UCL News


Spotlight on Professor Stephen Smith

28 October 2011

This week the spotlight is on Professor Stephen Smith, Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences.

Stephen Smith

What is your role and what does it involve?

For the last three years I've been Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences, which groups my own department, Economics, together with the departments of Political Science, Geography, Anthropology, History, History of Art and Archaeology.

As Dean, I am a member of the Provost's Senior Management Team (SMT), which discusses overall university strategy. But I have specific responsibility for the overall academic and financial performance of my own Faculty.

The financial aspect is crucial. We need to ensure that we have enough income from research overheads, student fees and other sources to cover the costs of the staff that we employ, and our share of the costs of UCL central facilities including the library, computing, premises, and everything else.

Universities are not profit-making businesses; we aren't here to make profits for shareholders. But UCL's academic success depends on its ability to generate enough resources to support our current academic activities, and to invest in the infrastructure that we will need if we are to maintain our position as one of the world's great universities. If we don't get the financial side right, we decline.

On the academic strategy of the Faculty, I work closely with the seven Heads of Department, who each have a deep understanding of their discipline. I cannot pretend to tell the difference between the outstanding and the mediocre in disciplines other than my own, and so I'm very dependent on the Heads of Department to make good strategic decisions about the academic direction of their departments.

Besides the Heads of Department, I work with many other people, especially our Faculty Manager Cathy Brown and the School Finance Director Margaret Lloyd. I'm looking forward to working with our new Faculty Tutor, Arne Hofmann, who joins us from LSE next week.

Cathy, Margaret and Arne all work with the faculty of Arts and Humanities as well as with SHS. The Dean of Arts and Humanities Henry Woudhuysen and I started as Deans on the same day, and we have found that there are a lot of benefits from collaboration between our two faculties - both academic and organisational.

Like all Deans, I have various UCL-wide roles. I chair UCL's Environmental Sustainability Steering Group and UCL's Committee for Equal Opportunities. In my role as Chair of the Committee for Equal Opportunities, I have been the senior staff champion for UCL's Staff Survey, which begins next week. This is a serious effort to understand the views of staff working in the organisation, and not a piece of window-dressing.

The last staff survey showed us a number of areas of dissatisfaction, and we have taken action as a result. But a staff survey is only useful if it properly represents the views of everyone in the organisation, so we need the widest possible response.

To encourage responses, the Provost has agreed that UCL will contribute £10 to the student hardship fund for each completed questionnaire. If everyone responds, students in hardship will benefit by more than £80,000.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I've been here for 21 years. Before then, I was working as a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, where I ran a research group working on the economics of taxation. IFS is based only 10 minutes' walk away from UCL, and it has very close links with UCL Department of Economics. Serious academic research programmes, based on state-of-the-art econometric techniques and massive household survey datasets, underpin IFS's high-profile policy commentaries on public finance and policy, and much of the academic input to this work comes from UCL academics - a hugely successful case of research "impact".

I started teaching part-time at UCL when the late Professor David Pearce started a new MSc programme in Environmental and Resource Economics - the first programme of its type in the UK - and asked me to teach a course on European Environmental Policy. We ran this programme for nearly 20 years, and its graduates can be found in government ministries and environmental organisations throughout the world.

Over the years, I've attended a lot of international meetings on environmental policy at OECD and elsewhere, and it's been rare not to find at least one of the countries represented by a graduate of this programme.

I joined UCL full-time in 1997, when I started a five-year stint as Head of the Economics Department. I then had a brief one-year spell as acting Head of Department at the School of Public Policy, during its transformation into the Department of Political Science.

I started my five-year term as Dean three years ago. Time flies, and there's a lot that I still want to achieve!

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

About 15 years ago, I set up UCL's MSc in Public Policy, an interdisciplinary degree that prepares students for careers in civil service and other organisations, both in the UK and abroad. It started as interdepartmental collaboration between Economics, Laws, and other partners, but has since become the foundation on which UCL has been able to build an outstanding Department of Political Science.

Much of this achievement is down to the colleagues in the School of Public Policy and the Department of Political Science who took up the degree programme, and refined and developed it. But it's good to feel that I was in at the start of something that has become such a success.

This year, I'm quite excited about the publication of my Very Short Introduction to Environmental Economics, published in Oxford University Press's Very Short Introduction series. To find time to write it, I got up early every morning for two months: I surprised myself by sticking to this, as I've never been an early morning person.

To launch the book, OUP had me stand on a soapbox in Woodstock town centre, making a pitch for the arguments in the book to a bemused audience of shoppers, tourists and other passers-by.

What is your life like outside UCL?

During the week, there's not much time for anything outside UCL, though my wife Beverley and I try to get to quite a few of the productions at the National Theatre.

On Friday evenings, we head for north Oxfordshire, where we live on the edge of the Evenlode valley. I try to take as little Dean business with me as possible, and it's a great change in pace and atmosphere. I spent a couple of contented hours last weekend pulling nettle roots out of the bottom of our hedge.