Provost’s Long View: Reflecting on my first year

3 July 2014

As this will be the last Provost’s View before the summer break, I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on my first year in office and comment on what it has been like to join UCL at such an exciting and interesting time.

Portico

My initial impressions have been reinforced as the year has progressed. UCL is a truly outstanding institution with incredible academic quality and working across disciplines is a very real and extraordinary characteristic of our institutional culture.

This creative force also enjoys significant autonomy and it thrives on the traditional values of UCL and that slightly rebellious, critical and radical tone that defines us as a university.

It is much as I had imagined before coming here, but I have enjoyed immersing myself in that culture.

Absorbing the UCL culture

I was paid the ultimate compliment after a recent speech at which I was opening a conference, when a distinguished speaker said to me, “You really seem to have taken the culture of UCL to heart and when you talk of UCL, it feels very genuine.”

The comment was somewhat qualified by the next comment: “Either that or you are a very good actor.” I can assure you all it is the former!

Not surprisingly, getting to know people and familiarising myself with the UCL way of doing things have taken a significant proportion of my first year.

If you have asked me to do anything, I have generally turned up (diary permitting) and that has been an excellent way of learning about UCL. I have enjoyed these events and meeting a huge number of people, and this approach has given me significant insights into both the wonderful quality and breadth of UCL.

For example, the range of activities in the realm of ‘public engagement’ is far greater than anything else that I have ever experienced in my career and it makes me feel very proud of UCL and to be a part of it.

A packed diary

I have also been ‘out and about’ a great deal and have now visited every faculty and every major professional service. This has been essential for me as I try to understand UCL, but, hopefully, it has also been an opportunity for you to get to know me a little better too.

During this tour, I have really enjoyed some very frank and honest exchanges in a series of question and answer sessions, which have been critically important in helping me to sense the ‘temperature of the organisation’ on some key issues.

My tour has included several academic departments and it is my intention to try to visit them all by this time next year, coupled with the rest of the Vice-Provost’s offices.

Over the year, much of my time has been spent, quite appropriately, on pulling together the UCL 2034 strategy with the help of an extended Senior Management Team that includes all the VPs, Deans and service directors and members of Council.

In setting any strategy, process is as important as content and running an extensive consultation process with town meetings, culminating in the Any Questions-style meeting chaired by our own alumnus, Jonathan Dimbleby, was a real highlight for me.

I really enjoy the intellectual challenge of being open to any question about UCL and our future. In such events, there is nowhere to hide and you get the ‘real me’, warts and all. That is why it is such fun!

Along those lines, I am going to remind you quickly of the principal themes and the key enablers of UCL 2034. They are as follows.

Principal themes:

  • Academic leadership grounded in intellectual excellence
  • A global leader in the integration of research and education, underpinning an inspirational student experience
  • Addressing global challenges through our disciplinary excellence and distinctive cross-disciplinary approach
  • An accessible, publicly-engaged organisation that fosters a lifelong community
  • London’s Global University – in London, of London and for London
  • Delivering global impact through a network of innovative international activities, collaborations and partnerships.

Key enablers:

  • Giving our students the best support, facilities and opportunities
  • Valuing our staff and delivering on equality and diversity
  • Financing our ambitions
  • Delivering excellent systems and processes in support of UCL’s vision
  • Maintaining a sustainable estate to meet our aspirations
  • Communicating and engaging effectively with the world

UCL 2034: next steps

The revised UCL 2034 strategy will most likely be finalised at the July council meeting and when that happens, we will publish it formally on the web and create a glossy brochure and PDF version.

Please read it and let it guide your decision making about what you do on a daily basis that will help achieve our strategic objectives. I think you will find that there is plenty of room to enjoy academic freedom, autonomy, creativity and, yes, to be radical and critical in your thinking and approach too.

Please always remember that at the heart of UCL 2034, lies the underlying desire to ensure that UCL remains a world force in higher education for decades and centuries to come – that is the real prize for making good progress over the next 20 years.

So to be quite honest, getting to this point was the relatively easy task; we now need to focus on implementation and governance, as well as designing good systems to report progress against our strategic objectives to both the academic community and to Council.

The extended SMT team is currently working on that as our major strategic task for next year and in the meantime, UCL 2034 will certainly inform our academic and service planning for next year.

In my first year, there have been two other high-level projects that have the potential to transform UCL and I am personally delighted with how both have progressed.

The first of these is the proposed merger with the Institute of Education (IoE), which is going very well. Both councils have agreed to proceed with the more formal exploration of the merger and we are currently in the phase of due diligence and consideration of legal issues.

Negotiations about the detail of the merger between IoE and ourselves have gone very well and, at this stage, I am delighted to report that we look set to be on course for both councils to be able to make a final decision in the autumn term.

At its heart, this proposal for merger is being driven by academic considerations and I am also delighted to report that joint work on the academic strategy of the combined entity is well underway.

UCL and the Olympic Park

The second major project under consideration is our proposal to develop a substantial presence and new space for UCL on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford.

Steve Caddick has been superb in leading us to the point that this is now a very real possibility and I am constantly reminded by space pressures in Bloomsbury just how important this is for our future.

Steve’s recent Vice-Provost’s View gave an outline of our progress to date as well as an exciting academic vision for the site. There remains much to do as we work with the London Legacy Development Corporation, the Mayor’s office and central government to make this happen – but it is our intention that this project also moves to a final business case and decision in the autumn term.

You will notice that I have managed to leave space pressures and estates to the very end of this article. Everyone at UCL that speaks to me about this now starts a discussion on the topic with some sort of apology, almost to the point that it has become a standing joke.

Therein, of course, lies the story of arguably the single most contentious issue on campus. Against that background, I do have some good news.

Relieving space pressures

First, three big projects all get underway this summer: the refurbishment of the Katherine Lonsdale Building; stripping Wates House back to the basic frame and then extending and refitting it; and the work on the Physics Yard/Refectory/Bloomsbury theatre.

There will doubtless be difficulties and problems during decant and construction that will spill over to adjacent departments and buildings, but everything that can reasonably be done to support all affected during this period, will be done.

We have also been working hard to enhance the provision of learning and teaching spaces and have also made great progress in recent weeks.

In brief, we have acquired a new building, Bidborough House, that allows us to create more teaching and academic accommodation closer to the main Bloomsbury site.

In addition, we have rented another 800m2 in Senate House for more learning spaces and have also just signed a major reciprocal deal with Birkbeck to use their teaching space by day, while they use more of our space in the evenings.

This gives us access to 23 teaching spaces (9am-5pm), including three lecture theatres and three further IT-based teaching labs all located on their Malet Street site. I am delighted by this series of moves, but also wise enough to know that there are more space pressures to come in my second year and beyond!

Over recent weeks, a number of you have been kind enough to ask me how things are going for me personally now that I am approaching the end of my first year.

The honest answer is that I am really enjoying UCL, but that it is, of course, a big challenge to lead such a high-profile institution. I have taken in recent weeks to turning the question round: “How do you think I am doing?” Most people are very polite and kind, but the most memorable answer that I have had compared me to my predecessor, Sir Malcolm Grant.

“Well,” said the questioner, “you are very different to Malcolm, but that is no bad thing – in fact, when we were discussing it among ourselves at coffee the other day, we all agreed that it was a shame that we couldn’t have both of you at the same time.”

I took that as a great compliment to both of us, and that seems a very fitting way to sign off at the end of my first academic year at UCL. Enjoy your summer.

Professor Michael Arthur

UCL President & Provost

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