Tuesday, 02 May 2023 09:24

‘Wherever you are you must give more than you get’: Professor Charles Egbu, Vice-Chancellor of Leeds Trinity University, on Catholic higher education

Professor Charles EgbuAs one of England’s four Catholic universities, Leeds Trinity was founded in 1966 originally in the form of two teacher training colleges, run by the Sisters of the Cross and Passion and by a forerunner of the Catholic Education Service.

Professor Charles Egbu was appointed as Vice-Chancellor in 2020, amid new Covid variants, lockdowns, and the widespread adoption of online teaching by universities.

A practising Catholic, he had originally planned to study as a medical doctor, but when his father died he realised he needed to study nearby instead and support his mother and other siblings.

He ended up applying for a course in quantity surveying at what is now Leeds Beckett University, achieving a 1st class Honours degree.

After a stint working on construction sites he returned for a Master’s degree in the built environment, then a PhD in construction management at Salford University, and over the course of the next two decades ascended to senior leadership positions in various higher education institutions.

The year before his appointment to Leeds Trinity Professor Egbu served as President of the Chartered Institute of Building, and was recently announced as an Honorary Fellow of The Royal Institute of British Architects.

Going digital

He acknowledges the significant changes in higher education that pandemic-led online teaching has brought about, that it has enabled a greater flexibility for personalised learning, at a time and place convenient for example to mature students, that students can in effect be remotely supported wherever they are. However, as universities emerge from the pandemic, this has also meant reintroducing an element of in-person learning.

“We’re now trying to bring them back,” Professor Egbu said, “it’s been challenging for certain of our students, work-based learning students would still want to come in one day a week, though those who have caring responsibilities, caring for the elderly, sick, or disabled, who have childcare issues would want to stay where they are.

“There are a lot of benefits, but also challenges in trying to make sure that students really understand what it is to come in, to understand the culture of the university, and work face-to-face with their peers.”

Diversity in leadership

Three years after his appointment, across UK higher education Professor Egbu remains the only black Vice-Chancellor. He said that while there had been an increase in the proportion of undergraduate students from ethnic minorities in recent decades, for instance increasing 24% to 27% in the five years to 2020, a degree award gap has held steady. He added that more students from ethnic minorities drop out from their courses, and are 13% less likely to achieve a good degree grade than their white counterparts.

He said: “Very few from minority communities get into graduate jobs, and it becomes more telling when you look at senior positions, only 0.7% of professors in the UK are black professors, very few people are able to get into a Dean’s position or Pro-Vice Chancellor. The reason is simple, the pipeline is not coming through, by the time you get into that sphere there are very few black people, and also very few people of disability.

“My university is doing quite a lot because we are a university that believes in social justice, in the issue of recruitment, career promotion, mentoring and coaching, but there’s more that everyone has to do to improve this position.”

Catholic higher education

Leeds Trinity, along with England’s three other Catholic universities, Liverpool Hope, Newman, and St Mary’s, was originally set up to train teachers, especially to teach at schools in less privileged areas.

Today, teachers continue to graduate from the university, while the mission has expanded in the form of the university’s social justice framework, and with the appointment of Dr Ann Marie Mealey in November last year as Director of Catholic Mission. She is devising the university’s Catholic mission strategy based on Catholic social justice and social teaching, and has established initiatives such as a series of free online lectures on Catholic approaches to issues such as policing, economics and art, and curated an annual conference on Catholic higher education. Dr Mealey is also setting up continuing professional development sessions for time-pressed local schoolteachers, and supporting the virtues-based Stella Maris Leadership Awards scheme run by nearby Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form College.

Professor Egbu said: “Fundamentally my Catholic upbringing, that wherever you are you must give more than you get, has meant me trying to support those who are less privileged or who struggle to get into academia. I’ve made it a point of duty to always bring to universities what I call widening participation, for people who are struggling to get there — once they’ve got the promise, and the opportunity, we need to realise their potential.”

However, while many aspects of the university’s Catholic life are flourishing, Professor Egbu said, issues remain for the sector as a whole. “Many of us as Catholic universities are struggling,” he said, “because in a secular society those things that stood us well in the past perhaps are becoming a challenge. In the past if you asked somebody why they came they would say because of the philosophy and ethics, the Catholic mission and Catholic teachings. Very few people are now coming to the university to do this.”

Global family, local mission

Leeds Trinity has recently become a full member of the US-based Catholic Health Association, ahead of plans to introduce nursing degrees next year. Partnerships are also being established through membership of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, and in Latin America. As a result, the number of international students is expected to grow significantly. A year ago there were only 15 international students, at present there are 80, but in the next three years the total is expected to rise to 500.

“We know that many students benefit greatly from being able to travel across the world between Catholic universities,” Professor Egbu said, “so it’s a now new strategic ambition to grow this, prior to that we’ve always been a localised university.”

Closer to home in Leeds, the university is also set to expand its campus estate. A property in the city centre has recently been acquired, with plans to open additional facilities including student support services and a Catholic chaplaincy.

A Catholic approach

Through championing Catholic virtues, with inclusivity and dignity, the university’s aim is to develop well-rounded, resilient students who are sought after by employers, and which is what Professor Egbu believes differentiates Catholic higher education.

“We are obliged to make sure we transform their lives because we’ve seen the potential,” he said. “Not many universities can say that! Once you are in our university we want to develop the wholeness in you, through volunteering, support work in the community, coaching, mentoring, the wider social justice, so you can begin to picture yourself when you are out there, how you can contribute to a challenging world, and you are prepared for that.”

Ultimately, the Leeds Trinity Vice-Chancellor hopes graduates cherish their university experience and maintain its values, of being supportive in any environment they find themselves in, giving everybody an opportunity and, ultimately, seeing Lord Jesus in everyone.

“It’s not antagonistic to how the world is changing, indeed it’s part and parcel of a very challenging world — with the centrality of care and compassion and innovation at the heart of it.”

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