5 A comprehensive university

STRATEGIC AIM 1: UCL will maintain the qualities of a comprehensive university, committed to excellence in the arts, humanities, social sciences, physical, biological and medical sciences, engineering and the built environment.

Maintaining the qualities of a university

UCL’s comprehensive character was enshrined in our foundation charter in 1826. The prospectus mapped out eight divisions of study: language (both ancient and modern); mathematics; history; physics; philosophy (mind and logic, known as mental science); moral sciences (moral and political philosophy, jurisprudence including international law, English law and Roman law); political economy; and medical sciences.

Today, in an era when the arts, humanities and social sciences are perceived as being under threat from the Government’s funding changes, UCL remains committed to  maintaining and investing in them. We need to counter a trend towards instrumentalist attitudes towards higher education in the new funding environment. Students and their parents may be tempted to reject degree programmes in the arts and humanities in favour of more professionally-oriented courses, such as economics, law or medicine.

This is not the UCL model. There is no material difference in the employability of UCL graduates from arts-based disciplines by comparison with any other disciplines. The important common element is academic rigour. UCL students develop critical skills and a research orientation, and the ability to identify, assemble and analyse data. We will work to enhance these skills and to ensure that all our students benefit from skills that will enhance their personal development, as well as being valued by employers.

Respondents to the Green Paper commented:
“I agree wholeheartedly. Give me a student who is bright, enthusiastic and wants to explore a subject and it is easy to develop important skills for the workplace. There is no career label, though, and one has to fight against deeply ingrained views of potential students, parents and schools (amongst others).”

“One of the great features of UCL is its cultural heritage and links. It is a feature that should be stressed in the Green Paper, as it reminds us of the continuum of which we are part. It also makes one feel humble – a characteristic not shared by all members of our community. Culture is enriching and enriched students and staff are invaluable.”

Undergraduate education

UCL students in the quad

The arts, humanities and social sciences are valuable not only as intellectual disciplines in themselves but as providing a context for producing well-rounded and educated graduates, and for securing true intellectual interdisciplinarity in our teaching and
research. UCL regards its commitment to arts, humanities and social sciences as fundamental to the concept of a university. It will be reinforced by:

  • the introduction of an expectation for undergraduate entry from 2012 that applicants should hold a foreign language qualification to at least GCSE C grade or equivalent;
  • the introduction from 2012 of a new interdisciplinary undergraduate degree, the Bachelor of Arts and Sciences, which will challenge the traditional English educational model of early specialisation. Students on this programme will pursue courses of study both in sciences and in the humanities;
  • UCL’s research agenda, especially through UCL Grand Challenges, which embraces potentially all disciplines across the institution. We will continue to support and invest in these vital areas of scholarship, research and education.

The impact of a comprehensive university

Impact has become a buzzword of important rhetorical value in demonstrating that what goes on in universities is intimately connected to the real world and is not purely intellectual selfindulgence. For some, impact has become a mechanistic measure
of the utility of research. Both the Research Councils and HEFCE have swept it into their funding arrangements: in an ex ante fashion for the Research Councils, and ex post for the HEFCE by making it a significant measure in the proposed plans for the Research Excellence Framework.

UCL will respond to these trends, but by turning the arguments on their head.

Impact is not simply an add-on to the justification for a research grant application, or the demonstration ex post of the added value given by an individual programme of research. Impacts are too long-run, too diffuse and reliant on too complex a process
of further development and collaboration to be capable of being properly captured in this way. Achieving impact is the primary function of the entire entity of a university, and expresses its social value. UCL has a major positive societal impact in many ways: through the education and development that we provide for our students; through our focused research in basic science – physical, biological, engineering and social – generating new knowledge and insight as part of the global networks of scientific advancement; through our local, regional, national and global networks; through our contributions to evidence-based policy and through the commercialisation of our knowledge and technology.

A recent report2 of the European Research Area demands that research and innovation must be the cornerstones of a new era in Europe, in which we need to come up with new sustainable energy sources, new medicines, therapies and preventive methods to make appropriate and affordable healthcare available to all; new communications technologies and virtual ways to interact to build durable foundations for peace; new products, new services, new industries, new jobs and new ways of living, with new economic models to manage it all: indeed, the report concludes, research in the social sciences and humanities will be at least as important to our future as the physical or
engineering sciences.

Likewise the UK’s Council for Science and Technology makes the case for the UK to be a world leader in solving particular global challenges by deploying excellent research working across sectors in strategic and cross-disciplinary ways, and while continuing to generate great ideas and knowledge, to get better at exploiting them, and exploiting ideas from elsewhere, to harvest greater benefits to the economy and society3.

