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Dame Sandra Burslem, who has died aged 83, survived childhood internment by the Japanese in a Shanghai prisoner-of-war camp reminiscent of JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun to become a leading figure in British higher education. Having been prevented by single motherhood from enrolling at university until she was 28, then juggling her undergraduate studies with the care of her two sons, she later campaigned to make university more accommodating of mature students’ complicated lives, and was pivotal in turning Manchester Metropolitan University, of which she was Vice Chancellor from 1997 to 2005, into one of the country’s largest non-collegiate universities.
She was born Alexandra Vivien Thornley in Shanghai on May 6 1940, the only daughter of Stanley Morris Thornley, a chartered accountant from Blackpool, and his wife, Myrra (née Kimberley). The couple, with Sandra’s older brother Ian, had moved to China in 1937, when Stanley joined the traders Jardine Matheson, and had settled in Shanghai’s French Quarter, where they enjoyed a reasonably prosperous expat existence.
However, after Pearl Harbour, Britain declared war on Japan, annd the family, now including 15-month-old Sandra, became prisoners of war. Together with other European internees, the four of them were all sent to Lung-wha camp. They managed to survive, courtesy of Swiss Red Cross food parcels.
It would be 1946 before the family was able to make the six-week journey back to Britain on a merchant ship. They settled on the Fylde Coast, and Sandra attended Arnold High School for Girls in Blackpool, where she was an outstanding student.
Instead of university, however, she fell into an early marriage at the age of 20, which soon left her the single mother of two sons. It was not until she was 28, and her younger son was in primary school, that she had enough spare time to enrol as a mature student at the University of Manchester. Juggling childcare, she had to pick her course options because of where they came in the timetable, rather than because she wanted to do them, but she graduated in 1971 with a first in politics and modern history. “In my third year, one lecturer taught me individually because I couldn’t get to lectures. It was a kindness I have never forgotten,” she later told Times Higher Education.
She was offered some money to research government-industry relations by Manchester University, “but there was no guarantee of a permanent job and I had a family to feed,” she said. Instead she joined Manchester Polytechnic (as Manchester Metropolitan was then called) in 1973 as a lecturer in politics and public administration.
Early in her career she had worked for the BBC both as an announcer and as a programme director. In tandem with her burgeoning broadcasting career, she also began working for the Family Planning Association at a highly controversial time when family planning was first being offered to unmarried girls. As Chair of the Medical Services Committee of the Family Practitioner Committee, she spent 10 years adjudicating complaints against medical practitioners.
In 1982, she was made the head of Manchester Polytechnic’s Department of Applied Community Studies, then Dean of Faculty in 1986. She helped launch innovative degrees aimed at mature students, for example in the public administration of local police forces. In 1988 she was made Academic Director, then Deputy Vice Chancellor in 1992 (the year Manchester Polytechnic was granted university status, and rechristened Manchester Metropolitan), then Vice-Chancellor in 1997 – one of only seven female Vice-Chancellors in the country.
She served under two successive Chancellors (the Duke of Westminster, then Dame Janet Smith), but as the role of Chancellor was more of a remote figurehead, she was effectively the flegling university’s on-the-ground head, successfully uniting its many disparate elements: Manchester Mechanics Institute, Manchester School of Design, Schools of Education, Domestic Science and Commerce, Cheshire Training College and Hollings College (housed in the 1960 “Toast Rack” building, which Pevsner called “a perfect piece of pop architecture”).
The already extensive campus acquired many modern buildings, and she campaigned against the bias in funding towards a small number of older institutions, and spoke in favour of tax relief for childcare to help women pursue their careers. After her retirement in 2005, the law school’s premises was renamed The Sandra Burslem Building.
Her public service was extensive. From 2005 to 2011, she chaired the Education Honours Committee; she also served as a Civil Service Commissioner, and was a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the UK Erasmus-Socrates Council, the Higher Education FCE Audit Commission and the Council for International Co-operation in HE; she was chair of the BBC Regional Advisory Counciland deputy chairman of the National Learning and Skills Council and the board of Ofqual. She was also a Justice of the Peace, a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater Manchester, and head of the Manchester and Cheshire branches of the Anchor Housing Association.
Despite these myriad commitments, she never failed to keep in touch with a small group of friends from her Blackpool schooldays, with whom she would invariably meet up each summer and take delight in travelling to the cultural capitals of the world.
In 1993 she was appointed OBE, and in 2004 advanced to DBE.
Her first marriage was dissolved in 1971; in 1977, she married Richard Waywell Burslem, who predeceased her in 2001. She is survived by two sons from her first marriage and a daughter from her second.
Dame Sandra Burslem, born May 6 1940, died November 3 2023