I had the great pleasure of speaking to Professor Petra Wend, former Vice-Chancellor of Queen Margaret University and a member of the UK Academic Advisory Board, where we talked about how her first visit to Italy started her passion for languages, learning and illustrated the power of education to create opportunities for everyone, regardless of their background. We also talked about some of the many highlights of her academic career, advice for young people keen to work in academia and her incredible artwork - including a portrait of a famous newsreader voted favourite by the man himself!
Professor Petra Wend has worked consistently throughout her career as an academic to cross borders, geographically and socially, in order to realise the full potential of the institutions with which she was associated. With a research background originally in Italian literature and then in institutional strategies underpinning successful leadership, improvements in student experience and university performance indicators, Professor Wend has a significant profile of accolades, and invited lectures in the international higher education world. Professor Wend has been a member or chair of a significant number of national and international boards.
What initially drew you to your field of specialism?
I would say that there are two aspects, the first being Italian. I studied Italian and French at university and what attracted me to learning Italian came from my first experience abroad: I come from quite a poor working class family, so we never had holidays, but when I was 14, the Italian Lira was so weak that my parents and wider family decided we should go to Italy together because it would be cheaper than staying at home. So I went with my whole family, the whole gang in four different little cars. We drove all the way down to Italy and that was the first time for me that I went abroad. It had a huge impact on me, seeing across the border, seeing mountains, then going to the sea - experiencing a different culture, people, language. It left me so impressed and engaged with Italy that my cousin and I enrolled in an evening class to learn Italian when we got back home to Germany, and this is how my story with Italy started. I became more and more passionate about Italian and decided this was what I wanted to study at university, which led to me studying literature and linguistics and then later on to a PhD in Italian Renaissance poetry by women, which I completed with a supervisor in England because he was the expert in Europe on that topic. My other specialism is education because I also studied education at university, combining my language studies with education to become a teacher, because I felt that education was the key to improving the world. I've always been very keen on being involved in education in one way or another.
What role do you think universities and higher institutions play in modern society?
Higher education and universities play a much bigger role than many people perceive. Research and teaching are two key roles, but on top of that is the role they play in the economy for a country, not only in terms of being major employers in their region, but also the role they play in the transfer and exchange of research and knowledge and educating students to become valued employees as they go out into the workforce. The other major role that is often underestimated is that of creating opportunities for people to experience an education that takes them forward to make changes in the world. Very often, this is described as widening participation, but for me, it goes much further. For me, it is about identifying the potential in people and what they can achieve through education. I've obviously experienced that myself and so has my brother. I've also experienced this through my daughter, who although was privileged to have a mother who benefitted from education, I was also a single mother and I lived in an area of inner London which was one of the most difficult in terms of education and schools. I could see the enormous benefit of education to the kids at my daughter's school, with two students in particular who used to practically live with us during their time at school and whom I mentored. Ultimately these young girls were transformed by being able to get accepted by and then succeed at university. Through their experiences, I saw the transformative power that schools and universities can have.
"I could see the enormous benefit of education to the kids at my daughter's school, with two students in particular whom I mentored...whose lives were transformed by being able to get accepted by and then succeed at university. Through their experiences I saw the transformative power that schools and universities can have."
This also reflects my own experience. My parents did not get to enjoy an education and didn't want to send me to a grammar school for financial reasons. However, my primary school teacher put pressure on my parents to send me to grammar school. There I had two teachers who gave me a lot of attention. My maths teacher invited me to her home to help me study, and she lived in a house, the first time I had actually seen a house as I and my friends lived in small flats. She also had a French au-pair. Firstly, I didn't understand the concept of an au-pair, but also the fact she was French and working for a German speaking family. The teacher explained to me that she wanted her kids to grow up speaking two languages, the concept of which opened up another world to me. My art teacher felt I was gifted in art and she actually drove me out of town to see art exhibitions in galleries, which was the first time I had been into a museum or gallery and again, that was a world that wouldn't have been open to me if it hadn't been for her.
What have been some of the highlights of your academic career?
