Vice-Provost's View: The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park - a catalyst for UCL's legacy
23 January 2014
There can be few people in UCL's community who did not notice the recent announcements in the media about the university's plans to consider establishing a major new higher education quarter on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Over the past decade, UCL has grown by more than 50% and become well and truly established as one of the leading global universities. But for those of us working in Bloomsbury, it doesn't always feel like it.
We are all acutely aware of one of our greatest practical limitations - we are creaking and groaning due to space limitations. And it's a problem that we must address if we are to fulfil our potential and ambition.
Across the globe, education is growing fast with now more than 180 million students in tertiary education. And the UCL community is not without ambition.
As our new Provost has already noted, the community is bubbling with exciting new ventures and opportunities that will require more and different types of space.
In the summer of 2013, UCL was approached about our possible interest in developing a physical presence on the Olympic Park. Malcolm Grant and Michael Arthur asked me to explore the possibility on behalf of UCL.
My first step was to identify three substantial questions that we needed to address: what are we going to do? Why do we want to do it? And how are we going to pay for it?
I also felt strongly that we needed a governance framework that would give the UCL community the confidence that decisions were being made in a transparent manner. We have, therefore, established the Olympic Park Steering Group (OPSG), which reports to the Provost's Senior Management Team and thereafter to Finance Committee and Council.
In seeking to answer the "what" and "why" questions, we have established a process that seems to be working well.
Academic propositions for potential activity on the Olympic Park are considered by the OPSG, which then asks colleagues to carry out a scoping exercise to a template.
The purpose is to make sure that due consideration is given to the academic content, the uniqueness of the Olympic Park location, possible scale of activities and possible income streams.
The OPSG then discusses those initial templates and decides whether it makes sense to carry out further work. At this stage, we undertake some financial modelling, along with a more detailed analysis of the proposals and how they might work in practice.
We are in the middle of the first round of scoping, focused on four outline proposals: "design"; "innovation"; "broadcast and education"; and "living".
We expect that at least two of these will be worked up into more complete plans for the initial phase of any development on the Olympic Park.
As part of thinking about the "why", the OPSG has identified four important strategic considerations.
First, any development must not be embarked upon in isolation or to the detriment of the Bloomsbury campus. Second, there should be a focus on new activities that would be either impossible or very difficult to do in Bloomsbury.
Third, we should focus on partnership activities - with other universities, cultural organisations such as the V&A and business and industry. Finally, we should use this opportunity to redefine our relationship with London.
We also recognised that while we will see the greatest benefit being realised over decades, there may be opportunities for co-developments on the Olympic Park and in Bloomsbury.
It is entirely possible that the additional capacity on the Olympic Park may help deliver the essential work contained within the Bloomsbury Masterplan - perhaps as early as 2017.
This is important, because we want any new site to be both a catalyst for immediate priorities as well as for new activities.
So what next? We have been overwhelmed with an enormous amount of enthusiasm and goodwill about this venture - from within UCL and outside.
Over the next three months, we will be working hard to convert the enthusiasm, energy and early ideas into concrete and credible plans that provide us with the evidence that we need to justify investment.
We expect to be in a position where a definitive decision can be made about the first phase of activity by the summer, but, ahead of that, we will expect to be continually assessing the strength and credibility of our academic and business plans through the help of our Finance Committee and Council.
We will also be seeking additional partners who wish to join us in this exciting venture and work with the local community to get their views on the benefits that such a development can have for them and their families and communities.
We will also be seeking financial support, from government, philanthropists, business and the City.
To maximise the impact of this project, it is vital that we marshal the creative resources of the UCL community, staff and students.
If you have ideas or thoughts on possibly initiatives, partners or sources of funding, please send me a brief summary of any proposals or thoughts via the Your views form (login required) on the UCL Olympic Park project website.
The OPSG will consider all suggestions seriously - but I note that at this stage we have limited capacity to work up full plans.
I cannot imagine a time when Bloomsbury will not be the principal home for the majority of UCL's activities and we should certainly seek to grow as far as possible here.
But we might not always be able to - or even want to - do everything right here in Bloomsbury.
As the world of universities changes, so will the way we work, and UCL is forward thinking, collaborative and highly adaptive. So, inevitably, some of the ways that we work and the places we work in will change.
Our founders in 1824 initiated the construction of the Wilkins Building without most of the funding necessary or fully developed academic or business plans. What they did have was a bold vision - and we in the current UCL community are now charged with building upon their legacy for the next 100 years.
Of course, we will develop carefully considered academic, business and building plans - and those will all need to be desirable, feasible, deliverable, affordable and credible.
But however hard we work on planning, a venture of this magnitude will inevitably carry some uncertainty and some risk - especially if our plans express the ambition and creativity of the UCL community.
And so as we assess the risks and opportunities some higher-level considerations will inevitably come into play.
As we approach a final decision about whether we proceed and what we do, we will have to ask ourselves challenging questions.
What sort of legacy do we, the UCL community of today, want to craft for the UCL of 2114? What role should we in UCL be playing in the future of London? And in that context, does the Olympic Park offer UCL a unique opportunity? An opportunity that works for us now, and builds a legacy for UCL, and for this great city.
Clearly for this project to work, we must be confident that this proposition will meet our current and future needs.
Professor Stephen Caddick