Professor Mary Stuart has been on an incredible academic journey from starting studies at The Open University as an “under-confident” student in the early ’80s to become the current Vice-Chancellor of Lincoln University.
It was after being evicted by her landlord, while in hospital pregnant with twins, that Mary decided to embark on an Open University degree. Complications with her pregnancy meant she spent three months in hospital, and had to give up her job as a drama teacher on a north London housing estate.
Change and upheaval, however, was not something that affected Mary easily, for she had lived through the violence of her native South Africa during the 1970s and had played an active role in the anti-Apartheid moment.
Once life had settled down, Mary felt her drama degree was not “fit for purpose” and wanted to get a “proper job”.
Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor of Lincoln University
“I applied to The Open University because it was the thing that made sense at the time and it did not occur to me to go to another university. I completely fell in love with social sciences.
"I learned a lot about time management and the guidance for assignments was incredibly detailed – if you read them carefully, you had a good chance at doing well.”
Mary described the experience at the OU as one that “transformed” her and gave her a love of learning, which she wanted to pass on to others. In addition, she saw a clear link between her life in South Africa and the material she was studying on her module.
'I have never had a career path'
“My interest in theatre and drama has always been around social issues. When I was in South Africa, I was involved in street theatre during Apartheid. My interest was around the community and seeing it as a way of giving a voice to disempowered people – and creativity does that.
“Sociology explores why there are divisions within society, how society is structured and how different groups do or do not gain advantage in certain circumstances.”
Having gained a First Class Honours Degree, Mary went on to do a doctorate at the OU, followed by a progression of roles within the education sector before finally joining Lincoln as Vice-Chancellor.
“I have never had a career path,” said Mary. “It’s far better to be more aligned with context and therefore be able to take opportunities when they become available.
“People who are rigidly determined spend a lot of time being disappointed. You have to be flexible and adaptable and relaxed about change.”
“I grew up in a country that was falling apart and as a child I never thought my country would continue the way it was. I grew up knowing that there would be change. You have got to get on with it. Some of those things are big changes and you have to learn to live with the little changes.”
'The OU is regarded in the Higher Education sector as a national treasure and has a special place in my heart'
During her time at Sussex, she was involved with setting up a medical school, changing the curriculum and improving the student experience. Before joining Lincoln as Vice-Chancellor, Mary was Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Kingston University.
“Lincoln is an up-and-coming, vibrant institution with a beautiful campus,” she said. “It’s about building on the past and shaping the future. We have a deep commitment to students, absolute quality of the curriculum and engagement with the needs of society and the economy to do thorough research and knowledge transfer.”
This year, the University is starting construction work on the first purpose-built Engineering School in the UK for more than 20 years. She also sees the constraints of funding cuts as an opportunity for Lincoln to build further links with business. And, although believing there is still a place for traditional campus-based universities, she does have a fondness for the OU.
Mary added: “The OU is regarded in the Higher Education sector as a national treasure and has a special place in my heart.”