UCL News


New Provost's vision for the future

7 November 2003

UCL Lunch Hour Lecture - 7 October 2003 'What's a Provost For?' Delivered by Professor Malcolm Grant, President & Provost of UCL It's quite nerve-racking to see how many people have turned up today to share with me the puzzle of the title of my lecture, 'What's a Provost For?' It's a title that came to me over the summer listening to an extract on BBC Radio 4 on a Saturday morning, recounting a conversation on the playing fields of Eton, when an inquisitive parent went up to the Vice-Provost of that school and said: "Please, can you tell me, what actually does a Provost do?" Back came the answer, "Frankly, the Provost does nothing.

And I help him." I am delighted to see one or two of my Vice-Provosts here this afternoon offering similar willing assistance.

But UCL has been a trifle careless with its Provost in recent years, and I was anxious to appear before you this afternoon, as the new face in the Provost's Office, to try to share with you some thoughts about how I saw the office developing over the coming years, should you grant me so long. So, obviously, I am very honoured to be here and to have been invited by Patricia Rothman to give the first of this year's Lunch Hour Lectures.

As part of my research, I turned to the 'Concise Oxford Dictionary' to ask what it thought a Provost was. Answer: four definitions. Firstly, "a head of some colleges at Oxford, Cambridge etc". Secondly, "a head of a Scottish municipal corporation, sometimes Lord Provost". Thirdly, "a protestant clergyman in charge of a principal church in a town etc Germany etc". (This is, after all, the 'Concise Oxford Dictionary'!) Fourthly, as in the Provost Marshal, a head of military police.

Now those four qualities, you might think, collectively sum up rather well what your expectations are of a Provost. The headship of a college underpinned by the frugality of a Scots head of a municipal corporation, the universal appeal of a protestant clergyman in Germany and the head of the military police. I trust you will be able to score my performance against each of those indicators in due course.

All of these are somewhat different from the criteria that Sir Howard Newby, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, wrote to me about. Every new vice-chancellor is obviously sent the standard three-paged letter - closely typed, with just room for 'Yours ever, Howard' at the bottom of the third page - which describes what one's financial responsibility is in relation to the complex institution one has been invited to lead. I confess I've not yet got to the bottom of the third page, because the first page was sufficiently depressing in itself, and anyway I knew that in the event that Howard and I were to be summonsed to appear in front of the Public Accounts Committee, that Howard would be right behind me.

I find myself in the delightful position, if I've counted right, of being the ninth Provost of UCL. Now there is some history to that, because there wasn't always a Provost. The original title of the leader of UCL was Warden. There was however only one Warden because - unusually for UCL and I know you will find this shocking - there was a period of bitter dispute among the academics, and in the period 1827-1830 the first Warden was engaged in the most bitter of discussions with the medical faculty. Indeed the first student demonstration at UCL occurred as early as 1830. Our recent experience with podiatry has shown this tradition to be undiminished. The Warden then resigned, and UCL thought it inappropriate to appoint another full-time leader for another 70 years.

But in 1900, UCL appointed a Principal and in 1906 changed that name to Provost. The word President has been more recently added to avoid confusion for our American university colleagues, whose Provost is normally number two in the organisation, reporting to a President. So by combining Provost & President and, as my contract of employment also says, Chief Executive, I find myself duly equipped with all the right titles - if not the powers that should go with them - to provide you with the leadership that everybody at UCL tells me is wanted. We shall see how far that proves true in practice.

I would like to give an account of my immediate predecessors because two of them, of course, have followed a rather similar course to my own. Noel Annan, who was previously the Provost of King's College, Cambridge, came to UCL in 1966 until he, in 1978 - 12 years later - accepted election to the first full-time appointment as Vice-Chancellor of the University of London. (We would no longer, if even then, regard that as an upward curve on a Provost's career trajectory. Indeed, you will be delighted to know that I have made an offer on behalf of UCL to the incoming Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, Sir Graeme Davies, of a set of golf clubs and weekday-only membership of a convenient course some distance away from London.)

