Getting to know the people behind the University of London: Dr Mary Stiasny

During this new series, we put faces to names and share a behind-the-scenes look at the University of London International Programmes. First up is our Pro Vice-Chancellor (International), Dr Mary Stiasny OBE
Dr Mary Stiasny OBE
"I have always felt linked to the University and feel immensely proud of its innovative history": Dr Mary Stiasny
I always treasure overseas visits as they give me a chance to meet our past and present students. For me, as a former lecturer and teacher, meeting these students is at the heart of why I do this job.

What does the role of Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) and Chief Executive of the University of London International Programmes entail?
My primary role as Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) is to provide strategic direction and leadership for the International Programmes in delivering our 100-plus study programmes around the world, as well as focusing on the development of new programmes that we continue to add to our portfolio, such as the new Global MBA. In doing this, I work very closely with the Member Institutions of the University of London as well as linking in with Teaching Institutions overseas who teach our programmes. Furthermore, I see my role as having oversight of the entire student experience, a responsibility that I share with our Chief Operating Officer.

What does an average day or week comprise for you?
I think it is probably true to say that no two days are the same – every day brings with it something different, perhaps a new challenge or challenges all at the same time.

 Dr Mary Stiasny OBEMy first week back from Christmas leave is a good example of this. I came into the office on Tuesday and Wednesday after Christmas leave and caught up with my paperwork, dealt with emails, chatted to staff about the year ahead and answered queries from students that had contacted me. On the Thursday of the same week, I flew to Hong Kong, to attend two graduation ceremonies at two Teaching Institutions, followed by the launch event for our new Global MBA. Next day I flew to Malaysia to attend and speak at another graduation ceremony at a Teaching Institution in Kuala Lumpur. (Pictured left: Dr Mary Stiasny speaking at the Global MBA launch in Hong Kong.)

I always treasure these overseas visits as they give me a chance to meet our past and present students. For me, as a former lecturer and teacher, meeting these students is at the heart of why I do this job.

A week later, I will have flown back to London on an overnight flight and straight into the office in Bloomsbury to chair a couple of committee meetings at both Senate and Stewart House.

What would you say is the most appealing aspect of your role? 
I love the variety my role has to offer. I treasure the fundamental commitment of the University of London International Programmes to provide access to education for all that can benefit from it. In doing so, the University makes a tangible difference to people’s lives as well as to the communities they come from. And, of course, we know that many of our students also go on to play a key role on the world stage, Nelson Mandela being one such student.

Which career route did you take to becoming such an established figure in higher education?
After taking a degree in Sociology and Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, I trained as a Secondary School teacher, specialising in teaching social studies. I then taught in a secondary school for a few years, before moving into higher education at Goldsmiths, University of London. There I was a lecturer in education with responsibility for training teachers specialising in Social Studies. I did this for 21 years because I got so much satisfaction from it. I felt proud knowing that the teachers we trained would make real differences to the lives of others, and in doing so, inspire future generations to have a real thirst for learning.

"I personally believe that quality education should be available for all, and what the University of London does extremely well is to offer an internationally renowned degree, which it protects rigorously in terms of its curriculum and examinations."

You have an exceptionally long association with the University of London, both as a student and as a member of staff. What is it about the University that draws you back?
I think the simple fact is that I don’t think I ever really left. I have always felt linked to the University and feel immensely proud of its innovative history that dates back to 1836. I am proud to be part of its commitment to education for anyone that can benefit, and particularly proud of the University’s commitment to opening up education for women. I personally believe that quality education should be available for all, and what the University of London does extremely well is to offer an internationally renowned degree, which it protects rigorously in terms of its curriculum and examinations.

I’m also very proud of the fact that many members of my family have also been educated at the University of London, so it feels rather like home from home!

You essentially operate the ‘world’s largest classroom’, how does this compare with working at an on-campus University
Yes, it’s very different to run essentially the ‘world’s largest classroom’ comprising 50,000 students in 180 countries across the globe. Further to this we have more than a million students on our short courses, which are delivered through the online Coursera platform.

Our students continue to be at the heart of everything we do. We are constantly looking at ways of making improvements to the student experience, and how best to involve our students in doing this. I believe their experience is invaluable to us from an operational perspective and that’s why we involve them in some of our key decision making meetings.

I would say it’s much easier to gauge the student experience when you are working at an on-campus university. You see the students every day, and you are interacting with them at all times, which gives you an insight into their lives as students.

Even when I was a Dean, I spent a lot of time with students – even if it was only to hear what they weren’t happy with! I always continued to teach, and this is still something I try to do to this day. So we continue in our mission to involve students as much as we can – and of course the graduation ceremonies are a joyful opportunity to meet up with our students who have finished their degrees.

"I love London – its life, its diversity, its busyness, the cultural opportunities and the beautiful buildings along the riverside – I could go on about it for hours!"

Where are you from originally?
I am not from London originally; I was brought up on Tyneside in a Welsh family (we had gone there because of my father’s job, also in education!). I first came to London to University at the end of the late 1960s and I have stayed here ever since. I love London – its life, its diversity, its busyness, the cultural opportunities and the beautiful buildings along the riverside – I could go on about it for hours!

View of Senate House from Russell SquareDoes Bloomsbury appeal to you as an area of London to work in?
When I first came to University as a student, I came to Bloomsbury and lived here for two of my undergraduate years. Senate House was, and still is, the heart of the University of London – and I hardly dared hope that I might one day come back to work here. I have been here now for 10 years; I worked at the UCL Institute of Education for seven years as Pro-Director, and then three years ago I came to the University of London International Programmes, so I now feel as if I belong here again. It is a gentle, calm part of London and I feel privileged to work here. (Pictured right: Senate House viewed from Russell Square in Bloomsbury.)

What advice would you give to anyone visiting London for the first time? 
I would say – don’t try to do everything. Come back again if you can, and just do a bit each time you return to the Capital. There is simply too much to see in one go. But if nothing else, take a walk over Waterloo Bridge – first thing in the morning when the light is coming up, and then in the evening when all the lights of the city are on – it is just beautiful.

What, for you, is the prettiest place you have ever been to?
It is difficult to nominate anywhere – I have seen so many very beautiful places all over the world. However, if I may be a little biased here, I would have to nominate the Gower Coast which is near my family’s home in South Wales.

This interview is the first in a new series of Q&As with staff from the University of London International Programmes. Keep an eye out for more in the forthcoming months.