The Interview UK
Manchester Metropolitan University
PVC for Culture and Community

Sharon Handley

The most successful EDI initiatives often have specific aims, whether this involves delivering projects for certain groups or developing inclusive practices and programmes at a subject level.

Sharon Handley, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Culture and Community at Manchester Metropolitan University, has channeled her passion for modern foreign language teaching into the outreach work she does in the Great Manchester area and nationwide.

Kitty Hadaway, Universities Lead at GoodCourse, sat down with Sharon to discuss how her outreach work aims to instil a love of language learning into the wider community, with inclusive initiatives that ensure that diverse communities can engage.

Sharon's journey

Kitty: What brought you to work in Higher Education?

I came into this career through a passion for my subject – Spanish and French language, culture and literature. I was always fascinated by different cultures, particularly the position of women and minority figures in literature.

I always enjoyed the challenge of teaching within the classroom, the lightbulb moment when a student gets the concept. I’ve always got a buzz from teaching and seeing the difference that can be made to people’s lives.

Increasingly, I enjoyed making things happen – it took me towards management and leadership. I became PVC for a faculty of Arts and Humanities and more recently a PVC for Culture and Community.

Kitty: How do you feed your sense of cultural appreciation and internationalisation into your work?

I was in a languages department, so we would prepare students to spend a year abroad. Understanding other cultures was unsurprisingly a part of that. Having an international mindset as a PVC is essential – building connections with other faculties and building communities and getting that engagement so all students can learn about other cultures. Our institution’s language programme enables students to learn a language and get excited about other cultures.

Kitty: Could you share some more detail about the Bridging The Gap programme?

The core of our Bridging The Gap programme is outreach to schools – training students as ambassadors so they can inspire the next generation. To encourage students who might not think of coming to university or consider it an option. This levelling up agenda and outreach has always been an essential part of our work.

I led the Routes into Languages project, heading the North West consortium; a group of universities reaching out to schools to encourage the study of languages. As part of that, we would bring the students into universities. It became clear that we were mainly reaching out to White pupils. To tackle this, we developed a project called Mother Tongue Other Tongue, which was around valuing what communities bring to the table, rather than suggesting what they should be doing in the arena of language learning.

We introduced more diversity of language to the consortium which had previously been focused on Spanish, French and German. Developing a focus on languages like Mandarin and Arabic engaged a whole new group of pupils and parents, who were excited that we were valuing their community languages.

One of our initiatives was to encourage the pupils to write a poem in their mother tongue and ‘other’ tongue (the language they were learning at school). This started as a small project, but when poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy got involved, it expanded to a UK wide project. Now, over 40,000 pupils have engaged with it! It’s a great example of how turning things on their head and going beyond the norm can engage so many more people.

Kitty: Something we hear a lot about is about creating inclusive cultures on campus and within the student body. Is that you see as working towards this?

Yes. Prejudice is often the result of ignorance. By learning more about diverse communities, everybody wins. Our students were involved with a lot of this outreach work with schools so they also discover and are inspired by the stories of our pupils.

Prejudice is often the result of ignorance. By learning more about diverse communities, everybody wins.

In a sense, that changes their behaviours and they interact more with students from different backgrounds. It was extremely gratifying. Malala Yousafzai was one of our guest speakers – she doesn’t normally do university visits but she really saw value in what the project was doing.

Kitty: Which students does your work encapsulate - is it just the language students in your faculty?

We also worked with poetry and creative writing students. They facilitated workshops in schools with pupils, so they had some support in being creative and thinking creatively and writing poetry. Some of our journalism students were also involved, and our events management students assisted in hosting our events. Man Met Munch, a student-led group, provided the catering too, from food around the world, so it was a real team effort!

Kitty: What are your priority areas in work at the moment?

I’m currently working in an institutional role, as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for culture and community. I’m reaching out to universities across the Greater Manchester area – colleges, schools and council leaders, connecting the university so the regions can benefit from our research.

I’m also developing a student-led hub, where our students can support communities in different ways. It can be as varied as pro-bono law supported by our legal academics and student lawyers, to community art projects, health checks, and live briefs for architecture students.

Kitty: All of that work must borrow from your time spent teaching, do you miss your days in the classroom?

I loved teaching. Those moments with students were very precious and I have great memories of them. I do really enjoy what I do now because I still have connections with students, but I also get that buzz from making things happen – connecting people so we can create opportunities together. Sometimes great initiatives are developed within universities and it takes someone to really shout about it so that the initiative gets the visibility required for engagement.

Kitty: Are you able to articulate with a particular story the value of ‘opening up’ the university to diverse communities?

We’ve got world-leading research happening in hydrogen fuel cells and addressing the problems of climate change. However, research that never moves beyond the world of academia is a wasted opportunity. For research to really change lives, it needs to be disseminated much more broadly, and this goes for all that goes on within the university as well.

Performances and exhibitions by our arts and theatre students are other examples – we want to connect with the outside world and share the great work happening internally. What we really need is communication with schools and communities – and that’s where I come in. Working with communities and the region at large also provides us with fresh perspectives. It’s mutually beneficial to be well connected!

3 Quickfire Questions

Kitty: What advice would you give to anyone coming into the EDI space now?

You probably won’t be surprised to hear me say: find your passion! You need passion for all the work involved in being an academic, and you won’t inspire students if you’re not passionate about what you do. Research takes a lot of work and time too. Find your passion and develop your career around that.

Connecting is also important. We don’t achieve as much on our own as when we work in partnership. Build networks and work within them, because networks can amplify everything you do. I couldn’t have developed Mother to Mother Tongue without partnerships across the UK.

Both of these tips are interlinked because my passion for discovering other cultures has enabled me to build networks.

Kitty: Who do you most admire in the HE space?

Janet Beer, VC at Liverpool University. Earlier on in her career, she was Dean of Humanities here at Manchester Met, which is where I met her. She has always inspired me and a lot of other female academics because she’s a visionary leader. She makes the team feel they can do the impossible and inspires everyone to achieve all of their potential.

She’s also a very empathetic and approachable leader. We all respect her, and she’s done amazing work as president of Universities UK. She’s high profile but very human at the same time. Truly an amazing woman!

Kitty: Is there a book that you think anyone interested in student experience should read?

Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns inspired me and in some ways changed my life. It was a lens into Afghani culture, which I knew very little about. It takes the story of a young girl and the difficult life she has married to an older, abusive man. Later on in the book, women come together when the man marries a second wife. It opened up a completely new world to me and developed my understanding of the female plight in Afghanistan.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kitty Hadaway
Universities Lead
Kitty is passionate about using technology to create safer and more inclusive campuses, and is an expert on student engagement and delivering training at scale. Get in touch at to learn more.

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