Lord Annan was followed by Sir James Lighthill, whom I recall clearly from my earlier time at UCL. He also came from Cambridge, where he held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics - which in an earlier era had been held by Sir Isaac Newton, and upon Lighthill's departure from Cambridge went to Stephen Hawking, who holds it still to this day. James was in office from 1979-1989 and was then followed by Sir Derek Roberts, the Provost from 1989-1999. As you know better than I do, Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith occupied the position from 1999-2002, with Derek returning for 2002/2003.

I spent some time with both of those former Provosts before engaging in discussions with UCL, and both of them equally and openly assured me that this was the best job in higher education in the UK. Both of them came to that conclusion, as you all know, from quite different experiences and quite different perspectives.

I would like to pay special tribute to Derek Roberts today. In terms of my taking over office, nobody could have been easier than Derek to deal with: open, clear and eloquent in his praises of UCL, despite the difficult times that we had all been through. He did present to me a five-page list of the initiatives that he was currently promoting within UCL, with some indication of those which had every chance of flying and those that wouldn't. The list of the former was significantly longer than that of the latter. It is particularly appropriate today, I think, that we recall the enormous contribution that Sir Derek made to UCL in both his periods of tenure in the office.

But I was determined not to see UCL simply through his eyes and I have set out with no formal handover period with Derek. I wanted to come back into UCL and to see it afresh, to revive my memories of 12 years ago and to re-immerse myself in the culture and activities of UCL. I'm only part way along that course so far and all that I can recount to you today is the warmth, the enthusiasm, and the energy of all those that I have met in departments, in faculties and in the administration.

There is, many people have assured me, a feeling of regrowth, of consolidation, of renewal, of reunion following the collapse of the merger talks with Imperial College. I can tell you today, I have no intention of re-opening Imperial College merger talks. Richard Sykes and I understand each other perfectly clearly on that. The merger is dead. That will not, of course, stand in the way of any collaboration between our two institutions and between other institutions that I hope to turn to in a moment.

I have been visiting the different parts of UCL and I have been listening and absorbing, and the themes that I have picked up have helped me frame my remarks today. What I've found is an institution that is very significantly changed from 12 years ago, changed far more than any of you who have been here through that time can possibly have imagined. Seeing it again through the eyes of somebody who was previously here is a wholly different perspective from a continuation of the status quo of those that have remained here. There is, I've found, a common sense of shared values amongst the academic and administrative community: shared values that are directed towards excellence, towards access and equality of opportunity, and towards the values of a interdisciplinary and multi-departmental university, which, to my heart, is absolutely fundamental to the concept of a university. It is diversity, and a capacity for a universal consideration of issues from the arts across to science technology and to biomedicine. It is a precious quality that inevitably, from time to time, comes under external pressure.

So what are the principles that I would like to propose to you as being important to my tenure of the office of Provost & President?

The first is this: academic leadership. Every academic has that responsibility, to provide or to participate in the leadership of the university. Universities are not institutions to be run by technocrats. Universities need to have their own leadership drawn from their own academic communities. I start as an academic and I propose to carry on as an academic. This approach to the job seems to me to be the only appropriate response to the whole ethos of the intellectual breadth and depth of UCL and its values as a interdisciplinary, multi-departmental institution.

That's not to say that academics have all the qualities necessary to run a university. We don't. We will only succeed in those objectives if we employ administrative officers of the highest calibre. It was not uncommon 30 or more years ago for the administrative officers actually to run the university. Even in relatively recent times the office of a Vice-Chancellor was commonly occupied by a very senior academic who had little day-to-day involvement in the running of the institution and was entitled to leave that to a registrar, an academic secretary and other officials who would ensure delivery of a relatively even flat agenda over a period of time, set only by the high goal posts of a quinquennial financial review with quinquennial funding.

Things were easier in those days. Today no Vice-Chancellor can repose on the easy pillow of quinquennial funding. Today we have to face financial challenges almost on a day-to-day basis.

