Provost’s View 21/11/2013: The quality of debate

21 November 2013

Academic institutions, in my experience, are renowned for their culture of debate and challenge. Since my arrival at UCL, I have seen ample evidence that we match other institutions for the level of discussion – and often disagreement – about a wide variety of issues; but also that we are distinguished by the quality of debate.

Last week saw the first meeting of the new Leadership Forum, which replaces the old Heads of Department meeting, and I was immensely impressed by the calibre and range of contributions. Indeed, it was an invigorating session, which is just what I needed after an overnight flight from New York, where I attended the launch of the UCL Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty, as well as meeting alumni and current and prospective donors.The Leadership Forum focused on kicking off the debate about UCL’s strategy, which I have foreshadowed in previous Provost’s Views .

Members of the forum had been asked to complete a questionnaire about potential key elements of UCL’s future strategy. This provided a guide for the discussion, which included reflections on the current White Paper, desired levels of future growth and areas where we should next concentrate our interdisciplinary activities.

Bringing together people from right across the organisation, with academic and professional services backgrounds, enables a broad, genuine cross-pollination of ideas, which challenge existing thinking.

For example, the survey with Leadership Forum members had highlighted ‘excellence’ as the key value for UCL, but during the discussion, many colleagues felt that this should be a given for an institution of our standing. Some expressed strong views that we should instead place emphasis on the ethos of the UCL, perhaps encapsulated as ‘rigorous free thought’.

Research council income summary

Research council income summary

In considering areas of importance for the new strategy, there was much discussion about building on our interdisciplinary research strength – as highlighted by the excellent news about our leading position in the research council grants table. In terms of education, a stronger focus on more radical use of technology, and the creation of hubs to facilitate interaction between staff and students were raised.

Regarding growth, colleagues felt that we should concentrate not only on numbers, but on quality, particularly in terms of the impact our graduates and research make on the world. As ever, the need for a more sustainable vision for the estate featured strongly in the debate.

This is just a flavour of the discussion, which will feed into the next stage for our strategy process; the senior team and some Council members will do some intensive work to take us to a first draft. We will then consult widely across UCL to ensure that we capture opinions and ideas from across our community.

Continuing the theme of discussion and debate, I promised after my opening Lunch Hour Lecture earlier in the term to respond to some of the questions that that couldn’t be accommodated in that session.

The range of questions reflected the culture of our organisation, from more fundamental thoughts about key aspects of higher education and UCL’s contribution, to the more personal, including a variation on the theme of ‘what is your favourite food?’ I will never cease to be amazed by the sheer breadth of the subject matter we engage with in this great university, and you can watch my answers below.

Lunch Hour Lecture: Questions and Answers

Finally, I’d like to thank those of you who have provided comments on previous Provost’s Views. I’ve read some really interesting contributions, touching on the challenges of embedding teaching and research, supporting higher education in Iraq, our brand and partnerships, to name just a few.

Please keep the comments coming; debate is at the heart of what we do.

Professor Michael Arthur
UCL President & Provost

Comments? Please provide your thoughts on this form.