UEA 50th: How University of East Anglia students have made a name for themselves on the world stage

UEA looks in good shape as it prepares to celebrate its 50th birthday. Photo: Bill Smith

UEA looks in good shape as it prepares to celebrate its 50th birthday. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant © 2013

As the University of East Anglia celebrates its 50th anniversary, reporter David Freezer speaks to former students to discover why the UEA is such a special place to study.

Actor Jack Davenport at the UEA to receive an honorary degree. Picture: Denise Bradley

Actor Jack Davenport at the UEA to receive an honorary degree. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Archant 2013

The first 50 years of the University of East Anglia has produced an alumni littered with star names, international experts and renowned artists which any institution would be proud of.

Charlie Higson back at the UEA, where he began as a student in 1977.Photo: Bill Smith

Charlie Higson back at the UEA, where he began as a student in 1977.Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Bill Smith - Archant

From Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse to Hollywood movie stars John Rhys-Davies and Jack Davenport, the alumni of the UEA have truly taken their skills to the global stage.

University of East Anglia campus. Photo: Bill Smith

University of East Anglia campus. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant � 2013

Davenport has gone on to star in films such as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, alongside Johnny Depp, and The Talented Mr Ripley.

Looking back on his time studying English literature and film in the early 1990s, Davenport said: 'As a faculty they were able to get the most astounding people to come and talk to us. When I was here I had lectures from Martin Amis, John Fowles and Iris Murdoch.


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'There was something rather glamorous about that department. The bright lights attracted me like a moth to a flame.'

And it seems the current cohort still appreciate the offer of the UEA in 2013 as well.

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In April this year the UEA was named the number one place in the UK to be a student by the Times Higher Education magazine.

Students across the UK rated their institutions in 21 categories from teaching quality to social life and accommodation. The UEA was rated highly across the board by its students, to rise from sixth overall in 2012 to take this year's top position.

Professor Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the UEA, says the key to that success is simple; focusing on students.

'We do have a huge advantage in this region being so attractive, the city being so attractive, the campus being so attractive, but also it's almost in the DNA of people who work here now,' Prof Acton said.

'What you do is you listen to the students, you listen to what they want, but also you encourage them to work very hard, and rather few universities are saying 'what you must do is work very hard' and I think we are stealing a march in that.

'But all the evidence is you enjoy it more if you work hard. You play harder, it's not either-or, the people working hard make up most of the societies and represent the university in sports, but also you realise you have got a work ethic and that you know about turning up, you know about seizing work.'

Earlier this month the UEA was also announced as a finalist in three categories in the Times Higher Education Awards: university of the year, international collaboration of the year, for a project with Harvard School of Public Health to conduct nutrition research on both sides of the Atlantic, and the outstanding contribution to sustainable development category, for introducing Highland cows onto the outskirts of the campus.

This year the university has also been ranked 20th in the Complete University Guide, which scores institutions in nine areas, including student satisfaction, research assessment, spending on academic services and graduate prospects.

And it has been ranked 90th in the world and 14th in the UK in the CWTS Leiden Ranking 2013, which focuses on research excellence.

Prof Acton continued: 'I think at the absolute root is getting the balance correct between research excellence and education excellence, and a lot of the best British universities have been over-focused on research at the expense of students and the education, and we haven't.

'We've been driving up the quality and the volume of our top class research, the recent tables in research citations puts us 11th or 14th in Britain, so they are all a great deal older and richer that are above us. But simultaneously we have been really focused on students, on student experience, on making sure the students get personal attention and frankly being open about making sure students give us their best and work hard, because we know they will be better off.

'I think that combination of the academics and the people providing the vital support for the whole academic enterprise, really embedding the idea that we are here to serve the students and to make them work very hard. I think that makes me very optimistic for the next stage.'

As part of the UEA's 50th celebrations this year a raft of famous former students were given honorary degrees during graduation season.

Joining Nurse, Rhys-Davies and Davenport were the likes of BBC journalist Razia Iqbal, international art expert Philip Mould and novelist Tracy Chevalier. Another famous former face around the UEA campus is Charlie Higson, who went on to create hit TV comedy The Fast Show with Paul Whitehouse.

Higson, who studied English and American Literature and Film at the UEA between 1977 and 1980, summed up his memories of his time studying in Norwich by saying: 'All of the best things in the rest of my life have been because of people I met during my time at the University of East Anglia.

'I had the choice between the UEA and Brighton, but the course here had a film part to it as well, so I chose here. It was kind of modern and exciting rather than crusty and ivy-clad like Oxford or Cambridge. It felt like new stuff was going on at the UEA.It was a lovely campus when I was here, and it still is. I genuinely had a great time at the UEA, and I met a lot of people with whom I'm still friends now.'

- See tomorrow's EDP or Norwich Evening News for an in-depth interview with Prof Acton, focusing on what the next 50 years could hold for the UEA and how it intends to continue expanding its reputation on both the national and international stage.

Related links

UEA 50th: Just how important is the University of East Anglia to the rest of Norfolk?

UEA 50th: How Norwich golf course was transformed into university campus for over 13,000 students

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