April McMahon: Introductory message
Tertullian, writing in the 2nd Century AD, claimed that every victorious Roman general in a triumphal procession would have someone standing behind him whispering in his ear: “Remember you are mortal.” Or in other words, keep your eye on the bigger picture, even if you would sometimes rather forget it.
My job as Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students is sometimes surprisingly similar to that whisperer. I trot (or sometimes gallop) around reminding everyone that students are absolutely at the heart of our University. There are 40,000 of them, they’re fabulous, their voices are incredibly important, and without students, we don’t have a University.
Absolutely the best thing since my arrival at Manchester has been the daily discovery of more and more colleagues who are also devoted to ensuring that we support our students as they learn, gain mastery of their academic disciplines, build their many and varied student experiences, and juggle their often complicated lives. If that’s you, then regardless of your job title or where in our University you work, I’m delighted to welcome you to ‘Team April’, whether or not we have met yet.
The other brilliant thing since I arrived on 1 October has been Professor Clive Agnew, my predecessor, who many of you will already know as a wonderful, generous human being. He was unfailingly tolerant as I trundled around after him for a full month, asking novice questions and confusing the names of our committees. I am glad to report I have now passed the Manchester Acronym Test and have my SLT badge, so as of 1 November I am officially in my VP role. I know you will join me in wishing Clive every happiness in his well-deserved retirement. I am still not sure how I will adapt to going to meetings all on my own without him, and we quite enjoyed the odd reference to us as ‘the terrible twins of teaching’.
I am passionate about being in a student-facing role because I have no doubt all the doors that have opened for me in my own life have done so as a result of going to university – Edinburgh in my case (and some time ago in the last century). I didn’t go to the kind of school that routinely sent a lot of people into higher education, and when I went, only about 15% of school leavers did.
My mother, who had basically no formal education at all herself, having left school early in the Second World War and been evacuated to take care of her younger siblings, was nonetheless a voracious reader and an unstoppable champion of education as the way forward.
Regardless of the fact that she had no clue what happened inside a university, she was very keen for me to go and find out for both of us. Although she died when I was still an undergraduate, I take great comfort from the fact that she knew I had got there and was rocketing along nicely doing English Language and Linguistics, which is still my academic field.
When Edinburgh presented me with an honorary degree, I was proud to dedicate it to my mother; and now part of my job is to make sure lots of other students with great potential, but tricky early lives, get the chance to come to university just like me.
I continued from my first degree to a PhD, also at Edinburgh, and then went straight into my first academic job at Cambridge, so having got into university, I have never really left. I followed a classic part-teaching, part-research career, balancing teaching and writing textbooks, running research grants and increasingly moving into leadership roles in a number of different UK universities.
I’ve learned a huge amount from all these roles, and have had various external commitments too, for example with the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) where I was most recently Humanities pilot subject panel chair for two years.
I am on the board of LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, and also serve on various working groups and committees for the British Academy, so you may encounter me on the train to and from London, and more regularly the train to and from Glossop where I now live (which I understand is known widely as the Gossip Express).
Outside the office I am married to Rob, a molecular geneticist (we have written two books together and amazingly are still married). We are lucky enough to have three fantastic children. Aidan and Fergus have both graduated already, and bizarrely are both working in the same disciplines as their degrees (so we have an architectural technologist and a chemist respectively). Our daughter Flo is a first-year undergraduate theologian at Edinburgh. I enjoy dancing and singing, though not at the same time; and am delighted to have joined the University Chorus, which is frighteningly good but reassuringly welcoming.
I am at the point after two whole months in Manchester when I can begin to identify priorities, but still understand I may not have got them quite right, so my key objective now is to talk to as many colleagues and students as possible, and test those ideas out.
I am very clear about our need, as a community committed to education with no boundaries and no barriers, to up our game on widening participation, so we build and support as diverse a student body as possible. This is not just about access, but also excellence in attainment, and success in future employment or study.
I think Manchester needs to make up its mind about how fast we are going for online and blended learning, not just for our distance learners, but to improve the experience of all our on-campus students too.
I am motivated by building a broader leadership team for Teaching, Learning and Students, including academic and Professional Services staff and students; and in general to developing better ways of working in partnership with our students, who are after all the experts at being students at this moment in time.
I’d love to see Manchester breaking the stereotype that great big research-intensive universities can’t also have a fabulous academic experience for our students; and I genuinely believe we can deliver that together, especially now we have our new Institute for Teaching and Learning.
If you want to bring your energy and commitment to that goal, I look forward to meeting you and finding out more about the extraordinary work I know many of you are already doing. Meanwhile I will continue to enjoy settling into Manchester and proceeding, as my motto says, until apprehended.
Policy Vice-President (Teaching, Learning and Students)