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A wonderful chat with the delightful Professor Marilyn Holness, OBE

Andrea Collings

Andrea Collings

Dec 9, 2020

This started out as a partner profile interview, but the easy going nature and ability to completely draw you in to her vision and marvel at her passion for education and the deserving achievements awarded to her, meant that almost immediately I felt like firm friends with the endlessly energetic Professor Marilyn Holness, OBE.

From her devoted commitment to student support and success, not just at the University of Roehampton, but nationally, to receiving her OBE, being featured in the Southbank exhibition in London as part of the shockingly small 1% of UK black women professors, to her support for her son Super-Sam. And if that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, her charity and ambassadorial work during her ‘spare time’. 

Read on for part 1 of our 2 part Professor Holness profile interview...


 

Marilyn still_pic 1

What role should universities play in modern society?

I think that the role of universities in society is a vital one, an absolutely vital one. And for me, it just underpins my belief in what I think education is about. I'm totally passionate about education and its transformational powers, on the positive role that it makes in changing people's lives. So for me, the university, on one level, at just the most obvious easy level, it's about creating opportunities. 

It's a place where people can learn and realise their potential. It's about life. It's a key to a door. And without that key, you can't go through the door. And on the other side of the door are opportunities. On the other side of the door are options. On the other side of the door are choices. But if you don't have the key, you don't have access to those things. So university is a time and a space to be and to learn and develop - and to gain a key which will allow you choice because people can choose to do things or choose not to. But if you don't have the key and you can't get through that door, then you've got nothing. 

"I'm totally passionate about education and its transformational powers, on the positive role that it makes in changing people's lives."

I see that it shapes futures. It allows you to challenge the status quo. It bucks trends. It raises aspirations and it makes a difference in terms of social outcomes, making changes in terms of social inequality. So for me, the university is about giving our graduates an opportunity to prepare them for their place in society and the role in which they are going to play. They're going to be future leaders. They're going to make a difference and the kind of difference that they make will be informed by the opportunity that university experience gives them. So I think it's about helping students to gain and learn about themselves and gain a sense of agency over where they're going to go next and their place in the world. So I think it makes a significant difference to people's lives! And I always say my own included.

What are your thoughts on the headlines about the biggest ever dropout rates predicted for this year's intake of first years? 

I think that across all universities, Roehampton included, all of the teams involved in things like recruitment and admissions and selection are working so hard in really challenging situations, to make sure that there are places available and that students can make that transfer and transition into higher education. 

I know there's been a lot of talk about people not turning up, but we also have to look at this against the climate that we're in. If you look at professional courses - for example we offer teacher training at Roehampton - at the moment the economic climate is such that people are losing their jobs. People are being made redundant. People don't know what's going to happen next. But if you haven't got employment to go to and in times of recession, higher education does get a boost. 

When we're saying there's going to be a mass fall out, I think we have to just wait and see. I believe that young people are going to look at all of the options available to them. And for many young people, going to university will be something that is a bit of a certainty in an uncertain time. I'm not trying to ignore the trends, but I just think that a lot of school leavers that I've been talking to and that we've been working with, are still looking for university places and seeing university as an option, even if in the short term they don't see the opportunity, they are seeing it as ‘well, it might be a stopgap’. A gap year travelling the world isn't on offer anymore. Taking up employment in lots of organisations who are contracting their staff may not be an option. And therefore university does offer a bit of certainty. 

I think that the students that we've been working with and talking to are looking forward to coming to university, see it as something that is here and now and reasonable and safe and something to aspire to. Let's just watch and see on that. 

"for many young people, going to university will be something that is a bit of a certainty in an uncertain time"

I'm not going to go down the road of  'no one's going to turn up, will it be empty even in a few weeks time'. Our enrolment processes have started. Our continuing students are coming back, our new students are joining us and I just think that process and that time has been expanded and we have to wait and see, and send out positive messages to say that universities are open for business. They offer so much to new students. Why wouldn't you take it? Things are in place and let's just keep it positive and keep looking forward!

During your career in academia, what has been your best moment or moments so far?

I started my career as a teacher - a secondary school teacher - and I loved teaching,  I just loved it! I think it's one of the best professions in the world and if it suits you and you suit it, it's fabulous. If it doesn't suit you, it's awful! And it's not just awful for you, it's awful for the children and the young people that you work with too, they feel your pain. To be honest, it's if it's not right for you, part of teacher training is learning that and moving on to something else. It's not failure, you've just learned something about yourself and you move on. For me, teaching has always been a passion and that passion then grew into teacher training because you make a bigger impact training the teachers who are making that difference.Mailyn profile shot

From there, my career moved into being Head of Department, Head of Education at Roehampton, and that morphed into a cross-university role which is one I currently hold, Director of Student Engagement. I work across the departments to work with our students to help them find their voice, to use their voice, to develop a kind of political efficacy and a self agency, that they can make a difference for themselves and make a difference to the organisation and make a difference to their peers. We help them to do that in a collaborative way, in a safe space of the organisation and developing skills which then can obviously take beyond the organisation. 

"teaching has always been a passion and that passion then grew into teacher training because you make a bigger impact training the teachers who are making that difference."

