Educational reflections

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Geoff Hurd is retiring in August after a 36-year career with the University of Wolverhampton.

He began his career teaching in the Department of Art History and Complementary Studies in the School of Art and Design, later developing interests in Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

He was instrumental in the genesis of Media and Film degrees and part of the team that developed the first modular programmes, pioneering mature student entry and setting up the Diploma in Higher Education.

His roles have included Dean of the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, Head of Academic Standards, and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic Development and Quality). Responsibilities have included managing the Deans of School, Quality and Academic Standards, the international education strategy, HR and equal opportunities.

He is a member of the Higher Education Academy, an institutional auditor for the Quality Assurance Agency, a member of the board of Light House Media Centre, which he helped found, and a Governor at Walsall College.

What have been some of your career highlights from your time with the University?

To have had the opportunity to be part of an organisation that’s grown unrecognisably from when I first joined it. In 1973 it was a small polytechnic, now it’s a large university and it has been wonderful to be part of that journey.

The early stage of developing film and TV studies was a very exciting time. Also, being in a position to support the development of BSL/ Deaf Studies from a small, specialist course into today’s success story is something I’m very proud of. When the School of Humanities and Cultural Studies merged with the School of Languages and European Studies around 1999, for the first time I had deaf staff working in the school. I took my Stage 1 British Sign Language course as a part-time student at Dudley College and I think this made it clear that the new school was going to be committed to the subject.

In the early 1980s I was seconded to WMBC’s Economic Development Unit for two years and led the first stages, with Frank Challenger (then at West Midlands Arts), to establish what is now Light House Media Centre, where I still play an active role on the Board. Light House is so important to the city and region’s film and television industries and the cinema programme is one of the reasons I live here!

When I was Head of Academic Standards we went through at least two or three audits by the Quality Assurance Agency, each of which we were successful in. It was very important for the University that we got those right.

What positive changes have you seen within the higher education sector during your career?

The expansion of higher education has been one of the most positive social changes of the last 30 years. When I went to university in the sixties, only around 4-5% of 18-year-olds did so. Inevitably, there are those who resent the expansion of opportunity through higher education but I will always defend this. I have also seen the diversification of what higher education is: there is a greater breadth. It is important to remember that much of what is now regarded as normal had to be fought for. For example, in about 1977 I began offering a class in the evening once a week. My then Dean’s response was to force me to hire my own office if I was using it after 5.30, which he regarded as closing time.

You were instrumental in setting up the Light House Media Centre and have established many key partnerships. How has the University benefited from close links with organisations within the region?

Our partnerships are vital. When Professor  Caroline Gipps arrived as Vice-Chancellor, she created new Pro-Vice Chancellor roles focusing on partnerships, recognising their importance to the University. They are fundamental to the University’s mission and purpose. In the future, our partnerships are going to be more important than ever. In the West Midlands, which regrettably sits at the bottom of too many performance tables, it is through partnerships that we  can raise aspirations and levels of attainment among young people, regenerate the regional economy and stimulate innovation and creativity. It is vital work and our mission statement is explicit about this - to be an educational hub supporting the economy through employment, entrepreneurship, creativity, knowledge transfer, research and development.

Since 2006 you have been the member of Executive responsible for the University’s international strategy. Do you envisage this area growing further in the future?

Our Director, International, Jo Gittens deserves much credit for our success in this area. Transnational education – working with international partner institutions to deliver qualifications from Wolverhampton in other countries – has been a major shift in our strategy and we made this change while at the same time successfully growing the number of students coming to study here. European and international students  make a big contribution to the city’s culture and economy and being an international university is vital for our future.

We are one of the most successful universities in the UK for applied research, knowledge transfer and employer engagement (thanks to the work of my retiring colleague on Executive Gerald Bennett) and we are now looking at expanding these activities internationally.

Our new International Centre, replacing our existing International Office, will enable the University to drive a broader international agenda. I still believe we have the capacity to grow and indeed it is essential we do so.

What has been your proudest moment, personally or professionally?

It is very hard to choose one specific moment. When I meet with Deans I describe myself as a ‘has-dean’ and there is still a part of me that looks back on the years as a Dean of school as some of the most fulfilling. I covered for an interim period the vacant role of Dean of the School of Engineering and the Built Environment (SEBE), alongside my role as Dean of HLSS, and that was a tremendous opportunity for me. Being a Dean is an excellent grounding for the demands of Executive, which are quite different and it’s important to understand how Schools and Departments work. I combined being Dean with the role of Head of Academic Standards for five years and benefitted from working closely with colleagues in QASD.

I have also been Acting Vice-Chancellor twice and that is a great responsibility. I think I am the only person to have occupied every academic grade within the University from the most junior to Acting VC. I was pleased that we were able to establish the Equality and Diversity Unit before I retired and at long last give Berry Dicker and Cindy Williams-Findlay a firm platform on which to work.

The real beating heart of the University is its staff and I am proud of the  way they make the institution work. I see many people in and around Wolverhampton and I know how committed so many people are to this City and the University.

A personal proud moment was cheering my wife Stella as she received her Doctorate from the OU in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. She made the cross-over from adult to higher education in 1992 and has developed a strong publication record and research career. We will be meeting up a lot more regularly after we both retire this year as she has lived away from home most of the last 20 years, part of that network of mobile academics that is a feature of life today.

What lasting memories will you take away from the University?

After the death of our eldest son, Daniel, in 2001, many colleagues provided immense support. Friends in HLSS and on the Dudley Campus (where I was based) simply did everything that needed to be done over those weeks and months, without Stella or me ever having to ask. It was tremendous to have that support and very moving. We will both always remember that time and the kindness we received. We would both like to say thank you to everyone.

If you were at University today, what would you like to study?

I would study modern languages. I’m married to a linguist and still have an ambition to become reasonably competent in one European language. It is hard to imagine an international university that doesn’t teach languages.

What are your other interests?

I enjoy spending time with our son and grandchildren – Jake, 11, Oliver, eight, and Lily, eight.

I have just bought a MacBook to use at home. I’ve been instantly converted from a PC user. It works in seconds – it’s delightful.

Who do you admire and why?

I never tire of the films of the great American director John Ford. The other day I watched She Wore a Yellow Ribbon again. On the verge of his retirement at Fort Starke, a one-troop cavalry post, the aging US Cavalry Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles is given one last patrol and it reminded me how John Ford’s films can still resonate today, particularly when I am about to go on my last patrol.

What are you looking forward to about your retirement?

I am looking forward to having more time  to see family and friends. I have a sister in South Africa and would like to spend some time over there. I plan to continue my work as a Governor at Walsall College and have been appointed to the standards committee for Wolverhampton City Council, overseeing the conduct of members. I also want to catch up with my reading. I am very catholic in my tastes and will pick anything up and try it.

Stella and I are also planning a monograph.  She has some remarkable women in her family history, two of whom were made Dames for services to education and mental health. We’re interested in researching and capturing the history of their achievements.

I will look forward to enjoying Sunday nights again and taking a cup of tea back to bed on Monday morning.