Ten minutes with: Lenny Henry

Birmingham City University’s Chancellor, much-loved entertainer Sir Lenny Henry, talks diversity in HE, his love of Birmingham, and learning later in life

When you accepted the role as Chancellor, you said it was an opportunity to pursue your three passions: Birmingham and the West Midlands, the creative arts, and giving life-changing opportunities to young people from a wide range of backgrounds. Has this been the case for you?

Definitely! This role is a chance for me to give back, to contribute something to the generation of young people leaving school now, and to those people coming back into education – mature students who, like me, missed out on the chance when they were younger.

I think all the facilities that Birmingham City University has are extraordinary and it’s amazing to be part of campus life there. During my last visit, I stopped by the University’s enquiry service – ASK – perused some journals in the library and stopped for lunch at the Students’ Union; the macaroni cheese pizza was delicious.

I spent a lot of time with students, both on campus and in their halls, before witnessing a class preparing for a live broadcast in one of the University’s TV studios. Plus, not only did I get to perform Peter and the Wolf at the University’s new £57m Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, I was able to celebrate the incredible achievements of our staff and students at the University’s Extra Mile Awards.

What have you enjoyed the most about your role so far, and have there been any surprises?

The stand-out highlight for me is being on stage with all the incredible graduands at our graduation ceremonies. It is really humbling to play a part in their special day, and celebrate all that they have achieved and are about to go on to achieve.

As well as various campus visits, I was also fortunate enough to be present at the industry showcase of Acting students in London and I was blown away by the level of education the performers had received; there was a real maturity in their craft and a genuine understanding of the text.

In fact, my production company got in-touch with some of them with job offers.

Don’t get me wrong, being Chancellor of Birmingham City University does have its responsibilities, and I do take them seriously, but I am really, really enjoying it, and it’s a lot of fun.

BCU has a reputation for giving life-changing opportunities to students from diverse backgrounds. Is that one of the aspects that attracted you to the role? What else made you want to team up with BCU?

I grew up with the belief that education was not intended for the likes of me. It wasn’t until I was doing a summer season with Cannon and Ball in 1981 that I was brave enough to embark on my GCSEs. It was tough going, but I got through it.

I was 46 before I got my first degree with the Open University and, while a comparative latecomer to higher education – whose career hardly relied on securing a BA or an MA after my name – that experience changed my life. It opened my mind to more possibilities, new thinking and different perspectives.

BCU understands that education is a right, not an accident of birth, and if you’re smart enough, creative enough and hardworking enough, this institution can provide you with life-changing opportunities, whatever your background.

Birmingham has influenced me in that it is where I did my New Faces audition; it is where I did the Night Out in Birmingham for Tommy Cooper when he was off; it was where I came to snog at Snobs; it is where I had lamb chops for the first time at Rackhams; and it is where I had a lot of fun.

So to be Chancellor of Birmingham City University is a huge honour. But, it also feels like I’m at home, so that is why it is cool to be here.

You returned to studying in 2007, can you tell me about your university experience?

My mother had always wanted me to go into further education and I had, at the age of 15, secured a job at British Federal Welders on an apprenticeship. This came complete with a day-release course at West Bromwich Tech, which would have garnered me a HND in Engineering.

When I passed my audition for a TV talent show in 1974, my intentions became very clear; I would not finish my education and I would run away and join the showbiz circus.

When my mother passed away in 1998, I decided to apply for an Open University prospectus because I figured it was time to get my ‘h’education’ … six years later I had a BA Hons in English Literature, I then completed an MA and I’m now working towards my PhD.

I certainly think that I question things more with regard to my work since furthering my education. I still go for energy and excitement, but I am more likely now to work on themes, characters, historical research and structuring as much as funny stuff. As an actor, I want to research as much as is necessary – that impulse probably stems from my university experience.

In your opinion, how important is a university education today?

Being around young, talented people with loads and loads of energy is good for the soul and the brain. Plus, a university education prepares students for all that is to come; students leave ready to work, travel, have fun and make a positive difference to the world around them.

Universities allow young people to export ideas of diversity, equality and creativity – a concept very close to my heart, and the deciding factor for me, when accepting this post, is that Birmingham City University share those ideas. BCU’s student body is one of the most diverse in the UK.

I think diversity is incredibly important. I’ve campaigned for a more open sense of access to the industry for BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) over the last two years. I’m confident that we are making small steps towards a very big resolution with this.

BCU is strongly placed to make a massive contribution to the world through their commitment to diversity, inclusion and the creative arts.

What would you say to young people who are still not sure which career path is right for them? And, in your opinion, are universities doing enough to offer students advice and guidance on the next step after university?

I think universities are doing a sterling job in offering students guidance on their next steps after university, and at BCU, this starts way before graduation. We are passionate about applying the knowledge we create in the real world and our Graduate+ scheme embeds career-related skills into every degree course. Plus, if a student’s entrepreneurial streak takes them towards setting up their own business, we have a wealth of resources to help them make it a success.

As a BCU graduate, you can continue to access careers support for up to three years after you graduate and engage in a range of other graduate employment and training initiatives through our Employment Advisers and our new Careers+ scheme.

We can offer a range of graduate employment, training initiatives and resources to support a student’s transition into their future career.

Our alumni are the most employable of all Birmingham higher education institutions; figures published in July this year show that 97.4% of our 2017 graduates were in employment or further study six months after graduating.

Plus, on graduation, students become part of an outstanding body of alumni who make a difference every day in over 100 countries worldwide. They will always be part of our BCU family.

What do you hope students will get out of their university experience today?

Higher education is, by its nature, transformative and aspirational. We want our students to have life-changing experiences and, at graduation, our students find themselves standing on the first step of a ladder which will take them to exciting new careers. They are fountains of knowledge in their fields; confident, conversational and curious, and they should be proud of what they’ve done and what they have been part of. I know how hard they’ve had to work because I too have been a student myself.

Birmingham is a major part of my life. I auditioned for a talent show in Birmingham and it transformed my life completely and every time I’ve paid a trip into Birmingham I’ve always seen it as this extraordinary metropolis that had such potential. So for me, being part of Birmingham is a no brainer.

On my first visit to Birmingham City University I saw an animation studio, a radio studio and a TV studio. I got to see all manner of exciting things happening here and it just feels like it is exploding with talent and diversity and cultural exchange. Plus, there’s an amazing social scene here. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to come here.

You are a very busy man, with lots of projects on the go, anything new on the horizon over the coming months?

I’m in production on a new comedy show for ITV, drama for BBC One, completing my PhD revisions, writing a memoir for Faber & Faber, being a dad, partner and moving house – all at the same time. My peers think I am insane!