My career highlights for me...there have been a number of them! One was in my role as Deputy Principal of Southlands College, one of the colleges of the University, I had a pastoral role. In that role I worked with students who were experiencing financial hardship and just working with that student population I produced a way of working with the students; because with hardship, students used to say things like 'I've got no money' cry and then show how little money they had and then they'd get a hardship grant. My educational self said that isn't learning anything - except how to cry and spend the money! So I thought  right, let's put in an educational intervention on teaching people how to manage their finance. How to budget, how to understand the way finances work. I took that model to what was then the Financial Services Authority, now the Financial Conduct Agency.  I said that this is something we should be doing, and it was at the right time when they were looking at financial capabilities across the four nations of the UK. We did a one year project where we worked with 20 universities, and then we did a two year project where we worked with 50 universities, and then a three year project where we had 150 universities doing national finance capability work. That work went across the sector, across the four nations of the UK and we made a difference. It fed into, and is still part of, the Money Advice Service.  Our work translated into the young adults part of that work. So that's something I was really proud of. 

"My OBE was for teacher education and I think at the time there were only 10 for teacher education in the whole country"

Other things that I've been really proud of have been when I got my OBE. My OBE was for teacher education and I think at the time there were only 10 for teacher education in the whole country. And that just shows the recognition that teacher education makes a difference. Lots of people get it for services to education. But, mine is for teacher education and that's what I do and so I'm quite proud of that as a moment. 

Another thing I'd like to mention is when I got my professorship, and I think that that's significant at a time when at the moment, only 1% of professors are black women. Of the twenty thousand professors, there's only thirty five black women professors (Access HE data). When I became a professor, I was No. 26. And you just think to yourself, hey, this is 2020 when higher education is a significant player, a significant employer of staff and we have less than one percent of the professorial role in black women? That is something that I think we need to be mindful of in higher education. If you think about the growing numbers of students who are going into universities, new students, black and brown students are going into higher education in increasing numbers and it’s important for their aspirations to have role models. Being able to see people that look like them, people who have some understanding of their experiences. It's important for their success. It's important for them to feel that it's a place for them. It's a space that they belong in and we need to be looking at our organisations and our hierarchies and what those organisations look and feel like to all of our students. To have that, when I got that, I thought that was really significant for me and for my students.

"only 1% of professors are black women. Of the twenty thousand professors, there's only thirty five black women professors (Access HE data)"

Marilyn SouthbankSo impressed with Professor Holness' achievements, the UK marketing team took time out to visit the exhibition.

The Southbank Centre presents an outdoor exhibition titled 'Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors' celebrating Britain's Black female professors and includes Roehampton's Professor Marilyn Holness OBE.

Official portrait - Marilyn

The official portrait - without  fan.

Outside of education, what other issues are you passionate about?

I'm passionate about lots of things! I do a lot of advocacy work in relation to autism and in relation to, in particular, my son who is a triathlete who happens to have autism, who happens to be black, and thinking about only one percent of black Professors being women, actually the 0.0000001% of triathletes are black, let alone with autism! He has just been nominated for the Disabled 100 Power List so fingers crossed. But more than that, it’s his work ethic. I watch him get up every day and do things which people take for granted, the normal take for granted, which he has to work at, and he works at it. And he doesn't complain. He embraces it and he loves it and he goes out and makes a difference for himself and for other people. It just makes me think that I've got absolutely nothing to complain about. My life is good. It's positive. 

"He embraces it and he loves it and he goes out and makes a difference for himself and for other people"

I'm trying to make sure that there's education, that those who work with children, young people with autism, actually don't limit their expectations. Don't think that because somebody has this, that you don't have to do anything, you don't expect anything from them. Well actually they've got a kind of superpower. They've got a particular determination, a particular way of being. Whether it's through repetition of routines or whatever - but actually it means that they're able to do things and we need to look at what people can do and look at ways of working with people where they are as opposed to where you want them to be, and then help them to get there. 

And we do that every day in education, that's what teaching is about, it's taking people from where they are and helping them to get to where you want them to be. Guiding them, nudging them, supporting them and showing them and just wanting to raise expectations of people with disabilities, whether they're visible or invisible, to make sure that people feel that we can all do. We're all part of this wider society. So a lot of my spare time is around that and working with a number of educational charities. 

Super SamSuper-Sam in action. The Shaw Trust Power 100, is an annual publication containing the 100 most influential disabled people in the UK.

Because I've come from teaching I still see myself very much as a teacher. I also work with an educational charity that looks at Personal Social Health Economic education. Making sure that we make a difference because the formal bits of education, we all know about, we know the school curriculum. But in life, there are so many other things we need to learn about, things that teachers and schools should play a part in. Schools are one of the places where children get to learn about some of life’s firsts, but in a safe environment. Little children, they're going to go through so many firsts in their lives. The first time they're going to go out without their parents, the first time they're going to have their first kiss, the first time they're going to have a discussion with a friend about should I have a drink or not have a drink? And where do these conversations happen? And who supports them? Who informs them? So I work with an organisation that does these things, that talk about some of the things that maybe we don't always like to talk about and help teachers to help pupils develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they need to manage their lives, now and in the future.

"If students come in with the same qualifications you'd think they'd leave with the same qualification but they don't. There's a gap and we're looking into that and saying well, what must we do."

In addition to that, as part of my work I do quite a lot of work around issues within education. So at the moment, I'm working on the awarding gap and the fact that for students of African and Caribbean heritage there is a gap between the awards that they get, in the amount of students that leave with 2:1s and first degrees and their white counterparts. If students come in with the same qualifications you'd think they'd leave with the same qualification but they don't. There's a gap and we're looking into that and saying well, what must we do to eliminate that gap. So quite a lot of things that fill my spare time!

You have spare time?

 Well, exactly. I did do the couch to 5K though.

You can read part 2 to find out more about the specific support efforts, initiatives and ongoing projects Marilyn and students have contributed to at the University of Roehampton soon... stay tuned!

 

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