Proud winners and PM sparkle at first awards

A heady mix of nerves, elation and pizzazz helped make the first Times Higher Awards a night to remember.

Hundreds of guests from dozens of universities and colleges packed the ballroom of The Dorchester in London for last week's awards dinner, which was as much a celebration of UK higher education as a whole as of the inspirational work of the winners.

The tension mounted each time Laurie Taylor, The Times Higher's columnist and compere for the evening, read out the names of shortlisted candidates before announcing the winners.

Vicky Schofield-Vollans, head of the Learner Development Unit at the University of Central England, hardly dared to hope that the institution's Breakthrough to Learning project would win the Widening Participation Initiative of the Year.

"It was a shock when our name was read out," she said. "I think we had decided we had done really well to be shortlisted. But now everyone's buzzing in the department and thinking about how we take the project forward."

Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University, sat with colleagues awaiting the announcement of the Outstanding Support for Overseas Students Award. The team members erupted in cheers when they were announced as winners.

Dr Copland said: "We were very surprised. It meant a huge amount to us, and the success has struck a chord across the university. What also struck me about the awards was that they were truly representative of the sector as a whole."

For many winners, the awards were dramatic confirmation that others appreciated the work that they and their colleagues do day in, day out.

Richard Davies, vice-chancellor of Swansea University, which won the Best Student Experience Award after coming top in a poll of 10,000 students, said: "Winning this award is incredibly good for staff morale. Academics do not get a lot of plaudits, so staff are immensely proud of the award."

Karl Dayson, team leader for Salford University's Community Finance Solutions initiative, which won the Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community Award for its work on financial credit, was delighted for his team.

"It is the sense that our peers outside feel that what we have done here merits this fantastic award," he said.

Emma Shelton, manager of Exeter University's Disability Resource Centre, which won the award for Outstanding Support for Students with Disabilities, said that the winner's certificate was already up on the wall of the centre's reception.

"It has been a big morale booster. Disability in higher education is not exactly the sexiest subject, so for the learning support group to be cast in the limelight is great. I feel so proud," she said.

Many had travelled long distances to be at the ceremony, and none farther than Donna Heddle, head of culture studies at Orkney College, which is part of the UHI Millennium Institute.

Dr Heddle, who lectures on the cultural studies BA, which won the award for Most Imaginative Use of Distance Learning, decided not to attempt an immediate return journey and instead enjoyed a night at the Dorchester.

"It was a great night, and the award means a lot to all of us up here. The phone interview with Radio Orkney at 7.30 the next morning was a bit of a challenge though," Dr Heddle said.

Others, such as Ken Mulvany, chief executive of Proximagen Neuroscience, which is based at King's College London, had less far to travel. But Mr Mulvany was no less delighted with the accolade Business Initiative of the Year.

He said: "I am over the moon that we won against such heavy competition. It is up there with our other corporate milestones, and it probably added a couple of pence to the share price."

Rana Mitter said he was "delighted and honoured" to win the Young Academic Author of the Year Award for his book A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World .

"One of the things that really pleases me about winning is that this is a time when China is becoming more and more prominent in our lives and yet the subject still seems so alien," he said.

"I also think that awards like these help counter the focus across higher education that is largely on work that will fulfil the next research assessment exercise."

There was a surprise for guests in the form of Tony Blair who, in a filmed address, hailed the awards as a celebration of the many achievements of UK higher education. The Prime Minister also announced that Manchester University was Institution of the Year.

Alan Gilbert, Manchester's president and vice-chancellor, said: "The award is a validation of what we have and are doing. Not so much a culmination but an inauguration. I feel very much in debt to colleagues past and present at Manchester."

Arguably the biggest cheer of the evening went to Lewis Elton, who was announced by John O'Leary, editor of The Times Higher , as winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Professor Elton, honorary professor of higher education at University College London and a visiting professor at Manchester, said it had been a terrific evening.

And with characteristic black humour the 82-year-old quipped: "I suppose people were thinking, what on earth can he be doing at his age to deserve an award?"

alan.thomson@thes.co.uk

Times Higher Awards 2005

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