I have therefore invited the Deans and the Vice-Provosts to join me in a Senior Management Team which is now meeting on a weekly basis to provide academic leadership, looking in part at issues that are crossing my desk every day and giving me the strategic insight and guidance that I require, but looking also in part at longer-term issues which have become clearer as I have visited the different parts of UCL, and on which I need their clear and strategic guidance.

My second theme is structure. I am not a fundamental structural reformer. One of the scars on my back comes from a period as Chairman of the Local Government Commission for England, when we were engaged in trying to sort out the appropriate structure for two-tier local government around England. I learned two important lessons from that time which have guided my thinking ever since.

Message number one is that structures need to reflect purpose; one needs to be able to provide a structure which allows leadership to emerge. For local government, those structures, in our opinion, were best served by setting up a unitary local authority for cities of sufficient size and distinction and civic sense to govern themselves for the future. But they were not necessarily appropriate for rural areas, often thinly populated, where the expectations that people had of civic government tend to be different from that in municipal corporations in the large cities.

The second issue that came very clearly to my mind was the sheer importance of leadership. Academic leadership is sometimes regarded as something of an oxymoron, and historically there may be some justification for that. But I challenge you to look at the different departments at UCL, and any other university, and ask what it is that distinguishes those that today are high-flying, high-performing and at the cutting edge of international research, from those that are limping along and not doing anything of outstanding importance. The answer may well be leadership, and the development of vision, energy, strategy, thinking through the options. Leadership includes providing support for staff, understanding that they need to be integrated within a university community, that they need to be shown the avenues for development, that they need to be encouraged to participate in international congresses and they need to be brought along with a sense of responsibility that every institution owes to its members.

Academic leadership to me is much more important than structural reform, which may or may not throw out new academic leaders; certainly not the sort of structural reform that occurs in other universities which creates departments around individuals who are too difficult to work with in the departments in which they are presently located. We have to be very clear about what other structures we need and for what purpose.

For example, the structures that we need for the organisation of teaching are nowadays often completely different from the structures for the organisation of research. We tend to have inherited Victorian silos for the organisation of knowledge and we allocate ourselves into various different departments, faculties and schools. But this may not at all best represent the interdisciplinarity of the research activity that is now going on - and nowhere better in this country than at UCL.

One thing that struck me at Cambridge was our relative inability to come up with new structures which could be allowed to fly and then to die. Letting them die is harder than letting them fly. We could see at UCL new centres and institutes emerging in response to interdisciplinary challenges as they came through. Those arrangements do create challenges of governance which we will not be able to shy away from, but they also create intellectual opportunities of a remarkable order that UCL can be proud of.

In short, I am not in favour of uniform structures. I am much happier with the system in which we all know what we are supposed to do, and when and why. Yet what I have seen in my travels so far has been a picture of remarkable fragmentation. Now I can cope with fragmentation: coming where I've come from, fragmentation holds no horrors and one of the many advantages of UCL is the absence of 31 independent constituent colleges going in different directions.

But one of the most important challenges facing your new Provost & President is that, I believe, of generating a vision of a single UCL. UCL has the capacity for unity and for a coming together. What is it that militates against that? I suspect two things: one is geographical fragmentation, which comes from being on many different sites. There is of course no dominance of the Gower Street site over any other site occupied by UCL - we are a single community.

The other, I think, is the absorption over recent years of other institutions which have added enormously to the intellectual strength of UCL: the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, the integration of the Institute of Child Health, the Institute of Ophthalmology, the Institute of Neurology, and the Eastman Dental Institute. All of them are high-powered, major, well-performing research institutes but geographically separate. What I have found intriguing as a distinguishing feature of their work is a research agenda which is wholly integrated with the medical institutions to which they are attached. The close working between clinicians and basic scientists in each of those institutions is something that I have not seen anywhere else. A fundamental strength, but necessarily resulting in some division of loyalty and identity. Where is the fundamental loyalty in each of these institutions? Is it to the cluster around Queen's Square, in the case of Neurology, and the relationship with a national hospital, or is it with UCL? I think one of our most important challenges is to ensure that there is a single community at UCL and not five, six, seven or eight communities going in different ways, wearing different badges and not understanding their basic integrated relationship with the rest of the university.

