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"I have loved every day here": Michael Worton reflects on his UCL career

9 August 2013

Vice-Provost (International) Professor Michael Worton, who is retiring in September, discusses the challenges and highlights of his UCL career.

Professor Michael Worton, Vice-Provost (International)

You’ve worked at UCL for 33 years in various roles. How did you get to where you are today?

I came here in a slightly odd way: I was lecturing at the University of Liverpool and was invited to a conference in the Loire Valley in France. I didn’t know why I’d been invited because everyone else there had written several books and I hadn’t even finished my PhD, but a couple of weeks later I received a phone call from the Head of the French department at UCL and he offered me a job.

My dream was to become reader of French at UCL but I was uncomfortable with the fact that the role hadn’t been advertised so I indicated that I thought it would be better if I could be interviewed and go through the due process. They got their revenge for this – the entire French department ended up interrogating me! It was actually the best thing that could have happened though as it meant that when they decided, apparently unanimously, to appoint me, I didn’t owe any favours to anyone. I was independent from the very beginning and that continued throughout my entire career.

If you could pick three highlights of your time at UCL, what would they be?

In a sense it is very difficult and in a sense it is very easy. It would have to be the setting up of UCL Australia, the setting up of UCL Qatar and the opening of the UCL Academy. These were three enormous projects which really changed the way that we are perceived locally and globally.

What has been your toughest challenge at UCL?

It was both trying to raise the profile of teaching and to persuade UCL as a whole that our educational mission is at least as important as our research mission; that has been tough. I think research is still seen as more prestigious than education.

How has teaching changed in the years you've been at UCL?

We have developed a lot more commitment to teaching: we are seeing more and more really outstanding colleagues who are both fantastic researchers and terrific teachers. We are much better at assessment and giving good academic feedback to students but we do still have some way to go.

Of course there is also the movement towards new technologies in teaching; the fact that we have baseline standards for Moodle and are increasingly looking at things like flipped lectures is making us keep up to date with what our student population is used to in their own lives.

Why is education for global citizenship so important at a university like this?

We started off as an international university and if we want to make changes in the world and help find solutions that will ultimately address major problems, it is important for us to be much more outward-looking than we were before.

Twenty-five years ago, even 33 years ago, we were a very good university but we weren’t thought of as a major global university. Now we are and I think that the global citizenship dimension is a reflection of the way in which we care about what education can do to help to transform people and transform the world.

How do you see the educational landscape changing over the next ten years?

There are going to be two major issues aside from the big challenges of finance. First of all, I think the educational landscape will become increasingly internationalised. Universities across the world, small and large, are paying much more attention to their international strategies and their international work.

Secondly, they are moving away from opportunistic, short-term, contractual partnerships into long-term, strategic partnerships. Partnerships with business and industry, with universities here and overseas, and with governments around the world have to be strategic rather than simply saying, “Here’s a great opportunity – let’s seize it then move on to the next one.” We’ve got to have the courage to stick with our strategic partnerships even when they get a little bit sticky.

Professor Michael Worton, Vice-Provost (International)

What achievement are you most proud of in your role as Vice-Provost (International)?

It would have to be the two campuses overseas. I have just come back from Australia where I spent ten days working with my colleagues at UCL Australia, speaking with all the key stakeholders and meeting the students. We have created the world’s first International Energy Policy Institute and they are just about to publish their first two major policy papers. It’s hugely significant to see how we went from nothing to this in just a few years.

On 10 September we will formally open UCL Qatar and our first cohort of Master’s students will graduate later this year. We have also got a brand-new, one-year Master’s in Library and Information Studies launching soon. Suddenly there is all of this activity in research and education as well as massive outreach both with the local Qatari population and with hospitals and work camps. All of this is making a big difference to UCL’s commitment to ethical behaviour overseas.

UCL’s international agenda has developed dramatically in recent years. What do you think the future holds?

I think we will go on proving to the world just how true it is that we are London’s Global University. We have the massive advantage of being in one of the world’s most diverse cities, and probably the most exciting city in the world. We will also create at least three more physical presences overseas by 2017 – one in China, one in India and one in Latin America.

What advice would you offer the incoming VP International?

To have a bold vision and to recognise that the two greatest virtues that she or he can have are patience and persistence.

Had you not become an academic, what alternative career might you have pursued?

There are three! I toyed with the ideas of being an actor and director or working in the diplomatic field, but when I finished university I actually accepted a job in marketing. It was only then that realised I wanted to be an academic and do a PhD.

I think the academic career was very much the right choice for me as universities have quite an important soft diplomatic role to play and they are also important in marketing the strengths of the UK as well as individual universities.

What will be your favourite memory of UCL?

It is a very personal but also a very public one. When the French government decided to award me the Legion d'Honneur the ceremony was held in Paris at Hôtel Matignon, the private residence of the then French prime minister Monsier François Fillon and his wife, a UCL alumna. I shall be eternally grateful to Lori Manders, the head of DARO, whose idea this was because it was the most splendid, moving event for me. I had my family and closest friends both from the UK and France as well as many, many good friends from UCL at this marvellous event which was about UCL but also very much about me.

I was astonished, as were many of my French friends especially, that the prime minister spoke for 17 minutes about my career. As I said to him afterwards, I don’t know where he got his network of spies from but he certainly knew more about my career than almost anyone else! It was a wonderful, splendid event; it felt like a kind of wedding, an enormous family party, and I was very, very happy.

If you could be remembered for one thing, what would it be?

I would like to feel that I have made a small difference in encouraging people to believe that education and universities can and must be transformative – transformative for individuals and transformative for countries.

What are your plans for the future?

I have been very clear with myself as well as with everyone else that for the first two months I am going to do nothing. This is a decision I have taken for personal family reasons and I want to spend time at home working out what the future holds for us. After that I think I will start doing things. I’ll go mad if I don’t do something, the question is do I do things locally with charities or NGOs or do I sit on boards of museums? I really don’t know but I do know that for the first two months I just want to sit back and slowly adjust to not doing anything.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I feel incredibly lucky to have come to UCL. I’ve been offered many other positions around the world and in the UK, and I have never wanted to go anywhere else because I think UCL is the most wonderful, empowering university, and a wonderful family. I come in in the morning and I am greeted by our marvellous cleaners, I work through the day with colleagues both in professional services and in academic departments and it’s just lovely. I have loved every day that I have spent here.

Interview by Sophie Gayler 

Page last modified on 09 aug 13 14:37


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