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Profile: Anthony Smith and his vision for education at UCL

23 April 2012

Professor Anthony Smith, Vice-Provost (Education), discusses the White Paper and outlines his ambition to truly unite research and teaching.

Professor Anthony Smith, UCL's Vice-Provost (Education)

Anthony Smith is a man on a mission. When we meet in his office on Gordon Square, he immediately begins describing his vision of the future of education at UCL – and it’s an ambitious one.

Before taking up his position as Vice-Provost (Education) in January, Anthony was Principal and Dean of the School of Pharmacy. A pharmaceutical microbiologist by training (MRSA and the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics are particular research interests), he is also a passionate advocate of innovation in education.

The White Paper has proved a particular source of inspiration for the Vice-Provost. Praising its “excitement and ambition”, Anthony says, “I see [the paper] as almost giving a new definition for education in our profoundly research-led, prestigious institution.” A central tenet of that definition, according to Anthony, is research-led learning, which he believes must be an inherent element of teaching and learning throughout UCL.

While most British universities talk about research-led learning on their websites, Anthony argues that in practice this often means very little: “A university should be about the creation of knowledge and its dissemination – crudely, research and teaching – but quite often the two things sit on parallel tracks,” he says. “I think it should be more than that; the two should enrich each other.”

But how can this be achieved? After all, UCL is world-renowned for the excellence of both its research and its teaching, but these are rarely treated as two sides of one coin. Anthony believes that education for global citizenship and the Grand Challenges each offer great potential for uniting research with teaching and learning. “It's important that UCL graduates have had some exposure to the 'big questions' of our time, which I think are effectively captured by the four grand challenges: global health, sustainable cities, intercultural interactions and human wellbeing. By allowing students the opportunity to look at some of these issues through the lens of different disciplines, we could do something really quite imaginative.”

Anthony Smith: the man behind the mission

How do you like to spend your free time?
I read quite a lot. One of my birthday presents was a Kindle, so I'm getting to grips with e-books – I try to mix worthier titles with page-turners. I also like to go to the opera, though I wouldn't call myself an opera buff by any means.

Apparently you turned 50 recently – how did you celebrate?
I spent my birthday in the Jeremy Bentham Room celebrating the merger of the School of Pharmacy with UCL. I was very pleased to be there but it might not have been my first choice for a 50th birthday party!

How would your friends describe you?
Um... I'm really stuck on this one! It's not the sort of thing you necessarily think about. Given how long I'm taking to answer this, I suppose the inevitable answer has to be thoughtful.

Research-led learning should not be confined to specific projects, though: everyone needs to start thinking about how to incorporate it into everyday teaching practice. Anthony believes that the enquiry-based techniques that researchers use in their own work must become embedded in the student learning process; bringing current research into the classroom is also a key way of ensuring that students graduate with inquisitive minds, ready to take on whatever the world of work throws at them.

When asked whether academics ought to be scholars of teaching as well as scholars of their own disciplines, Anthony gives a characteristically measured response. “I wouldn't like to break it down,” he says. “I think they need to be scholars – and they are scholars. All of us have a responsibility as academics to both of the fundamentals of what a university is: knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination.

“Does everyone have to be an expert in pedagogy and methodology? No they don't. But I see my office and the Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching as providing support to those who want to innovate in existing programmes or develop new ones. We can help get ideas off the ground by giving people tools and helping them to use them.”

Raised in Halesowen in the Black Country, Anthony comes from a long line of pharmacists. “My grandfather was a pharmacist, my dad was a pharmacist and he married a pharmacist, so you could say my career choice was inevitable,” he says. “However, my family have all been in community pharmacy – essentially, owning a chemist's shop and supporting people in the local community – and I didn't want to do that; I always had a notion that I’d like to work as a hospital pharmacist or perhaps pursue a higher degree.”

With a PhD from the University of Bath, Anthony has achieved this ambition, but despite pursuing an academic career path, a community-minded nature is still very much in evidence: one of the subjects the Vice-Provost speaks most enthusiastically about is widening participation. “We've got to work really hard on developing pathways into higher education for people living in low-participation neighbourhoods and those who have no prior familial presence in higher education,” says Anthony.

While he is impressed by the important work of UCL's student volunteers and enthusiastic about the UCL Academy, Anthony argues that much more needs to be done to increase engagement. He cites research showing that even the most socio-economically disadvantaged 14-year-olds tend to want to go to university, but by the age of 16 many have abandoned that idea due to poor GCSE results. “We shouldn't just sit back and say, 'That's the school's problem',” he argues. “We need to forge partnerships with schools in order to help raise attainment. And we've got to set that against the context of changes in the funding of higher education from the state to the individual. These are interesting times.”

Interesting times indeed – and potentially worrying ones. Does Anthony think that student fee hikes will lead to students viewing themselves (and being treated) as consumers? He says, “I think that would be a mistake, because education is not a commodity. The Dearing Report talks about education being a conversation between less-experienced and more-experienced learners, and I think that's a much more powerful way of thinking about it. It comes back to the ambitions of the White Paper. We should recognise that the students who come to study at UCL are an amazing resource – they're very bright people, really creative thinkers – and the idea of having a conversation with them is far more beneficial to both parties than seeing them as consumers and us as panderers.”

Quick-fire round

What is your...

1. Favourite holiday destination?
Although it's still a pretty troubled land, the Cape region of South Africa is spectacularly beautiful. I hope to visit again this year.

2. Biggest bugbear?

3. Ultimate dinner party guest?
It's a cliché but, given my interest in South Africa, it would have to be Nelson Mandela.

4. Favourite food?
Anything of Italian origin.

5. Most admired musical artist?
JS Bach.

So, in that conversation, what makes the teacher, or 'more-experienced learner', truly great? Anthony certainly has a clear idea of what the best teachers had in common during his own days as a novice – namely, a tangible enthusiasm for their subject. “They didn't just come in, slam their papers down and give a dull lesson. They went some distance to make it interesting.”

In this respect, not a lot has changed in education: students still want their teachers to bring a subject to life. However, the ways in which this is achieved have, in some respects, changed immeasurably. Technology and e-learning have progressed in leaps and bounds over the past couple of years alone, but some classroom-based methods are also very different to the ones Anthony would have experienced as a student. In a climate of constant change, how can we balance continuity with responsiveness and innovation? On this, Anthony paraphrases a speech made by Sir Alan Langlands, the Chief Executive of HEFCE, who in turn was referring to comments made by Green Templeton College's Sir David Watson: “For hundreds of years, universities have been remarkably adept at changing according to societal, economic and political needs, and yet they haven't really changed at all; they still look pretty much the same as they always have done.

“It is important that change doesn't become circular – you could end up changing something and then reverting to what you were doing ten years before if you're not careful,” continues the Vice-Provost. “I think the real question needs to be, are you innovating? That's what we need to look for. We're a university, we're about the creation of knowledge; we should be doing new things so let's make the quest for progress be the driver, and where there's really good innovation, let's see if we can get in there and embed it – but never just change things for the sake of change.”

By Ele Cooper

Page last modified on 23 apr 12 10:30

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