Profile: Prof Shirley Congdon, Bradford University’s new VC

The university has a track record for widening participation but is based in a region better-known for its deprivation. This former nurse from County Durham has made social mobility her ambition

Counting the number of women at the most senior level of higher education is a quick job; statistics from Advance HE suggest just shy of 30% of our vice-chancellors are women.

The University of Bradford’s Prof Shirley Congdon became the newest addition to that quite exclusive list this August – on Yorkshire Day, no less. Since then, the university was crowned the most socially inclusive university in the UK by The Sunday Times Best University Guide. It was news to some, but not to Shirley.

Social mobility

In order to get people like myself into positions like vice-chancellor, we’ve got to get away from tolerance without acceptance – acceptance is really important

When I start by asking Shirley what she thinks is the University of Bradford’s key strength, she says (without skipping a beat) “most definitely our track record in widening participation. That record isn’t just getting students from different backgrounds into Bradford; it’s that they do get good jobs when they leave us. And we’ve sustained that track record over many years”.

The award recognised the university’s record on widening participation and supporting attainment for students underrepresented in the wider higher education sector.

More than 70% of the university’s intake is black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and more than half the cohort comes from the four poorest socioeconomic groups in the country; the number of students at Bradford recruited from parts of the country where few go to university is rising faster than at any other British provider.

Many of its students are recruited from its local environs, which remain some of the most deprived and multicultural in Britain. Two-thirds of students now come from families where parents did not attend university. What’s more, the attainment gap between black and white students is one of the smallest in the country at just 3%.

This dizzying stream of statistics may be hard to visualise, but Shirley has a clear vision of what Bradford University needs to offer its students and its city.

“My values are rooted in equality of opportunity and we’re acutely aware in higher education that this is a stubborn challenge. In order to get people like myself into positions like vice-chancellor, we’ve got to get away from tolerance without acceptance – acceptance is really important. As vice-chancellor, I will be increasing emphasis on how we can support students from widening participation backgrounds better.

“We’ve got a good track record of recruiting students and getting them into high-quality jobs but while they are with us, we need to try and address things like confidence and cultural capital, so that they are comfortable in different situations. It really is a big step to come to university for some of our students and often their ambitions are not as high as they should be. Once they’re here, they’ve got to see that we’re really challenging and testing them to build the resilience to aspire and succeed.”

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The University of Bradford is renowned for its reputation on social mobility

Levelling the playing field

Emphasis needs to be on students who show that they can perform at the top level of wherever they are

With the creation of the sector’s first-ever watchdog – the Office for Students – there’s been greater emphasis from ‘upstairs’ on universities to eradicate student inequality in 20 years. One option the regulator is pushing is contextual offers; it is an option Shirley is not ashamed to champion.

“Some people have been negative about contextual admissions, but I think it allows us another opportunity to do more for people that may not be able to demonstrate that they are an AAB student, or even a BBB student, but can demonstrate that they have the intellectual ability to deal with the demands of the programmes.

“What we see – and what has been reported on previously by Hefce (Higher Education Funding Council for England) – is that the emphasis needs to be on students who show that they can perform at the top level of wherever they are.

“Now, some schools will perform better at A-level and GCSE level than others, but when you look at the top 10% of students in any school, regardless of their grades, those students have got the aspiration and ability to do well. That’s what I think the contextual admissions scheme allows you to do.”

Labour recently announced it would introduce a post-qualification admissions system if it wins power – but Shirley is less keen on this perennial proposal.

“The stress of achieving the grades would still remain. And for those who don’t perform as well, you’ll still be left with a cadre of people who are left wondering what’s going to happen to them.” A solution? “I think it would need to be thought through very carefully,” Shirley says after a moment’s consideration.

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Prof Congdon says universities should judge students against the background of their upbringing and schooling

The woman’s place

It really is a big step to come to university for some of our students and often their ambitions are not as high as they should be

Shirley started her career in healthcare as a nurse practitioner. “It was clinical and academic in many respects,” she tells me, “and I was working in accident and emergency and surgical wards. I moved to become an academic practitioner, which means you spend some of your time teaching and the other half of your time working as a practitioner.”

At the time it was quite a “novel idea” for the health service, she tells me. The modernisation of the health service and the professionalisation of roles like nursing gave new avenues for people like Shirley.

Despite this liberating change, Shirley reflects that “structural issues” continued to bar many women from career progression. “I think, having children and working in the NHS, you felt that you were maybe not the type of person that would get into a senior position. It occurred to me when I was in the NHS that, while nursing is dominated by women, the people who often acquire the senior posts tended to be men.”

The culture of higher education still needs to change to better support women, she tells me. “I think it starts with culture, but it must translate into policies and procedures implemented and embodied by the university as a whole.” Improving the offering for women in research is the key challenge she sees for herself and the sector.

Building Bradford

All the work going into schools and pathways into higher education are good but they’re not sufficient

A quick Google of ‘Bradford’ reveals the ‘down-and-out’ reputation this West Riding city so often attracts. Headlines like ‘Is Bradford the UK’s worst place to live?’ do little to inspire confidence. The plain fact is that the city’s wards are statistically some of the poorest in Britain.

