Campus in Focus - Queen Mary, University of London

A fresh era dawns for one of the Russell Group’s newest, and least typical, members. Plus the latest campus news from around the UK

Graduates at Queen Mary, University of London

After just over a century of handing out University of London degrees, Queen Mary will finally award its own certificates to undergraduates this year.

It’s a change that many graduates might not notice when picking up their scrolls, but its significance for the East End institution is immense – a bold declaration of its status as an independent, self-assured university.

Having joined the Russell Group in 2012, the decision to exercise its own degree-awarding powers (gained seven years ago) was a logical one, said Simon Gaskell, Queen Mary’s principal since 2009.

“A few years ago, Queen Mary was not the confident university it is today,” he said. “In the past, it might have looked as if the institution was not confident enough [to award its own degrees] and it’s likely that was the case.”

Professor Gaskell predicted that very few students would take up the option of a University of London degree over a Queen Mary one in 2014.

Instead, thousands will follow in the footsteps of Shamim Khademi Najaf Abadi, a physics PhD student who became the first Queen Mary degree recipient in September.

But while Queen Mary is looking forward to a new era in the Russell Group, it is “not a typical Russell Group university”, Professor Gaskell explained.

“Our student intake is very different, and we celebrate the fact that two-thirds of our students come from ethnic minorities,” he said.

Other differences include the fact that about two-thirds of students hold down part-time jobs in term-time, while about a third live at home, often to avoid the enormous London rents.

Not all students will boast the clutches of straight As found among the intakes of some other Russell Group universities, Professor Gaskell is also happy to admit.

Some will hold lower grades, which is a “natural outcome” of Queen Mary’s commitment to widening participation, which has been a central tenet of the institution since it was founded in the 19th century to provide a technical education to London’s working classes.

This social engagement was taken to a new level in recent years with Queen Mary sponsoring a string of schools in the capital. One of these was St Paul’s Way Trust School, in Tower Hamlets, which was failing in February 2010 when Queen Mary stepped in.

The university went on to help St Paul’s Way set up a sixth-form college under a new headteacher, and the results have been astonishing, Professor Gaskell said. “Last year 50 per cent of students [at the school] received an offer from a Russell Group university, an offer rate that would rival many independent schools,” he said.

Queen Mary is now co-sponsoring Drapers’ Academy in Harold Hill, Essex, where the issue of underachievement of white working-class boys is a particular problem.

Such activities could be viewed as distractions from the university’s core purpose of pursuing research and providing higher learning for students, but Professor Gaskell said this was not the case. Indeed, Queen Mary’s efforts had helped him to recruit some outstanding academics attracted by what he called the institution’s “values-led system”.

“We were the first London university committed to the living wage, and we’ve never attempted to outsource our cleaning staff,” said Professor Gaskell.

He meanwhile defended the use of a metrics-based redundancy programme in some departments in 2012, saying “objective assessment of evidence” was a “logical progression” as the university sought to improve its standing in this year’s research excellence framework.

Professor Gaskell said that he was looking forward to 2014 with renewed confidence and expected to expand student numbers in engineering, economics and finance, although intakes would have to be reduced in other areas, such as law, to ensure that teaching quality is maintained.

This year will be the institution’s first trading under a new legal name after quietly dropping the “Westfield College” part of its official title, which had remained since its merger with the women’s college in 1989.

It has also won permission from the Privy Council to drop the comma that awkwardly punctuated Queen Mary, University of London, since gaining its Royal Charter in 1934.

Back then, the idea of Queen Mary distancing itself from the mighty educational edifice of the University of London would have seemed fanciful. Today, Queen Mary, although still proud of its Senate House links, has the confidence to stand alone.

In numbers

50% of students from St Paul’s Way Trust School in Tower Hamlets, which is sponsored by Queen Mary, received an offer from a Russell Group university in 2013.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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