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2021: Our University in review

We take a look back at another extraordinary year. Looking back, there has been much to celebrate from our University community, from individual achievements to rankings success, new research discoveries, and helping our communities face the unprecedented task of battling COVID-19.

We may have been apart again for much of 2021, but more than ever, we’ve come together – our people, our Manchester.

Individual achievements

2021 started with the news that three of our academic staff had been recognised in HM The Queen’s New Year Honours list. Professor of Economics Rachel Griffith became a Dame of the British Empire for services to Economic Policy and Education. Dr Heather Williams, honorary Lecturer in the Centre for Imaging Sciences, received an MBE for services to Diversity and Inclusion in Science. And Professor Michael Wood, historian and broadcaster, was awarded an OBE for services to Public History and to Broadcasting. And our Chancellor Lemn Sissay who was awarded an OBE for services to Literature and Charity in HM The Queen's Birthday Honours List.   

Former broadcast journalist Jim Hancock was appointed as our new Pro-Chancellor. Jim is a Manchester alumnus and a long-standing supporter and friend of our University.

England international footballer Marcus Rashford MBE received his honorary doctorate at a special ceremony which took place at Old Trafford. The accolade is the highest honour our University can bestow and, at just 23 years old, Marcus is the youngest recipient of an honorary degree in our University's history.

Continuing with sport, it was silver medal success for immunology student Grace Harvey in the Tokyo Paralympics. Dr Thomas Nuhse, her academic advisor, said: “Grace’s enthusiasm for science and the hard work she has put in alongside her full-on training has been an inspiration.”

Medals of Honour were conferred on Gillian Easson, former Pro-Chancellor, Dr Paul Martin OBE, Chief Executive, LGBT Foundation, and Jonathan Schofield, writer and North West tour guide, for their exceptional contributions to the University, Manchester and beyond.

The British Academy awarded Professor David Olusoga the President's Medal, its most prestigious accolade, for telling diverse stories from Britain’s past. Professor Olusoga received the award for his approaches to British and international history by unearthing and telling stories from Britain’s past to a wide audience.

Congratulations to Dr Amy Bonsall, Professor Robert Stephens and Harriet Larrington-Spencer who were all shortlisted for the 2021 Shaw Trust Disability Power List 100.

Professor Sheena Cruickshank won the Association of British Science Writers Dr Katharine Giles Award 2021 for best popular article written by a scientist or engineer. Sheena won for her article Inflammation: the key factor that explains vulnerability to severe COVID, published by The Conversation. 

Aerospace Systems Lecturer Dr Ciara McGrath has been named the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) Young Woman Engineer of the Year. Ciara carries out engineering research projects in the areas of astrodynamics and space mission design, working with industry and policy makers to design space systems that can help support life on Earth.

Congratulations to Assistant Director Estates and Facilities – Head of Campus Services Alison Shedlock, who won the Public Sector Caterer Award at the Cateys, which recognises achievement in the hospitality and catering sector.

Henry Royce Institute and Photon Science Institute (PSI) Technical Operations Manager Cath Davies was awarded a prestigious Papin Prize – the UK’s only award dedicated to celebrating technical excellence in higher education and research.

Three University projects were crowned winners at the North West Regional Construction Awards. The First Light Pavilion at Jodrell Bank won two awards and Manchester Museum won for its hellofuture transformation project.


Professor David Olusoga

Our research and expertise

Our University's contribution to cancer research was celebrated in a collection of research stories published on World Cancer Day (Thursday, 4 February). The commitment of the global cancer research community at our University has continued to progress advancements in all areas including prevention, earlier detection and best treatment and aftercare. 

Manchester scientists helped research the origins of a rare meteorite that landed in the Cotswolds following a spectacular fireball spotted by thousands of eyewitnesses. Dr Katherine Joy said: “Normally we have to send spacecraft to collect bits of other worlds, but this time one has fallen right into our laps!” 

The UK’s first and largest survey of its kind to document the impact of COVID-19, and the lockdowns, on the lives of 17,000 ethnic and religious minority people launched earlier this year, led by our Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).

Nine of our leading researchers and experts in climate change attended COP26, the UN Climate Change summit to observe the negotiations that will be fundamental to securing the future of our planet.

And we can add a Guinness World Record to our achievements, as scientists from a multidisciplinary team developed the 'world's finest fabric'.

The band Massive Attack worked with our Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research to produce an open resource for the music industry, the Roadmap to Super Low Carbon Live Music. As an immediate response to this exploration, Massive Attack have designed six major emissions reduction modules for their 2022 tour.

Our researchers published study results of a pioneering new skin swab test that could be developed to diagnose the degenerative condition Parkinson’s disease. Professor of Mass Spectrometry Perdita Barran said: “Not only is the test quick, simple and painless but it should also be extremely cost-effective because it uses existing technology that is already widely available.”

  • Read more about our research and expertise in the 2021 review compiled by our Media Relations team.
World's thinnest fabric

Helping our communities

As the UK went back into lockdown, the COVID-19 vaccination programme was accelerated, and the former Chancellors Hotel became a community vaccination centre, with our Estates and Facilities teams carrying out essential compliance works to support the opening.

Our staff and students stepped up to volunteer for the NHS COVID-19 vaccination programme – our students alone contributed over 1,000 hours of time to support the NHS.