The third issue that has become clear to me, that I think is of enormous importance, is communication. We should never underestimate how difficult it is to achieve excellent communication in any large organisation. We have, I'm told, approaching 9,000 people on our payroll and over 19,000 students enrolled this year. That is a huge organisation in terms of promoting communication within it.

Promoting an open style of working - which I also want to achieve - is extremely difficult. Let me just say one word about some correspondence I've had: anonymous letters. I understand that there may be some history of this mode of operation at UCL but I can assure you I will have nothing to do with it. I would liked to have been able to write back to those who have written me anonymous letters to tell them why I won't have anything to do with it. But, by definition, I am unable to do so. I've only had four or five, advising me of certain steps that I ought to take in respect of certain departments. I won't do it. This is not the way to run an institution; the way to run an institution is openly. If you write to me or contact me openly I'll respond. But please let's start on the right foot at the beginning.

I want now to turn to finance. This is, of course, a major challenge. UCL has, I think, the noteworthy history of appointing your new Provosts in an era in which the finances looked to be roughly balanced, and then exposing them some weeks or months later to the truth. We have at the moment a turnover of over £450 million, which is the largest published turnover of any university in the country. It exceeds that of Oxford and Cambridge, though there is there a supplementary college income from endowments.

We get about £54 million from HEFCE in support of teaching and £70 million in support of research, and then another £64 million in tuition fees from our students, about half of which is from overseas students. Our external research sponsorship is about £160 million, of which that from UK charities is about £70 million. That is the highest volume of UK charities-supported research in the UK. The great bulk of that, almost all in fact, is in biomedicine and much of that is from the Wellcome Foundation, the Wolfson Foundation and a handful of other charitable and philanthropic organisations.

We face a number of challenges on the financial front. The first is the current government thinking around the funding of our major universities. There are around 131 universities in the HEFCE fold; the thinking until relatively recently was that there should be a concentration of resourcing to the leading research intensive universities; that meant Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL and the LSE (although the LSE's capital budget is much smaller as it doesn't have science technology or biomedicine). You will understand that this policy is one of which I wholly approved, but there are risks because we are playing a zero-sum game.

This is not a proposal to pump up sufficient resources into the university sector to be able to maintain world-class research at five universities and yet retain high-level research at all the other universities. The more that these four or five universities seek to increase their share of the cake, the more resistance they must inevitably find from the rest of the community. Everybody here will know of first-rate departments at universities outside the golden triangle. Many of us have been in them at different times of our academic career. The notion that there should be a resource transfer is a difficult one for us to argue politically. Out of 131 universities I can assure you that 126 are opposed to the policy and this has led inevitably to a pulling back of the HEFCE and government preference for research concentration.

If the current proposals that are being forwarded by HEFCE and by the Office of Science & Technology were to take effect, we have modelled the outcome which could be a reduction by as much as £20 million in our research income. Not all of that means £20 million added to our research deficit; it may well mean £20 million less research undertaken at UCL.

It's much easier to be Provost of a university while research money is growing than to be Provost of a university when it's being taken away. There is, from my perspective, a major political battle to be fought to try to ensure that the government appreciates the consequences of a policy of withdrawal from research concentration: which is that all universities suffer and that the international competitive position of the finest universities is seriously undermined. For that, make no mistake about it, is what's happening.

It's probably appropriate, whilst I am in a gloomy mood, to refer to top-up fees. This will be a battle of the most remarkable importance for us and for every university in the UK. We are in the position, at the moment, of teaching our students with inadequate resources and with facilities that are in some cases a disgrace. I am quite taken by the contrast between the finest facilities that we have at UCL, which are state-of-the-art and remarkably well fitted out, and those in which we teach some of our students, particularly in parts of the Arts and Humanities. Were there to be an introduction of top-up fees to any extent, we could expect that students might start to vote with their wallets in response to some of the facilities that we offer, which in no way reflects on the intellectual quality of the educational package.