No UK university has gone as far as UCL already has in tackling these themes. The UCL Grand Challenges in global health, sustainable cities, wellbeing and intercultural interaction demonstrate the capacity for a major institution to engage scholars from across all the disciplines in major challenges transcending their individual disciplinary skills. The Challenges are not simply about research and intelligence, but also the wisdom that derives from knowledge through application to problems. We will develop
the transformative steps that will allow UCL to continue to thrive as a global intellectual leader.

The UCL approach to enhancing impact

The main principles on which our approach is based are:

  1. to conceive of impact as an institution-wide mission – to achieve maximum beneficial impact, holistically conceived – and to promote this vision across UCL and externally;
  2. to develop an openness to collaboration with other universities and other partners to achieve these goals;
  3. renewed emphasis on public engagement in all aspects of our work. We are already the London leader in this arena, and one of six national centres selected as Beacons of Public Engagement. We will continue to invest in these areas of activity;
  4. making a substantial contribution in our local community, including the UCL Academy in Camden. It will be the first UK academy to be sponsored entirely by a university and will become a model of secondary–tertiary educational interaction;
  5. a fresh approach to commercialisation of the fruits of UCL research and the development of a more entrepreneurial culture within UCL;
  6. developing capacity in new areas, such as consultancy services; management education; continuing professional development; distance learning; and the use of new technologies in enhancing learning.

Comprehensive but incomplete?

Not all disciplines currently find a home at UCL. We have no business school, no  oceanography, relatively little in the area of plant sciences, no music department and no theology. We are not averse to opening up wholly new areas of enquiry and education, but do not envisage founding new departments in areas where we have insufficient expertise except in exceptional cases, for example where another institution or major research group seeks to join us. Our main focus must be on ensuring that all that we already do is – and continues to be – of world-class quality.

UCL in Qatar


Size and comprehensive disciplinary coverage are insufficient in themselves. They require enhancement through partnership. UCL is not an academic fortress, but an open institution committed to working collaboratively with others. Collaboration is easiest with partners that have complementary and largely non-competitive interests, and where the mutual benefits of closer working are obvious to all. The London Centre for Nanotechnology has been a successful collaboration with Imperial, and in the event that other universities seek to join us in the Francis Crick Institute, it must be on the basis of scientific collaboration. There are many opportunities for extending these models further, by being clear that UCL is open for business in collaboration, not only where it will enhance our top research performance but also in securing maximum impact on other fronts – for example, on teaching and social enterprise.

Much of the strength of UK universities over the past two decades has been built on competition. We compete for the very best students globally, for the best staff and for all research funding. Some models of funding, particularly through the EU, promote
and facilitate collaboration, but the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has tended to work perversely in the opposite direction. It incentivises institutions to invest  exclusively in their own facilities, to poach stars and teams of researchers from other
institutions and to hoard the resources that they have garnered. League tables  heighten this competitive spirit, and stratify the higher education sector unnecessarily. Competition is a strong driver of improved performance, and we need to maintain it, yet at the same time broaden our footprint of influence. International scientific  collaboration at the personal and group level is common throughout UCL.  Institutional-level collaboration builds upon existing links and commits both sides to open partnership in defined areas.

Current examples include:

  • UCL Partners: UCL Partners (UCLP) is an Academic Health Science System (AHSS), a strategic partnership between UCL and four major hospitals in London (Great Ormond Street; Moorfields; the Royal Free and the UCL Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust). UCLP focuses on improving our mutual performance across the board in research, teaching and population health. It has become a leader amongst the five nationally designated AHSSs when measured by health outcomes and successful service reconfigurations, and the partnership is now to be extended by the accession of Queen Mary, University of London, and Barts and the London NHS Trusts. UCLP provides a framework for both operational and strategic decision-making between the partners, though it is uncertain yet how far our NHS partners will be affected by proposed reforms to the NHS in London. Its advantage to UCL lies in being able to join up research with teaching and healthcare more explicitly and directly than previously, through the 10 themes that have now been approved. Each of them identifies planned outputs and outcomes and measures for assessing them.
  • The UCL–Yale collaborative: this is a groundbreaking transatlantic inter-university collaboration. It is a pioneer in not being tied to a single research programme, and in being initiated by the two institutions rather than by the Government, as was the case with the now expired Cambridge–MIT venture. It has the capacity to grow beyond the 10 medical themes currently being explored, and there is interest on both sides in developing relations between other disciplines.
  • Medical Imaging: a world-class joint venture concluded in 2011 in medical imaging between UCL, King’s and Imperial Colleges regarding the use of the GSK-Medical Research Council-funded PET scanner at the Hammersmith Hospital.
  • The Francis Crick Institute: a partnership with the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust for the development of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, where future collaboration is reinforced by the potential addition of King’s and Imperial Colleges to the project.