And colleagues and students were recognised for their role in helping to establish the Alderley Park Lighthouse Laboratory in Cheshire, a key component of the Government’s COVID-19 testing programme.

We didn’t let the pandemic stop our involvement in our local communities. Our Widening Participation team delivered 1,039 activities to 18,900 learners under the age of 16, at 176 schools and colleges in 2020.

Three years in three minutes - our commitment to social responsibility was highlighted in a short film. We are unique in British higher education by having social responsibility as one of our three core strategic goals in our vision and strategic plan, Our future.

We celebrated the achievements of our staff, students and alumni at our annual Volunteer of the Year Awards, Making a Difference Awards and Distinguished Achievement Awards. The Making a Difference Awards were broadcast live online from our Manchester Museum, with our winners joining Lemn Sissay, the University’s Chancellor, via Zoom to receive their awards.

After racist graffiti appeared on a mural of footballer Marcus Rashford, people near and far covered it with thousands of messages of support and pictures. MA students from the Institute of Cultural Practices helped with collecting the messages and documented the process, preserving them for the Central Library's archives department.

COVID vaccine

Rankings, new alliances and launches

We were named the world's top university for action taken towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell said: “We’re absolutely delighted to top the world in the Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings in 2021, but more importantly we’re pleased to be part of a growing community of universities committed to measuring and sharing their societal impact.”

Our University moved up two places in the THE ranking of the most international universities in the world. It now sits at 23rd in the world, out of more than 170.

THE’s rankings demonstrated our University's strong reputation in the world is getting even better and is a testament to the hard work of students, faculty and staff who contribute to our research and teaching. This latest global ranking success follows on from Manchester maintaining its highest ever position of 27 in the prestigious QS World University Rankings in June and moving up to 35 in the latest Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) in August.  

A major milestone for our University as the Manchester Engineering Campus Development (MECD) was officially handed over in May 2021. MECD represents the single largest construction project ever completed by a higher education institution in the UK and is the largest home for engineering in any UK university. 

Our University joined the universities of Leeds and Sheffield to launch a new investment company to help boost the commercialisation of university spinouts and start-ups in the North of England. The company, called Northern Gritstone, will fund spinout enterprises from each institution using external capital raised from a range of different investors.

We announced the preferred partner for ID Manchester. Our University and Bruntwood SciTech, a 50:50 joint venture between Bruntwood and Legal & General, will now form a new joint venture to enhance, develop and deliver the vision to establish ID Manchester as a new innovation district.

A consortium led by our University launched the new multimillion-pound Christabel Pankhurst Institute for Health Technology and Innovation. The research and innovation institute will build on Manchester’s academic strengths in digital health and advanced materials to discover innovative health and care solutions.

We partnered with four other Greater Manchester higher education institutions to launch a flagship agreement with mayor Andy Burnham to work together to drive social and economic change in the city region.

A new alliance between the universities of Manchester, Melbourne and Toronto was announced in November. The Alliance sees the universities commit to collaborate more closely than ever, drawing on joint expertise and resources and taking advantage of new ways of studying, working and collaborating that have emerged during the pandemic.

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, CEO of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), officially opened our £105m Henry Royce Institute Hub Building. Professor Nancy Rothwell and Dame Julia King, the Baroness Brown of Cambridge and Chair of the Henry Royce Institute, welcomed guests to Royce’s flagship building and set out the capabilities of the new UK centre for materials research and meeting place for the advanced materials community.

Number one in THE social impact rankings

Our people, our Manchester

Although many of our usual University events were held virtually, our Foundation Day celebrations returned to Whitworth Hall in October. Our President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Nancy Rothwell, said: “The past year has tested us all in many ways. In true Manchester spirit, our community has responded with passion, professionalism and commitment, helping us to achieve a great deal.”

Manchester Museum closed its doors until next year to enable exciting redevelopment work to be completed as part of the hellofuture transformation project. The Museum celebrated over the August Bank Holiday weekend by hosting stars of Channel 4’s Drag SOS Family Gorgeous as part of its Manchester Pride celebrations.

And ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’, Manchester Museum’s first ever international touring exhibition, arrived in Beijing in Augustfor the final leg of its journey, after touring the USA in 2020.

We launched our self-guided campus tour app, giving prospective students the chance during lockdown to take tours of campus, learning more about our fantastic facilities and rich history. 

Fans of BBC cookery competition Great British Menu were served up a culinary treat when the series finale filmed at Jodrell Bank aired.

A social media campaign helped identify historic window crests in Whitworth Hall.Grant Collier, who has regularly led tours around the Alfred Waterhouse-designed Whitworth Building, says: “I realised that we didn’t have much information on the stained glass windows and I thought it would be a good idea to crowdsource support, particularly if people recognised the crests of their local area.”

We celebrated 200 years of The Guardian newspaper - our John Rylands Research Institute and Library holds the entire archive of the Manchester Guardian.

Aside from COVID, we were faced with a different challenge in October – a burst water pipe main on Oxford Road. A rapid and expert response to the situation was demonstrated by many colleagues, including those in our Library staff, Estates and IT Services.

10,000 Actions became 50,000 as we extended our environmental sustainability programme to the whole of our student body. It is now the biggest environmental sustainability initiative in the higher education sector.

Whitworth Hall