UCL News


Provost’s View: UCL’s mutually beneficial relationship with Europe

22 May 2014

I found myself in Helsinki this week, attending a meeting of the League of European Research Universities (LERU). It was my first-ever trip to Finland and, as I flew in over a wonderful archipelago, the natural beauty of the country was very apparent.

Helsinki itself was interesting, with an imperial Russian influence dominating the architecture of Senate Square, where the University of Helsinki, the cathedral and a few government buildings are located.

The University of Helsinki is an excellent research-intensive university, a member of LERU, and host to the LERU conference of Rectors, Vice-Chancellors and Presidents/Provosts. UCL has been a member of LERU since its inception in 2002 and this is the second such meeting I have attended since joining UCL (the last being in Oxford last October). You can see the full list of members on the LERU website.

Lobbying the EU

European flag

LERU has many different functions, but they may, essentially, be described as informing and lobbying the EU in favour of Europe’s leading research-intensive universities. It also acts as a forum to discuss higher education policies across Europe and its member states and to share best practice across education, research, innovation and enterprise and internationalisation.

The organisation is very well led by the Secretary General, Professor Kurt Deketelaere, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge not only of the way Brussels works, but also of higher education across a wide range of European countries.

Huge differences

One of the remarkable things about the LERU meeting is that you quickly learn that there are huge differences across the higher education systems of Europe and that the extent of freedom and autonomy that we enjoy in the UK is not replicated across most of Europe, not even in Italy, France or Germany.

There is, for example, much greater state control over academic appointments and salaries and many European university leaders feel that this inhibits their ability to compete at the very highest level internationally, e.g. for the best staff.

The range of topics covered at the LERU meeting was broad, but I will quickly highlight a few to give you a sense of the nature, and value, of our discussions.

First, Steve Caddick did an excellent job of presenting the work and thoughts of the LERU Enterprise and Innovation Community, which he also chairs to great effect.

The presentation was wide in its scope, but two major factors came out for me – the importance of LERU knowing the economic impact of its member institutions and a strong desire to work more closely together in promoting student entrepreneurship.

Steve gave a great talk, followed by some 40 minutes of discussion, and I felt very proud of the prominent contribution that UCL made to getting the meeting off to a very good start.

The European Research Council

Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the current President of the European Research Council (ERC), gave another really interesting talk. The ERC is now a hugely important organisation for European (and world) science and it is of massive importance to UCL, as we are a major recipient of their grants.

Bourguignon took us through the different ERC grant systems (http://erc.europa.eu/funding-schemes) – Starter, Consolidator and Advanced Grants (essentially fellowships), Proof of Concept awards and Synergy grants.

The basic facts are quite remarkable. Some 4,300 top researchers, of 64 different nationalities, are now recipients of ERC awards – with 65% of these awards given to early career researchers via the Starter awards system.

The criteria for an award focuses purely on scientific excellence assessed by peer review and the ERC expert panels. These awards are highly competitive – the success rate across the entire ERC system is in the order of 10%, with grants now awarded to 600 institutions in 29 countries.

UK research in pole position

Remarkably, 50% of ERC awards go to just 50 institutions, of which we are one. The UK is by far the most successful EU member state with nearly 1,000 ERC awards to universities (2007–2013 cumulative data) compared to just less than 600 each for German and French universities. The numbers drop away rapidly after that across the rest of the EU – although the Netherlands and Switzerland also do quite well in total awards (and very well in proportion to their respective size).

If you look at this data by numbers of awards by institution (2007–2013 cumulative data) then the top three universities for the whole of Europe are Oxford at 121 awards, Cambridge at 118 and UCL at 85. For comparison, Imperial has 61 and Kings has 35 awards over the same period. Including those who came to UCL after applying for their award when elsewhere, UCL was awarded 105 ERC grants under Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Notably, all UCL faculties have been awarded an ERC grant under FP7 and we have won more awards within the social sciences and humanities than any other university.

Another fact that I found quite staggering is that if you correlate the number of ERC awards by country with the total number of publications that are within the top 10% for citations, the correlation coefficient is 0.97. Cause and effect are not established, but that is an incredibly close correlation.

My conclusion is that the ERC is really important, but particularly to the UK and UCL, and that they are selecting the right science with considerable accuracy and funding it appropriately. Long may that continue.

There was a plea from Bourguignon for help with reviewing grants and expert panel membership. If you are asked, please take such a request seriously – it is not only highly prestigious for you, but it will also reflect well on UCL.

Finally, I can’t let this Europe focused ‘Provost’s view’ go by without making a few comments about the newly launched ranking system put together by the EU at the expense of some €2 million and called U-multirank (http://www.u-multirank.eu).

Rankings: an inexact science

Members of LERU were initially very concerned about such a system with ‘official’ EU status, because we believe it is, in effect, impossible to create a ranking system that truly reflects the rich diversity and performance of our universities.

It might not be overly wise of me to directly criticise the wonderfully elaborate, totally self-adjustable ranking website that has been created, but you might want to form your own opinion by having a quick fly around it.

Then ask yourself a simple question – would this really help students to make a better-informed choice of which university they would like to attend? By the way, don't put UCL into the search engine as you will get the Catholic University of Louvain – enough said!

Michael Arthur

President and Provost, UCL


European Research and Innovation Office (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/research/europe)

Tip for winning ERC grants


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