The government's starting point is that there is no more money; they cannot any longer support higher education at its present level and yet they don't want to keep it at its present level - they want to raise the participation rate to 50%. It will not require my learned colleagues from the Department of Mathematics to help us to understand that there is a redistribution likelihood here, which could see an institution like UCL seriously damaged.

Yes, we do have a capacity to fundraise, which we must exploit. Over the last 10 years UCL has received something like £250 million of philanthropic gifts and pledges, which is a very significant sum. But I have two or three caveats about fundraising. First, it is not so difficult to raise sums of capital towards new building projects and towards new research enterprises, but frequently those draw down on the recurrent account for the future. They are not net gains to the institution; they may even comprise long-term losses. We may need to pick up all the running costs for new buildings, for which it is difficult to find philanthropic support. Our losses may be only in the short term, because it involves an enterprise where research grants can be expected, in due course, to pick up running costs; or it maybe that it's a long-term deficit for the institution to find from its own resources.

The second caveat is this: there is a lot of talk in the Treasury about endowments, and were we to establish endowments, how much easier it would be to offer from those endowments a level of student support that would be appropriate to allow us to secure what we must secure, which is equality of access. But the mathematics again demonstrate that an endowment of £1 million at a draw-down rate of 3.8%, which is the safest that we can probably presently achieve on the current state of the stock market, would bring in no more £38,000 a year. To roll out sufficient bursaries on the basis of endowment would require a far greater capital contribution to UCL than we have ever seen in our history and, frankly, are ever likely to see. Our current level of free endowment, around £65-70 million, is already fully committed on recurrent expenditure. To raise additional money in free endowment, even for bursaries - which we could expect to be something which our alumni might support quite generously - is going to be a major struggle.

We are left with top-up fees. Let me spell out to you what I regard as some of the real political dangers of the current debate. They are that the government will succeed in introducing top-up fees but at a level and within a political framework that will make them completely useless to the universities. Not only useless, but deeply damaging. If we were to have top-up fees introduced at the present level proposed as a cap, which is £3,000 per student, they would not come on stream until 2005/2006. And in that first year, of course, would be only for one cohort of students, so the full effects would not be felt by us until three or four years had expired. By that time, the gross revenue from top up fees might be expected to be about £18 million. By then our turnover may well be well over £500 million.

£18 million is not to be sniffed at. However, if I were in Howard Newby's, or his successor's, shoes at that time and I saw that some universities were succeeding in attracting top-up fees and other universities were not, what would I do with that teaching grant that I was giving out to universities? I'd be very tempted to redistribute it away from those universities who were successful in receiving top-up fees from their students, by altering one or more of the variables in the distribution formulae. Top-up fees from our students could well be used in effect to subsidise the provision of higher education elsewhere, rather than sustaining high quality here.

Secondly, the government is now talking about imposing an obligation on universities to ensure equality of access. Well, of course we must. I don't think anybody in the room would support a open armed embrace of top-up fees unless we could be sure that we had in place the necessary machinery to make certain that students from less well-off families were not disadvantaged from coming into UCL.

But the government's proposal is that a fixed proportion of the top-up fee might be required by the university to be put to that purpose. That's simply nonsense, and a denial of the government's own rhetoric about decreasing universities' dependence on the state. What I fear about the argument on both sides of the fence on top-up fees is that we are heading in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of heading towards the independence that we as a university desperately need from the state, we are heading back into dependence. This is true both of the Charles Clarke model - on being required to apply a fixed proportion of student fees to a specific purpose instead of being flexible as between different universities with different aspirations and different student numbers and different resources - and on the part of the opponents of top-up fees, whose proposals, led by Anne Campbell of Cambridge, with whom I've had a minor disagreement on this matter, would lead us to a national disaster, in which universities would have even less freedom from HEFCE and from the government than at the moment.

