Interview with Baroness Lawrence

We talk to the civil rights campaigner about making higher education accessible to all and how the UK has a long way to go to end discrimination

January 28, 2016
Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon

Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon was thrust into the public eye when her son Stephen was murdered in a racist attack in 1993. Her tireless campaign for justice led to a spotlight being thrown on racism in British society, most prominently in the police. She founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, helping them to start careers in architecture, journalism and law. She was made a life peer in 2013 and last week was invested as De Montfort University’s new chancellor.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Clarendon in Jamaica in 1952.

How has this shaped you?
I wanted very much to have Clarendon in my title when I was appointed to the House of Lords, and we had to get special permission from the government of Jamaica to allow this. So many of the values that I’ve lived by since we moved to the UK and as an adult were values that I learned from my family in Clarendon.

What are you most looking forward to in your chancellorship?
Hopefully I can help inspire young people to do the best they can. Not everyone has the connections to get on in life, and if I can encourage young De Montfort students to believe in themselves, then I will have helped in some way.

What do you view as the most important aspect of the position?
To be a role model, to represent the students and the university as a whole to the best of my ability.

What was it about De Montfort that convinced you to take the position?
It was their commitment to reaching out to students in all communities, to getting the most out of them. Their vision of education as a benefit to all in the community whether locally or globally is something I believe in and work towards through the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.

How important is higher education in our society?
It’s hugely important. It’s a gift and we should cherish it and ensure that all who want to go to university have the opportunity to do so. It also brings responsibility with it so students should be encouraged to give back to society through their studies and in later life.

You’ve campaigned to increase the number of students from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds in higher education. Do you hope to use your position to further boost these numbers?
Yes I do. No one should be written off because of their race or background.

Do you have any plans to integrate your campaign work into your position?
Our values are very similar, so I’m sure there will be ways in which we can support each other’s goals.

Academic Robert Beckford suggested in an article a couple of years ago that there was a ‘myth’ that Stephen would have got a place on an architectural course, trained and got a job, not on account of his ability but because contemporary Britain is still weighted against BME groups. Do you still think that there is a strong culture of discrimination in our society, despite all the work that you and others have done to improve it?
We’ve made a lot of progress but of course there’s still discrimination. We’ve still got a long way to go before we can truly say that everyone is given the same opportunity to reach their potential.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
Universities have a much greater sense of serving their communities, I think, whether those communities be local, or further afield in other countries. Some of the challenges remain the same: for example, making sure higher education is available to all.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Not yet.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be yourself, challenge yourself, never give up.

What keeps you awake at night?

What do you do for fun?
I enjoy going to the gym.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not appreciating that our children are on loan to us, taking my son Stephen for granted by thinking he would be here for ever.

Tell us about someone you admire.
Nelson Mandela for his strength and justice.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Meeting so many young people from different backgrounds, helping some of them through the work of the trust, is the best thing. The worst thing is possibly not having enough time to help everyone.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
#DMUlocal and #DMUglobal are initiatives that give opportunities to DMU students to work with local and international communities, to learn from those communities and to give something back. It wouldn’t be quite a policy but an aspiration perhaps that all students should be given opportunities such as these.

Stephen’s murder has had such a significant impact on many aspects of British society that it is today still very much a part of the national consciousness. As his mother, how does it affect you on a day-to-day basis?
I would wish to have my life back, to be a face in the crowd.


Alison McCleery, professor of economic and cultural geography in Edinburgh Napier University’s business school, has been appointed deputy director of the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science, which is hosted by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science. The SGSSS is home to the Economic and Social Research Council Doctoral Training Centre for Scotland. Professor McCleery will combine a half-time professorial role at Edinburgh Napier with her new role and takes up the position in April. “I am delighted to have been appointed to this exciting cross-sector research leadership role, especially as I am able to combine it with my front-line research professorship in the business school at Edinburgh Napier,” she said.

Aberystwyth University has announced the appointment of John Grattan as acting vice-chancellor. Professor Grattan, who takes up the interim position on 1 February, is currently pro vice-chancellor for student experience and international. “The university is recognised internationally for the quality of its teaching and research, and 2016 will be a year for building on these in what is an increasingly competitive recruitment market,” he said. He added that Aberystwyth was investing more than £100 million in new research and teaching facilities and student residences, “work that is critical for the future success of the university and the local economy”. Professor Grattan will fulfil the role until a new vice-chancellor assumes office.

The University of Oxford has announced new appointments across the university. Birke Häcker, lecturer in law at Ludwig Maximilians University, will become Linklaters professor of comparative law from 1 September. Ofra Magidor, associate professor of philosophy at Oxford, will become Waynflete professor of metaphysical philosophy on 1 October. Rob Iliffe has taken up his position as professor of the history of science. He was previously professor of intellectual history and history of science at the University of Sussex.

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