Tuesday, October 24, 2017

There's more to HE than Oxford - Queen Mary

This post follows on the heel of my previous blogpost about the recent controversy of the lack of diversity in Oxbridge admissions. I was prompted to think about my new institution, Queen Mary University of London, following a new staff induction event I attended yesterday.

I realise that I never discussed much what prompted my move from Oxford to London, particularly my move from the top university in the world according to some rankings. Well, here is a brief overview:

  1. After studying and working at Oxford for almost 7 years, the town was becoming a little small and a little closed off to me. Many of my friends had moved on. My S.O. lived and worked in London. And also, once you lose your college affiliation/identity you realise that so much of what happens in Oxford is closed to you, even if you work for the university. So, the primary reason to move was person - it was to have a better work/life balance. I think it is so important to say that because there is sometimes a perception that once you are in Oxford you have "made it" and therefore should stay even if it doesn't suit your needs. I reject that idea. I reject that work should come before welfare.
  2. On the point about welfare. I was working in student welfare and support services and although I enjoyed so much of what I did, the emotional side of it was a little draining. More than I had anticipated. I wanted a job where I didn't take trauma back home with me. However, that being said, I am still passionate about welfare and student support is an area I would like to return to.
I have to admit that I wasn't fussy about what type of role I could get in London. I just wanted to move. I had a list of the universities I wanted to apply to, and found roles that I either thought I could do or that I thought I had transferable skills for. Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) was at the top of my list for a number of reasons:

  • Location  - I intended to live in east London and wanted a decent commute. I lucked out because I am on a direct bus route to work which only takes 25-30 minutes. No sweaty tube for me!
  • Pay - talking about money is dirty, no? Oh well. I took a lateral move in my career (so stayed on a commensurate grade). However, many London universities would have paid significantly less than QMUL for the same grade. I had a sense that QMUL treated it's staff well.
  • Word-of-mouth/Reputation - I knew alumni and staff at QMUL who only ever had wonderful things to say about the institution. It joined the Russell Group in 2012 and (as a medievalist in my spare time) I knew some excellent medievalists there where I hope I can forge some connections.
What surprised me was just how great QMUL is. I'm not going to discuss teaching and research, although I can vouch that it is world class here. I am going to paraphrase some of the key stats which the new Principal of QMUL, Professor Colin Bailey, gave to us at the new staff induction:

  1. The student body represents 162 nationalities - it is truly international
  2. Approximately 57% of the student body identifies as Black and Minority Ethnic.
  3. There is a real sense of how the university supports the local community, both in terms of widening access to HE but also more broadly in terms of working collaboratively with the local council and other agencies to improve the welfare of those in Tower Hamlets.

This feels very different to Oxford. Currently around 15% of Oxford students are BME. In addition, there is sometimes tension between the University and the local area in Oxford with many resenting the wealth of the institution and feeling that it fails to work to bridge the town/gown divide. 

I'm not here to bash Oxford. I loved it. But sometimes distance gives perspective. I am so privileged to have studied and worked there. Yet when you leave, you do see things a little more clearly and there are areas which can be improved. And of course, QMUL is not perfect either. It faces issues related to retention and attainment which Oxford doesn't. But what I admire so much is the diversity of the student body, the emphasis on access, and the sense of place within the local community.

Our Principal described this university as a hidden gem. I find it hard to disagree.

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