We anticipate that the next 10 years will see significant growth in the volume and strength of collaborations, increasingly international. In addition to our current offshore operations in Australia, Qatar and Kazakhstan, discussions regarding research
collaboration are currently underway in India and China. There is significant growth in investment in higher education and research across the world. Some of the leading universities in China experienced increases of more than 30% in their research budgets in the last financial year, as the nation advances a vision of future development based on science and technology. UCL will pursue its global strategy by developing further key institutional collaborations with international partners to develop new research opportunities.

The size of UCL: student numbers

Of the 24,000 students presently registered at UCL, some 3,247 (13.5%) are from the rest of the EU and 6,267 (26%) are from outside the EU. Hence, almost 40% of the student body comes from outside the UK.

Demand remains exceptionally strong: applications from international students for postgraduate places have risen by 20% in each of the past two years. Applications from international students for undergraduate study exceed those of any other UK
university. Overall, UCL receives in excess of 10 applications per undergraduate place.

Student numbers have been growing steadily during recent years, and the 2010/11 intake was 5% up on the previous year. The pattern of growth has been influenced by the cap imposed by the HEFCE on the UK and EU undergraduate population. It has meant that growth has occurred in the numbers of postgraduate and international students, which have not been controlled by HEFCE.

We believe that continuing but modest growth in student numbers is essential to the continued development of UCL in economically challenging times. The Government’s White Paper on higher education4 proposes two relevant reforms from 2012–13. The
first is to lift quota controls over students with the equivalent of AAB or above at A level. Some 85% of UCL undergraduate students are in this category. Second, to remove 20,000 student places from the sector and redistribute them to new institutions, including private educators. Since these are to be withdrawn from the residual numbers after the removal of the AAB students, the impact on UCL will be small – in the region of 50 places – and capable of being replaced by further AAB candidates.

We will consider admitting additional UK-EU undergraduates with grades of AAB or above in programmes where there is:

  • strong demand from high-quality applicants;
  • an opportunity to develop or expand new programmes, such as the BASc;
  • a strategic need to establish a more viable programme or department;
  • a strategic need to maintain an appropriate balance between undergraduate and postgraduate student numbers in a department or faculty;
  • availability of space and other resources;
  • opportunities to achieve economy of scale.

Balance between undergraduate and postgraduate student numbers

A key feature of a research-intensive university is the extent of its postgraduate  provision. UCL has deliberately increased the proportion of postgraduate students in recent years, and we remain committed to the policy commitment of the Council’s 2004 White Paper, Designing a 10-year strategy for UCL, to establishing parity between undergraduate and postgraduate student numbers.

There are two categories of postgraduate students:

  • students on postgraduate taught programmes (PGT), commonly of one year duration. There is strong international demand for these programmes, but they make a concentrated demand on resources at the end of the year due to the intensive nature of their final projects. Postgraduate taught courses feed research and allow the development of specialised teaching.They allow us to sustain a broad module base, yielding greater flexibility in teaching arrangements;
  • postgraduate research students: despite their relatively low numbers, they are essential to the development of the research base, the future academic community and researchers in business and industry. They are central to the research culture and community at UCL. UCL’s innovative PhD programmes also provide excellent opportunities for collaborative research activity with external organisations.

We will continue to seek out the most able postgraduate students from around the world, as well as to attract UCL’s own graduates to continue in higher education. The scheme of UCL impact scholarships introduced in 2010 has proved highly successful,
and will be continued and extended.

International students

Demand from international students has been growing strongly, and now exceeds that from home students, though it is not uniform across degree programmes. Some departments have been restricting overseas student numbers in order to maintain
a diverse student body, and the intake of overseas medical students is, in any event, restricted by national rules to 7.5% of the intake. The criteria for admission apply equally to home and international students.

