Provost's View: Looking back on autumn 2014
11 December 2014
A Nobel Prize, the green light for an Olympic Park campus and UCL's merger with the Institute of Education have been three of the headlines for UCL in a term that has seen our university take great strides in its estates transformation, international partnerships, fundraising activity and development of UCL's Grand Challenges approach.
As I write this article, I have just taken off from Beijing airport, en route to Stockholm via Helsinki, heading for the Nobel Prize ceremony as a guest of our recent Nobel Laureate, Professor John O'Keefe.
It has been a whirlwind of a term, but one that has seen UCL enjoy considerable success and progress. It is my intention to take the opportunity of the splendid isolation of a long haul flight to reflect on the major events of the past few months and to give you a 'view from the bridge' as the term draws to a close.
The award of the Nobel Prize for Medicine was a tremendous boost to UCL, with a warm vicarious glow extending over the entire university community for most of this term. I am deeply honoured to have been invited to the ceremony and the celebrations, which will have taken place by the time you read this.
I am fully suited and booted for the occasion, which will be very grand in 'white tie'. A once in a lifetime Nobel experience - perhaps!
We are all very proud of John, who shares this year's award with two of his previous visiting postdoctoral fellows, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, who are now co-directors of the Kavli Institute in Trondheim.
The award was for the discovery of what the press brilliantly termed the 'brain's internal GPS system' in the hippocampus. John's work was all conducted at UCL over the past four decades, and is the first Nobel award to a current member of staff at UCL for more than 40 years (the last were to Katz in 1970 and Huxley in 1963).
Building our international collaborations
As my departure from Beijing might indicate, this term has been one of quite frequent overseas travel. The trip to China was largely about supporting our growing strategic relationship with Peking University, as one of our key international partners.
We have made great progress over the past term in rethinking and consulting on our global engagement strategy. The Office for International Affairs, led by Dame Nicola Brewer, Vice-Provost (International), should be commended for a very open and thorough approach to this key strand of UCL 2034.
The specific reason for my trip was to attend the inaugural meeting of the International Advisory Board (IAB) of the new Peking University (PKU) International Hospital and to speak on behalf of the IAB at the formal opening ceremony.
It was quite a scene, attended by some 2,000 people, but it was a great honour to be closely involved. It was also helpful to experience PKU's warm reciprocal interest in collaboration with UCL.
Professor Xiao Guo, UCL Pro-Provost for China, and I also took the opportunity to interact with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the British Council - meeting with prominent alumni and attending the annual party for our Chinese alumni in Beijing.
Such multi-tasking overseas trips are becoming the norm for UCL and they are an increasingly important aspect of ensuring that we put in the necessary work to build relationships across the world with our alumni, friends and partners and to raise the profile of UCL.
Along those lines, this term has seen us conduct major alumni events in London, New York, Jeddah and Hong Kong, as well Beijing. We are constantly growing our alumni base and establishing contacts and relationships with those that are keen to help UCL with our future.
Laying the ground for UCL 2034 and developing the Grand Challenges
This term has also seen us step up our level of activity in fundraising and to make significant progress in the design and implementation of our Campaign for UCL 2034.
By way of example, we have recently had one couple pledge £10 million to our endowment funds and I am confident that we will see more seven or eight figure gifts coming through in the next year. Just as importantly, we have worked hard to engage our extended leadership forum group about the Campaign and how we need them to get the whole UCL community involved.
With this in mind, we have been conducting one-on-one and group training for academic leaders on becoming more effective fundraisers.
UCL 2034 is certainly shaping all of our major activities and projects at the moment. There is ongoing work on other aspects of the implementation plan that are currently under review by members of the Senior Management Team. The first draft is complete and ready to go up on the web, but we are currently editing it into a house style, shortening the text and thinking through which measures we will select to follow and benchmark. More of that next term too, once we have tested our thoughts with UCL Council.
In the interim, there are aspects of the implementation of UCL 2034 that are already active. One example would be ongoing work, led by David Price and his team, on reviewing and updating the Grand Challenges and asking the tough question of whether or not we can make them even more effective.
We are also thinking through how recent developments, such as the creation of the Institute for Sustainable Global Prosperity (headed up by Professor Henrietta Moore), and the recent merger with the Institute of Education (IOE), may shape our future Grand Challenge developments.
Should there, for example, be a new Grand Challenge on Global Education, or should greater expertise in education permeate all of the existing Grand Challenges? A wonderful intellectual debate to be had, and one that will undoubtedly shape our destiny and profile all the way to 2034.
Estates transformation, a green light for UCL East and the IOE merger
Last term has also seen great success in moving forward on three fundamentally important strategic projects that will underpin delivery of UCL 2034.
- We are making great progress on the estates plan for the year, which includes refurbishment of the Kathleen Lonsdale building; a rebuild of Wates House; and the Physics Yard and Refectory project. I would like to publicly commend UCL Estates and the respective project boards for minimising the disruption and for providing temporary structures that work well for re-providing space during these crucial developments.
- The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park project is now formally underway, following the confirmation of government funding in the autumn statement and national infrastructure plan last week. We will be seeking greater 'bottom-up' input into the next phase of academic planning over next term.
- The merger with the IOE went live on 2 December and we are now formally a single organisation. Much has been written about this in recent times, but I would add a further call for all of us to engage and to make our new colleagues feel most welcome. This has the potential to be one of the most successful higher education mergers in living history.
As I stand back and think about how much has come to fruition this term, I cannot be anything other than very proud of UCL and our ability to work our way through complex problems and deliver great, intellectually-driven outcomes that will help to keep UCL in the forefront of global universities.
Many of our people have worked very hard to make all of this happen and it hasn't always been a smooth ride. A huge thank you to all of you for your dedication to UCL and its future.
As I finish this article, I am now approaching the snowy landscape of Finland (Helsinki airport and its environs). It is the closest to Lapland that I have ever been in the run up to Christmas, so it seems a fitting point to bid you 'seasons greetings'.
Next week's View will be all about the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014). I have every confidence that the Christmas cheer will continue.
President and Provost