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Made in Manchester

The making of our new Chancellor

Nazir Afzal OBE

In October 2022 Nazir Afzal OBE officially began his tenure as Chancellor of The University of Manchester. Almost a year into his new position as the institution’s ceremonial head, we spoke to him about his vision for the role and how the power of listening has shaped his life. 

Nazir will lead the University through its bicentenary celebrations next year. One of his priorities is to symbolically open our doors to the people of Greater Manchester. After all, Manchester was the world’s first industrial university, founded by and for working people. “Manchester is reaching out to communities, allowing them, expecting them, to come in and see what we do”, he explains. “It makes it feel that the University belongs to them rather than being some ivory tower.” 

Superstar DJ 

The former Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England has an impressive CV. He is a patron of nine NGOs, a member of both the National Police Chiefs’ Ethics Committee and the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and assists the governments of Somalia, Ukraine and Pakistan on Rule of Law reform. He’s written a memoir, The Prosecutor, and produces the popular true crime podcast Fear or Favour. It’s little wonder then that Nazir has had to make some sacrifices – the most tragic being his once flourishing DJ career. 

“I used to prosecute by day and DJ by night. I miss it. Whenever the dance floor was empty, if I put on Jump Around by House of Pain, they all just jumped on the dance floor.” Fatboy Slim can rest easy though – “I was really bad”, Nazir admits.   

We can educate our way out of every crisis we're in and I think the opportunities have to be for everybody.

What he lacked in skill he made up for in taste, confessing to having a particular soft spot for Manchester bands New Order and Joy Division, and club nights at the iconic Haçienda. “Manchester was, and still remains, an extraordinary hotbed of creative talent,” Nazir says.   

There are but a few hours in the day when Nazir is not listening to something. “My whole life has been a soundtrack. I’m driving, I’m listening. I’m walking, I’m listening. I’m going between meetings, I’m listening. If I lost my hearing, I don’t know how I’d cope.”  

He’s not exaggerating. In the time since he was announced as Chancellor – something Nazir calls an “immense privilege” – all his free time has been dedicated to listening. “I take advantage of every opportunity the role has given me. Every time there’s an event or an opening, I try and make myself available; just to get a sense of the achievements and ambitions of the people here.” He’s committed to listening to students and being a “conduit for their concerns, for their ideas, for their creativity”. And he also wants to listen to the people of Greater Manchester – a region he credits with making him the person he is today. 

Nazir Afzal OBE

Nazir Afzal OBE in the John Owens building

A city of belonging 

Nazir cares deeply about Manchester and its people. Speaking at his installation as Chancellor at the University’s 2022 Foundation Day event, he said: “I was born in Birmingham, nurtured professionally in London, and made in Manchester.”  

It’s a feeling that will resonate with the University’s students, staff and alumni. After all, Manchester has many thousands of adopted sons and daughters. The current University community is made up of more than 44,000 students and 13,000 staff, while the alumni community stretches to 550,000 across the globe – “and they take a bit of Manchester with them”, says Nazir.  

The Chancellor points to an ability to laugh; a desire to work hard; diligence in taking care of one another; and a dedication to enjoying life as the elements that give everyone who passes through the University their distinct sense of ‘Manchester-ness’. A huge part of this is the influence of the region’s people. “In Manchester, people are extremely open. They never stop talking, and you never stop learning,” he explains. “The people of Manchester have changed me, and I’ve no doubt that they will change others when their voices have been amplified.” 

A voice for the vulnerable 

Nazir Afzal was born in the early 1960s, one of seven kids in a two-up two-down terraced house in south-east Birmingham. His parents had emigrated from Pakistan shortly before his birth, and their skills in speaking English saw them become the voice of their local community. “They saw themselves as a conduit for people who were vulnerable, who had less ability to communicate, and they were doing so for nothing. It wasn’t their job, they had ‘jobs’, but they saw it as a duty”, Nazir says.  

This sense of duty has been a continuing thread through Nazir’s work in the years since. After graduating with a law degree, he worked as a solicitor before moving to London in the early 1990s to become a Crown Prosecutor. In 2001 he became Assistant Chief Crown Prosecutor – the youngest person and first Muslim to be appointed to the position – and, ten years later, moved to Manchester to take up the position of Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England. 

Throughout his legal career, Nazir has made it his priority to engage with people, and his role prosecuting high-profile criminal cases has seen him become a leading advocate for victims of crime. In particular, he has used his position to tackle violence against women and challenge patriarchal thinking. “If 50% of your community is not able to enhance their knowledge, then the whole community is suffering. And the whole community will die if that isn’t remedied,” he says of communities and countries that prevent women and girls from getting an education.  

Nazir passionately believes in the power of education. This is evident in his own home, where a selection of family photos are proudly on display – his children in their school uniforms; his daughter in a cap and gown clasping her degree. “Education opens doors. Education gives you opportunities that you wouldn’t even know about,” he explains. “We can educate our way out of every crisis that we’re in and I think the opportunities have to be for everybody.” 

People need to know that there are things that The University of Manchester is doing that will make their lives better.

Championing diversity 

Prioritising diversity is key to improving access to education, and Nazir is committed to listening to the people who are seldom invited to participate in decision-making. “By having different voices and experiences in the room, you are likely to have much better decision-making, and that, I think, is the key to having a more diverse institution,” Nazir explains.   

“The more that we understand each other, the more we learn about each other, the more likely it is that we will be better at what we decide.” It’s something Nazir has pledged to prioritise during his Chancellorship. “This is an area I’m going to focus a lot on to try and ensure that many, many different voices are heard.” 

Sitting up and listening to the seldom heard has put Manchester on the map more than once throughout its history. Indeed, the city has found itself leading reform many times. Speaking of his visits to campus, Nazir says: “I’m walking past where the suffragettes began; the place where the cooperative movement originated; not far from Peterloo and where people were fighting for parliamentary reform. Manchester’s got a phenomenal history of social activism and social justice, and it leaves me in awe.” 

This radical reputation attracts many people to the University and is something they take with them when they leave. And Nazir wants the world to know about it. “My role as Chancellor is, in effect, the first ambassador. So my job, my vocation, is to get out there and explain to people what Manchester is doing and could be doing,” he says. “People need to know that there are things that The University of Manchester is doing that will make their lives better.” 

The world in one place 

Making people’s lives better has been at the heart of Nazir’s career, even when doing so has brought personal challenges to his door – in one case quite literally. Following his successful prosecution of the Rochdale child abuse ring in 2012, members of the Far Right turned up at his home and camped out. He remembers this as an act of “unadulterated racism” at a time when he had “got every decision right”. So why does he continue speaking out when doing so makes him a lightning rod for hatred?  

“Because I’ve sat with people during my career who felt that nobody cared about them, and who have been seriously abused, and whose lives had been physically tortured in some cases, mentally tortured [in others]. Who suffer from every mental health illness you could possibly imagine. And all they wanted was somebody to listen to them,” Nazir says of his dedication to social justice. “Having done that numerous times, I realise that a society is judged on how it looks after its most vulnerable.” 

Caring for the vulnerable and making the world better is certainly something the University aspires to through its six values of knowledge, wisdom, humanity, courage, academic freedom, and pioneering spirit. Nazir comments: “I think all of the values mean something to me. At the end of the day, it’s about the contribution that we make to the rest of the world, and they all enable us to do that.”  

And where better to make that contribution than Manchester? “There are 150 languages in the Greater Manchester region, thousands of students from different parts of the world – it is the world in one place,” says Nazir. “I think that is something that you can never underestimate, and something that undoubtedly will stay with you forever.” 

Nazir's book, The Prosecutor, is out now. 

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