UCL will continue to recruit strongly internationally. There are several risks that require careful management:

  1. The Government has recently reviewed student visas, with a view to reducing significantly the present numbers. Although it has decided not to impose an absolute cap, its ambition remains to reduce overall numbers significantly. UCL has been awarded Highly Trusted Sponsor status under the Points Based Immigration Scheme, and will continue to support international students who are admitted to study here through the visa process.
  2. There is an ever-increasing global flow of students, but national competition is also growing steeply. China is investing significantly in its universities; India has announced ambitious plans to create many new universities; Australia, Canada and the USA are competing for talented international students; and several European universities are entering the international market, many offering low-cost programmes taught in English.
  3. Several of the leading US universities offer needs-blind admission to international as well as national students, making them a particularly attractive option for outstanding UK students, especially as the cost of a UK higher education rises. This requires that we review all aspects of our competitiveness in student recruitment. Outstanding students are a strong attraction in recruiting outstanding staff, and vice versa.
  4. UCL has the highest number of EU students of any UK university. It is possible that the new fees regime will reduce the attractiveness of UK universities to this group, and also that there may be a higher risk to the Treasury of non-repayment of student loans, due not only to the greater complexity of enforcement in other countries, but also to the lower median incomes that exist in many other EU member states. Under European law, we are required to treat EU candidates on the same basis as UK applicants.

We have reorganised our international recruitment and marketing through an International Office in order to better manage these risks, but recognising that the key strategy in maintaining and enhancing the flow of outstanding international students to UCL is through maintaining and enhancing the quality of the educational experience.

The size of UCL: growth through merger

The size and shape of UCL have both changed significantly over the past 15 years as a consequence not only of steady improvement in research performance and growth in student numbers, but also of mergers. The School for Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), formerly part of the University of London, joined UCL in 1998, bringing an unrivalled range of expertise in the study of central, eastern and south-east Europe and Russia, in language, literature, culture and film, history,
politics, economics and business.

As a consequence of a major reorganisation of medical education in London in the 1990s, two medical schools (of the Middlesex and Royal Free Hospitals) merged with the UCL Medical School; and were joined within UCL by four formerly independent
postgraduate medical institutes: the Institute of Child Health, co-located with Great Ormond Street Hospital; the Institute of Ophthalmology, co-located with Moorfields Eye Hospital; the Eastman Dental Institute, co-located with the Eastman Dental
Hospital, and the Institute of Neurology, co-located with the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen Square.

This has created one of the greatest concentrations of medical and life sciences in the world, as noteworthy for its scientific strength as for its range of activity. Our School of Life and Medical Sciences (SLMS) now accounts for more than 60% of UCL’s income and expenditure. A strategic restructuring that has recently been completed will further focus its mission and harness its resources.

We do not regard merger and takeover as part of growth strategy for UCL. Our working relations with other institutions will increasingly be characterised by collaboration, not least in an era of tightly limited resources. Nonetheless, further
institutional mergers will be welcomed where there is a powerful academic case: the prospect simply of growth is not in itself sufficient. In order to work well, a merger must:

  • be based on a powerful academic vision to be advanced through the merger that will bring added academic strengths to UCL and enhance the academic potential of the institution proposing to merge with us;
  • offer a strong strategic fit, complementing existing strengths in teaching and research, underpinning existing areas of excellence or introducing new disciplines, teaching programmes and/or research groups that have strategic importance to UCL;
  • be capable of implementation with minimum disruption;
  • be underpinned by a financially-positive business case.

In May 2011, the Council of the School of Pharmacy, University of London, resolved to merge with UCL. Their initial approach, in October 2010, had been followed by months of discussions between individuals and groups in the two institutions, with a view to understanding how the scientific strengths that potentially would come from such a merger could be assured. It is anticipated that the formal merger, which meets all of the criteria listed above, will be effected from the beginning of 2012.

The size of UCL: international ventures

Following a review of our international strategy in 2008, we decided to relax our previous rule against establishing campus-based activity abroad. The new policy allowed for such ventures, provided they were focused on research and graduate education, and not on mass undergraduate education.

As a consequence, we opened in 2010 a campus in Adelaide, South Australia, dedicated to energy and resources. It is part-funded by the Government of South Australia and has enjoyed major financial support from companies in the Australian
energy sector.

As a result of an agreement signed in 2010 with the Qatar Foundation, we will in 2011 become the first UK university to open a campus in Qatar, in Education City alongside six American universities already established there. Its initial focus is to be on archaeology, conservation and museum studies.

We are also currently engaged as adviser to the Government of Kazakhstan in connection with the new national Nazarbayev University and are providing mentoring support to the University in Engineering.

This strategy is an important supporting factor in UCL’s global vision. We will continue to take advantage of strategic opportunities abroad where there is clear academic advantage to UCL, a strong desire on the part of UCL academic staff to lead the venture, a favourable funding environment and no compromise to our institutional values.

Next: An open institution

2 European Commission, European Research Area, Preparing Europe for a new
Renaissance: A Strategic View of the European Research Area
First Report of the
European Research Area Board – 2009 EUR 23905 EN.

3 CST (2010) A Vision for UK Research.

4 Higher Education – Students at the Heart of the System, Cm8812 (June 2011),
paras 4.18-4.21.