There have been so many good moments! I started as a lecturer in Italian and German. It was amazing how students would wake up to being able to speak a language. They would first feel apprehensive, that languages were difficult, that they were never going to get a good grade, never going to be able to communicate, and then suddenly at the end of the year, students would say they never thought they could do so well, and it was the same when they studied abroad for a year and came back transformed - they'd grown up, become adults, they spoke the language. From lecturing I moved on to become a manager, going through the various positions - Head of Languages first, Associate Dean, Dean, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, then Vice-Chancellor and so on. At every stage I realised that you are able to make improvements, even if it may at times seem impossible. Each time I wanted to take action I wondered how I might get it done! But it was always a great feeling. I have always had the support of wonderful colleagues, both from people who I managed and also from people who encouraged me from above. I completed a management programme many years ago for senior university leaders and I met a very special group of people from across the UK who continued to meet after the course ended, which was wonderful - to have that peer support throughout my career has been a gift. I was, in fact, the last woman standing from this group and to mark the occasion, they presented me with a little beaker which was engraved with "Petra wins Top Management Programme", the name of the course where we all met!
Outside of education, what are you passionate about?
Art! I love to paint, and I did initially want to go to art college and study art in Italian, but I wasn't accepted because I really didn't know how to go about it - I didn't have anyone to support me in putting my application together. Many years later, while Vice-Chancellor, I didn't have much free time for art but I did some paintings of the university building a number of times and established what was called the Vice-Chancellor's Fund, making £8,000 each year through sales of my prints of paintings. The funds were available to students who wanted to study or work overseas, but didn't have the money to do it. I believe very strongly that it is very important to experience other cultures, so I was delighted to help students gain these experiences through the sale of my work. Now that I'm retired, I've started to paint again - I entered the King Lear Prize recently and received a highly commended award which was nice! I also took part in the Sky TV programme Artist of the Year, which started during lockdown last year, where you have a famous person sitting for you online and everybody at home can paint along. Then you share your picture on Instagram which makes you part of an art community - I've done that twice now, and actually two weeks ago, my portrait of Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow was chosen as his personal favourite, which was great! I'm also getting commissions now, so that's quite nice! (Check out Petra's art on Instagram here, @petrawendart)
Petra's portrait of Jon Snow - incredible!
What advice would you give to students starting their academic studies?
I was once the chair of a longitudinal research group examining student successes and needs which followed a number of students over five years - three years of university and two years into their first job. Every student said after five years that they wished they had known what they absolutely shouldn't have missed on their curriculum during their time at university. Therefore, I think my advice would be to perhaps listen more to the advice of university staff as opposed to what you think you need! An example: at Queen Margaret University, we had a very big health faculty with a strong inter-professional and interdisciplinary learning approach - if you train to be a physiotherapist, for example, you need to know about other health problems, radiology, the body more generally, nursing, oncology and so on. So every semester there was one compulsory module of interdisciplinary professional learning - and the students did not like it at all! We had complaints every single year. But the students got good jobs, 100% employability at the highest level, because of that module and typically, past students would tell me it was great that they undertook that study because it gave them exactly what was needed in their jobs and gave them the edge over other job seekers. Also, obviously it's important to engage, to have fun and to be part of a group - peers are so important and my advice is to learn from them as well, form working groups and study together. Don't be on your own.
"It's important to engage, to have fun and to be part of a group - peers are just so important and my advice is to learn from them as well, form working groups and study together. Don't be on your own."
What advice would you give to young people starting out in their academic career?
Again: don't be alone. Perhaps that's even more important because very often when you start your academic career, you may forget why you wanted to work in a university. You came to university because you have a passion for your subject, but you also have a passion for education and for what university is all about, and it's so easy to get bogged down in bureaucracy, meetings, personal tensions, political issues...it is important to remind yourself of the positive impact you have on students. I would do this by maintaining contact with students - even when I was the Vice-Chancellor, I would still teach occasionally. Twice a year I would give a guest seminar and and each time it would pick me up. I would also walk through the library to take a look over some student shoulders, hopefully without them noticing, and I was always so positively surprised that they were all working so hard on essays or research. Doing that and experiencing student life and seeing the great work that is going on helps to remind oneself all the time. That for me is the best advice for anyone starting a career in academia: don't get bogged down in the challenges that you might experience working within a university and take action to remind yourself of the positive impact that you have.
A huge thank you to Professor Wend for sharing her stories with us. You can read an interview with Professor Rebecca Bunting, another member of our UK Academic Advisory Board, here.