Boosting social mobility and supporting Bradford are two sides of the same coin – 72% of students in work after graduation found employment in the region and 60% come from the local area. Supporting local students is key to this future, but Shirley is clear: “universities can’t deliver on this in isolation”.

“I think social mobility in Bradford is pretty static right now,” Shirley affirms. “Ninety-four per cent of our students are in work six months after they’ve graduated, and if they come from Yorkshire and Humber, 91% of them stay and work in the region. So, we are contributing significantly through our graduates and through the work we do with businesses to add value to the West Yorkshire economy. But the difficulty for some cities in the UK – and Bradford is one of them – is we are just not getting enough inward investment.”

Bradford is the youngest city in the UK – 24% of the population are aged under 16, 5% higher than the national average.

“Those young people are a great asset to the city,” Shirley says, “and we can get more of them into our university if we can support the city’s school system to improve. We’ve got some outstanding academies, but we’ve got some that need development.” The city is designated one of 12 ‘opportunity areas’ by the DfE.

“All the work going into schools and pathways into higher education are good but they’re not sufficient. In our access and participation plans that we’ve just submitted to the OfS, we’ve been very clear that we’re not going to be able to deliver on this as a university that doesn’t look outwards to its partners.

“We will be partnering in a more deliberate way and putting structural frameworks in place to work with schools, the local authority, businesses, our MPs and our local councillors.

“In Bradford, we’ve got significant areas of deprivation and it’s not simple to deliver on the fact that white working-class boys aren’t coming into higher education in the numbers that they did previously, or there are other groups that are not even considering universities an option.”

In Bradford, 44,900 working-aged people have no qualifications but around four in 10 students at the university are adult learners – those who have entered higher education for the first time later in life, took a long break from education or applied with non-traditional qualifications.

Educating Bradford is one strand of this ambition to boost Bradford; the other is building partnerships with business.

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Bradford offers an attractive proposition for investors, Prof Congdon says

Vibrant, young city

I think one thing I would like to do going forward is position Bradford using our strengths in research. We have significant strengths we’ve been hiding under our bushel

The university has facilitated over 80 knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs) and has worked with businesses such as Yorkshire Water, Bombay Stores and BAE Systems. Shirley suggests the city’s reputation is starting to turn.

“Bradford has seen some recent successes; for example, Price Waterhouse Cooper has commissioned its new offices here. And we’ve got the work of Channel 4. But we need to see more of this investment coming – it is a vibrant, young, innovative city with potential.

“That’s why things like High Speed 2 and investment in the arts and culture of the city are really important to us. Bradford is a cost-effective model for business – we’ve got a good offer.”

Research funding must be redistributed, Shirley says, because there is insufficient coming north.

“A lot of it is still in London,” she says, “in the golden triangle.” Despite this complaint, the University of Bradford boasts some impactful research projects. The university is leading research in cancer and dementia treatments, drug discovery, skin sciences, sustainable polymers and global biosecurity.


Read more: University collaboration offers ‘real benefits for patients’ in Yorkshire


The university is also leading the Born in Bradford project, a landmark endeavour for the city and the world’s largest cohort study of babies. Researchers at the university and the local NHS trust study closely the development of infants to gather data on health inequalities in the city. “I think one thing I would like to do going forward is position Bradford using our strengths in research. We have significant strengths we’ve been hiding under our bushel.”

72% of students in work after graduation found employment in the region

The sector at large

I’m not against competition, but I don’t think you can treat higher education as a commodity as you would other things

“I think the challenges we face at Bradford we share with the rest of the sector, and that’s obviously increasing competition for students. I think it’s becoming much more intense. I’m not against competition, but I don’t think you can treat higher education as a commodity as you would other things.

“This competition where universities are spending a lot of time working on branding, marketing – the intensification of that end of the market – I just don’t think it’s creating the right environment for students. I believe in ensuring students get the right information to make decisions.”

Shirley also gives short shrift to the ideas proposed by the Augar review, something she hopes has now been shelved for good.

“If you’re a university like Bradford and you’re taking students with particular challenges – because you want to open your doors to students who have disabilities, mental health problems, or just need a little extra support – you’ve got to invest much more significantly in the student experience and the support needs to be more personalised. Any impact on our funding directly limits our ability to deliver that.”


Shirley Congdon CV

Born: Blackhall, County Durham

Education: BSc Professional Studies in Healthcare

What would you have done if not education? Senior manager in the NHS

Quick career summary: Over 28 years’ experience in the higher education sector, worked at several universities. Undertaken a number of significant strategic leadership roles, including head of department at Teesside University and dean of school and director of academic delivery at Liverpool John Moores University.

Shirley joined the University of Bradford as the dean of health studies in 2009 and became the pro vice-chancellor (learning and teaching) in 2011.

In 2015 she took on the role of deputy vice-chancellor academic, and for the last four years has been responsible for the development and oversight of the academic strategy and the student experience.

A fact about University of Bradford: We have an apiary on campus.


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