and very proud. But the award was long overdue in my opinion!
What’s your most important job as Huddersfield’s chancellor?
The most public side of the job is to preside over graduation ceremonies and other events and to deliver addresses. But I also meet students and staff more informally and I have conducted master-classes with performance students. I have also joined Huddersfield delegations on overseas visits – to China, for example. I am proud to endorse Huddersfield anywhere.
You’re also a professor of performing arts: what’s more rewarding, acting or teaching?
I would have to say acting because that is what defines me as a person. But I do think that it is the responsibility of anyone who has enjoyed success in any profession to give something back, and teaching is one of the ways I can do this. In addition, I learn from our performance arts students.
You’ve played several professors on screen, which would be most suited to a job at Huddersfield?
Professor Xavier [from X-Men] might be disappointed at the lack of mutant superpowers among the staff and students, but there would be much to absorb his intellect. He might get involved in some of the leading-edge research into accelerator technology.
Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My early heroes were Gielgud, Olivier and Guinness, but the person I have continually cited as having the biggest influence on my career was my English teacher, Cecil Dormand, who encouraged my performing ambitions.
What keeps you awake at night?
Huddersfield Town AFC in a relegation scrap…like nine months ago.
Which acting role have you enjoyed most?
One of the great Shakespearean roles, but I try to extract enjoyment from every part.
And which was the worst?
I reserve the right to remain silent.
What do you do for fun?
Cars are a passion and I love walking in the Dales. Currently I am playing a lot of table tennis.
What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
People put a figure on the earnings premium, but equally university education has to be about self-enrichment and personal fulfilment.
As Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek, you got used to saying: ‘Make it so.’ What policy would you implement if you were higher education minister for the day?
A return to free higher education for anyone who needed it.