The former vice chancellor of Sunderland University is to be made an OBE in the New Year’s Honours list for her work in making education accessible to people from all backgrounds.
Shirley Atkinson, who spent 10 years at the university, six as deputy vice-chancellor and four as vice-chancellor and chief executive, is to receive the honour for her services to help widen participation in high education.
Her citation found that she has lobbied “relentlessly” on the challenges of social mobility in hard to reach communities, taking politicians to task for abolishing maintenance grants.
She was also successful in mobilising the Sunderland business community in the creation of a new Centre for Enterprise and Innovation, an open door for employers, graduates, and the wider community to access institutional research expertise and facilities.
She has provided leadership to the Sunderland cultural agenda too, bringing many city venues under the university’s wing to maximise public access to the arts.
She believes that community arts and culture are powerful catalysts for regeneration and her global outlook brings international opportunities to local students through the opening of a campus in Hong Kong, and through the development of life-changing international student exchange programmes.
Her peers say that her legacy will be for “giving life changing opportunities to those with talent regardless of background”.
Speaking to the Echo, Shirley said: “It’s something that has completely out of the blue, a total surprise.
“Obviously I was sad to leave the university after being there for 10 years because it’s a fabulous institution which is really important to the city.
“Although the recognition is personal, I think it’s a reflection on the university staff, the board, and all of its supporters who have made it so accessible.
“It’s an accolade for everyone.”
Shirley added that the creation of campuses in London and Hong Kong and a new medical school in Sunderland are among her proudest memories of her time at the university.
“It’s wonderful that we now have these campuses operating despite it being a difficult time for universities at the minute,” she said.
“It’s expanding into areas that are really necessary such as nursing and the medical school, which is a real game changer.”