As the first Dean of Students at the University of Roehampton, Marilyn Holness uses her vast range of knowledge and lived experiences to open up educational opportunities for people in the local community as well as continuously bettering the services offered at the University.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews speaks to Marilyn about the moves she is making to improve the academic student experience at Roehampton in this newly created role, as well as the importance of inclusivity and diversity in Higher Education (HE).
I am the first Dean of Students at the University of Roehampton, a collegiate campus-based university in South West London with a student population of 10,000, and a long tradition of teacher education and liberal arts. More recently we’ve been developing a presence in vocational professional pathways, particularly in law, business, nursing and computing.
Over the past 5 years, our demographics have changed considerably: the student population is made up of parents, carers, working adults, commuters, first-generation university students, students changing careers, apprentices and more, so it’s very diverse. It’s also culturally, ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse.
I’ve got a cross-university portfolio, working with all of the academic schools, the professional services department and the executive team to improve outcome measures and shape the vision of the student experience.
I grew up in North London, and am a first-generation Black British child of the Windrush generation. They were courageous people who were prepared to travel to an unknown place to take chances to make a better life for themselves and their families.
We all know about the history there — the prejudice and discrimination — so this idea of student success was brought to me as a Black-born child raised in inner-city London with working-class parents who wanted better for their children. The gift they gave me was aspiration. Achieving what you aspire to is about more than hopes and dreams — it’s about having access to quality education.
So I think I was born into equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), and I’ve used that to increase opportunities. It’s about distancing ourselves from the notion that where you are born is where you should stay. I am passionate about education. It impacts lives — my own included — so I set out to drive strategy and create an environment where all students can achieve excellence regardless of their background.
More than half of our students are the first in their families to go to university, and many of them have to make huge sacrifices in order to do so. Those students need to know that the sacrifice is worthwhile — good education is something that should be on everyone’s doorstep, and Roehampton seeks to be a quality local university with doors open to the local community.
When you turn up to university you turn up as your whole self: you bring your background and your baggage with you. So we actively go out of our way to cater to and plan for the students that we have. We try to put on a range of activities to support opportunities for students to take advantage of a full range of experiences. The primary focus is academia — our students have busy lives and they worry about the cost of living, so we try to organise the curriculum in a way that blends their learning. For instance, we block timetables so that students don’t need to come in every day, which keeps commuting costs lower. This means they can come in less frequently but can still learn and partake in other activities.
When you turn up to university you turn up as your whole self: you bring your background and your baggage with you.
This is also why we put so many resources online, so learning can be done remotely or on the go and students can keep studying even when they can’t be there physically. Our classes are also recorded and we ensure that hardware and software are available to all students for free. We also have a range of professional services from wellbeing, chaplaincy, student engagement teams, academic achievement, careers and placements. These groups all run workshops and support to help students take advantage of what is available.
Follow your passion, care about others, and be strategic in what you do. Individuals need to learn to own their own experience and understand that no one is responsible for it but themselves. Know what is going on and plan for where you want to be, but be value-driven and action orientated.
It’s difficult to choose, so instead, I am going to share my admiration for a small group of Black professors: the pioneers at the forefront of academic scholarship and leadership. Of the 22,000 professors in the UK, only 1% are black, equating to only 50 black women and 100 black men. They are paving the way for those who are going to do the same in the future. Their work carries so much emotional labour that they do for free and in their own time, and they are changing the demographic of future leadership.
I feel that books position you in a time and place, so I’ve chosen a book called Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt which centres on topics that still resonate today. It’s about poverty and about challenging your circumstances. When I read it I was responsible for overseeing financial hardship at Roehampton, hearing lived realities of hardship, relative poverty, debt and struggle.
That experience stuck with me and led to me creating a project called The Money Doctors which helps students take control of their finances. This project was adopted by the Financial Services Authority and became the He strand for national capability. We influenced policy across the four nations of the UK and it was adopted by over 100 universities and over a quarter of a million students. This came from reading a book at the right time.