Looking at the long-term interests of UCL I cannot commend that course to you. Looking at the long-term interests of UCL the challenge for those who would wish to end the present open-handed subsidy to all students of higher education must be: show us where the additional funding is going to come from to allow us to give our students the decent education that we have always aspired to give them. Because without that question being answered, our trajectory is down rather than up.

I want to address just two other issues. The first is that of partnership. No merger, but partnership with other institutions is very much the way in which UCL will be needing to proceed. In my few weeks here I have already experienced the strength of the relationship that we have with the London Business School. We also have close working relationships with our immediate neighbours in Bloomsbury. I have no ambitions whatsoever for takeovers or mergers; I do believe that we have the capacity for beneficial co-existence with our neighbours in Bloomsbury and that we have a great deal in common, even, may I say, with Imperial College - the testament to which is the new building for nanotechnology that's going up in Gordon Street now, which is a joint research project with Imperial College. Indeed the extent of our intertwining tentacles was only discovered when colleagues sat down to talk about merger with Imperial College and realised how much common ground there was between the two institutions.

Our partnership, and my outward-looking face on your behalf, has to go beyond educational institutions. We need to link with other educational institutions, obviously, on the political front, but we need to have our own foot in the door with the London Borough of Camden, with the Greater London Authority, with the London Development Agency, and with London First, in order to punch at our weight as the leading university in London. We need to achieve an enormous amount of improvement in the political community's understanding of what UCL is, what it does and what it contributes, not just to the economy of London - though utilitarianism is all very well in this institution - but to the cultural dynamism of London and to its cosmopolitan character.

Finally, the estate. Can I just remind you how shabby it is? There are excellent bits of the estate and the refurbishments that have been undertaken in recent years are really quite outstanding. Coming back I was reminded that the Front Quad is one of the most beautiful enclosed spaces in London or anywhere, and what is so attractive to me is its vitality, its dynamism, the fact that it's used - people are walking on the grass, it's terrific and it has enormous potential as a gathering place and a meeting place.

Yet once you go behind the Wilkins building you come to a snake pit of industrial alleys, covered in refuse. It was only after I had walked up and down that back alley that runs up from Torrington Place to the main building a few times that I realised that the refuse every day was different refuse, it wasn't standard refuse that had been sitting there for a long time. We have a major programme of shifting the refuse out of the buildings, and also of doing simple refurbishing when we can. This is obviously to be encouraged.

I do applaud the efforts of Richard Furter, Director of Estates & Facilities, in trying to ensure that whenever a chunk of capital comes in to put up a new building - and it's usually silo-fed down into the institution - that we find an opportunity for spinning out from that the improvement of some other bit of the estate.

One of my major objectives is for that back alley. Can you imagine what that would look like with some planting, some street activity, a shop or two, a footpath maybe? No vehicles at all, a splash of paint; that archway that goes underneath the Anatomy Building converted into an attractive space. I suggested to Richard a fountain, but he patted me on the back and said if I understood how many different pipes and ducts were under the ground at that point the idea wouldn't even pass my contemplation.

Think about not only our own direct estate, but also the whole of Bloomsbury; what an opportunity there is there for the creation of a campus with some collaboration with Camden and the Mayor's Office, Transport for London, and the whole range of political actors. There's a real capacity to undertake traffic calming, pedestrianisation, to create safe, secure and attractive areas for our students, because we can't carry on continuing to attract the most able young students against competition from cities that are perceived to be safe and clean and free from drugs - which they are not at all of course - unless we start to attend not only to our own back alleys but to the environment that immediately surrounds us.

I think I've said enough to persuade you that the tasks that lie ahead of your novice Provost are very significant. I have no doubt about the enormity of the challenge that I am facing, but I would like this afternoon to say how much I personally appreciate the warmth of the welcome that I have felt within UCL, the energy in all of the departments that I have visited so far and the confidence that that gives me that we may indeed be able to move forward in terms of the vision that I have sketched out.