St Mary’s University, in Twickenham, is one of England’s four Catholic higher education institutions and was founded in 1850 by a precursor of the CES.
Today St Mary’s welcomes 6,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students, including 800 from abroad, across a range of disciplines. It’s also rated as fifth in the country for teaching quality, and in the top ten for overall student experience by national university guides.
Anthony McClaran was appointed Vice-Chancellor in 2020 after serving in higher education leadership roles including as Chief Executive of UCAS; Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency; the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency; and Pro-Chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire.
In 2021 he was appointed by Pope Francis to AVEPRO, the Holy See’s quality assurance agency for the awarding of ecclesiastical degrees.
As Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of St Mary’s, Anthony is answerable to its Board of Governors and is responsible for leadership, strategic direction and the overall coordination of the university to achieve its aims. Part of the role is being its external face, for partners, stakeholders, members of the Church, and more.
He said: “The day-to-day description is incredible variety; it might be a letter from a parent or a message from an alumnus, or we recently hosted the Bishop of Oslo, and the Ukrainian Catholic Bishop - just enormous variety, which is part of the fascination of the job.”
Belonging to the broad Catholic family is important for the small but growing Catholic university sector in this country, helping to support international partnerships in research, conferences and student placements. St Mary’s is a member of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, the US-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, and the Federation of European Catholic Universities.
Anthony said: “It's encouraging - you get a strong sense of the universal nature of the Church and can learn lessons from the experiences of colleagues in very different settings. For instance, I attended a development meeting for leaders of Catholic universities with colleagues from South America, Africa, North America, other parts of Europe, and Europeans were in the minority.
“Exposure to the richness and diversity of the Catholic world is really helpful, it gives you a confidence in your mission and in what you're trying to achieve in terms of Catholic higher education.
“We want to be a leading Catholic university, for London and the world, as we're very conscious that being in London we’re in a global city and that has huge benefits in terms of attracting international students. Our Catholic identity is very important as an inclusive identity; we see it as a point of connection with the world not a point of separation.”
Ancient and modern
Despite appearing a relatively new phenomenon, Catholic universities in England stretch back to the mediaeval era, when most of them were established by the papacy or religious orders. Anthony acknowledges the deep history of Catholic education, with the earliest European universities in the service of the Church, and in pursuit of the humane and liberal areas of study. He cites St John Henry Newman as another and more recent influence on Catholic universities, with the Cardinal’s articulation of the idea of a university as a place for the formation of the whole person.
Anthony said: “That means a commitment to a breadth of knowledge, in the context of a very strong commitment to forming the whole person, to seeing higher education not simply in instrumental terms but also in terms of the development of character, and an approach which understands the place of ethics within higher education.
“One of the key developers of artificial intelligence, who's now really worried about the way which that may go, was saying recently that no one's teaching ethics in AI or computing science. I think a Catholic university should have an ethical approach across the curriculum.
“The strength of the tradition we're drawing on is that ethics matter, the virtues matter, character development matters. We prepare our students to be highly employable - and to make a significant impact on the society in which they will be employed.”
This emphasis on ethics is put into practice at the university, which is also home to research initiatives for some of society’s most contemporary and controversial issues. In 2015 the Bakhita Centre for Research on Slavery, Exploitation and Abuse was opened, named after the Sudanese former slave St Josephine Bakhita, which works with government departments and charities. St Mary’s alumnus Sir Mo Farah, a campaigner against human trafficking and modern slavery and a victim of these crimes, was recently made a patron. The Centre for the Art of Dying Well also has its premises on campus, exploring practical matters such as palliative care and support during grief.
Anthony said: “Someone in our institute of education said to me a little while ago that they reckoned about half the heads and deputy heads of Catholic schools in Greater London had been trained at St Mary's. While that’s anecdotal, there are St Mary's teaching graduates widely across the Catholic school system and those links with Catholic schools remain incredibly important for trainee teacher placements.”
The university’s bond with the capital is further born out in membership of the South London Partnership, an alliance of boroughs to promote economic growth and sustainability. Students participate in work placements with local businesses, while St Mary’s also runs the Exchange Theatre in Twickenham on behalf of fellow partnership member Richmond Council, and supports arts festivals in the area.
Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of Catholic and faith life in the university, from a very active chaplaincy to Masses held twice a day on campus, and there are Catholic, Christian and Islamic student societies. In 2016 the Sisters of Assumption opened a new community at the invitation of St Mary’s, to be a praying presence, and to arrange services such as evening prayer adoration. Pentecost celebrations have also taken place on site organised by members of Loretto HOME, a nearby Christian community where some students are residents.
The university also administers the diaconate programme for dioceses in the South of England, and is home to Mater Ecclesiae College, a Pontifical institute and seminary. Further afield, at the request of the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, St Mary’s runs theology courses at the Gillis Centre in the Scottish capital.
In conclusion, and as demonstrated by its high-scoring national leaderboard positions, the university is clearly well-regarded by that most critical of audiences, those who choose to study there. For the Vice-Chancellor this is underpinned by belief, and a principle of service for all.
Anthony said: “Drawing on our Catholicism helps us to be a good university, in terms of serving our students, a good university in terms of academic achievement and outcomes. There's a really strong commitment to providing strong support for our students, because we believe that's the way in which they are going to learn most effectively.
“Those qualities are really the gift of a Catholic approach to higher education - not just for Catholics, but for everybody who studies here.”