UCL News


Provost's Long View: The state of UCL - the good, the not so good, and the future challenges

22 October 2015

Last week, I had the opportunity to address an audience of students, staff and members of the public at the inaugural talk of UCL's autumn

portico ucl.ac.uk/calendar/tab:lunch_hour_lectures/">Lunch Hour Lecture series. This autumn marks the start of my third year at UCL and after two years marked by some great successes and considerable challenges, it feels like a natural time to take stock.

Values, mission and vision

To start, how do we articulate what UCL is and where we are going? I've now been at UCL long enough for some to note that there are differences between my style and that of my predecessor, Professor Malcolm Grant - one of which is that I tend to be described as perhaps being a little more 'managerial'. With my natural positive disposition, I will take that as a compliment of sorts - after all, we are now an organisation with a turnover of £1.25billion.

We've currently got 37,000 students and 12,400 staff, and we are continuing to grow - the projected growth already in the system currently indicates that we are heading towards 42,000 students - up from fewer than 23,000 students just six years ago. An entity of this size certainly needs some clear management, administration and formal strategic direction, as well as excellent leadership throughout the organisation.

Our values are also an important starting point for understanding our university. UCL's current values are:

· commitment to excellence and advancement on merit

· fairness and equality

· diversity

· collegiality and community building

· inclusiveness

· openness

· ethically acceptable standards of conduct

· fostering innovation and creativity

· developing leadership

· environmental sustainability.

There are some notable omissions here, including the principle of academic freedom, which although heavily implied in our list of values, is not clearly stated independently. We have set up a working group to examine our list of values, make suggestions for modifying them and bring forward proposals that will then require consultation with the wider UCL community.

We also have a mission - the top line of which is to be London's Global University - and we have worked together over my first two years at UCL to put in place a strategy, UCL 2034, made up of six principal themes and supported by a set of key enablers that reflect on how we support students, our finances, a sustainable estate, systems and processes, and how we communicate and engage with the world.

To remind you, our strategic  themes are:

1. Academic leadership grounded in intellectual excellence

2. A global leader in the integration of research and education, underpinning an inspirational student experience

3. Addressing global challenges through our disciplinary excellence and distinctive cross-disciplinary approach

4. An accessible, publicly-engaged organisation that fosters a lifelong community

5. London's Global University: in London, of London and for London

6. Delivering global impact through a network of innovative international activities, collaborations and partnerships.

The '2034' part of the strategy is absolutely critical - there is a 20-year time frame in which to deliver what we've promised: to be one of the highest performers on a global scale.

In order to get there, we'll need to draw on all of our resources and strengths - we'll need to ensure academic excellence and that our institution is financially sustainable. Achieving one or the other is easy, but achieving both together, although more difficult, is fundamentally important for the long-term future of UCL.

Highlights and major achievements of the past two years

There have been some marvellous achievements during my time so far as President & Provost. The first of these is the Nobel prize received by Professor John O'Keefe, Director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits & Behaviour and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL Cell & Developmental Biology. I was literally in tears when I saw Professor O'Keefe receive the award at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden last year and it was a tremendous boost to our whole community.

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Secondly, I'd like to mention UCL's research performance - our research income is the second highest in the country after Oxford and we expect to stay in this position when we see this year's figures. In the REF2014, we managed to beat the universities of Oxford and Cambridge on research power in two out of three methods of calculating it - making it the first time that these universities were not easily ahead in terms of research funding share.

The REF result is testament to the rise of UCL and London itself and did not happen without considerable hard work - which, I should add, went on well before my time here. What our groundbreaking results unfortunately did not deliver was a major boost in QR funding.

We did, however, receive a £7m-a-year increase in QR funding from our stellar results. It is worth bearing in mind that the number of 4* submissions increased greatly across the sector overall, and that many of our sector peers saw their QR funding greatly reduced following the exercise -, a predicament that we have done extremely well to avoid. Overall, we should be delighted with our comparative outcome.

Another source of pride for me is that we are, for the first time, in the position of having a carefully defined, 10-year capital programme of £1.25 billion. Most of that money is being spent here, in Bloomsbury, with some funding for our new campus, UCL East.

I'd like to add, at this point, that I regard our developments on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as being absolutely essential - we're simply desperate for space and the creation of a new campus is a wonderful opportunity that brings with it £100m of public funding. Academic planning is going really well for this - we have worked through more than 70 proposals for the space.

I'm also pleased to announce that, following the award of planning permission, the construction of the new Student Centre at the former 'beach site' just off Gordon Street is now full steam ahead.

Mergers and new partnerships and strategies

I'd also like to mention the successful institutional mergers of the past years. When I joined, the School of Pharmacy had just joined UCL, the MRC units were in the process of doing so and this was followed by the merger with the Institution of Education at the end of 2014.

There are certainly some active issues to resolve on the administrative side of the IOE merger, but, academically, it is already proving to be a huge success. New undergraduate programmes are being launched, the UCL IOE has engaged with great enthusiasm with UCL's Grand Challenges and there are already many examples of successful funding bids only made possible as a result of the merger.

New partnerships are in the pipeline, including our developing partnership with the Africa Centre, which deals with health and population issues affecting a rural population in Kwa Zulu Natal with one of the highest burdens of HIV in the world, and our co-establishment of the Bloomsbury Research Institute in partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Finally, and related to the development of UCL 2034, our Vice-Provost (International) Dame Nicola Brewer launched a Global Engagement Strategy last year, embodying what I believe to be the best of UCL's collective thinking - drawing on more than 70 consultation exercises.

Working under the motto 'London's Global University works with partners to find fair solutions to global challenges,' the strategy lays out the ways that UCL must engage globally to best effect, including increasing independent research capacity and ensuring our students are equipped for global lives and careers

Future challenges

While our successes have been significant, so are the challenges that lie ahead. I've already mentioned UCL's startling growth over the last decade, and one pressing challenge we now have is to consider the right shape and size for a future UCL. A group is now in place, co-chaired by Professor Anthony Smith, Vice-Provost (Education & Student Affairs), and Professor David Price, Vice-Provost (Research), to consider this matter in some detail

Another particular challenge for UCL is that of our student experience. I have talked about this in a previous Provost's View but in summary, while the best parts of UCL do an extraordinarily good job for their students, our performance is currently just too patchy and inconsistent over time. The major surveys of student opinion about teaching experience and general student experience, including the National Student Survey and the Student Barometer, are showing this clearly.

Put quite simply, our student experience needs to improve because we are not doing as well as we need to for the sort of future I envisage for this institution. We are likely to see this more heavily reflected in funding shortly, since the government is going ahead with the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

I've been part of the advisory group for this, and it is highly likely that it will use exactly the same sort of data as the surveys that I've just mentioned - so by this measure, UCL certainly needs to improve.

It is looks at the moment as though a university's outcome in TEF will be linked to its ability to raise student fees in order to reflect inflation, since the minister is convinced that this is essential to improve learning and teaching in the sector. I disagree, as I think that there are already enough drivers in the system, including national and international student recruitment and league table positions - but we need to be clear that this is where the political tide is going.

To counter this, UCL's Education Strategy goes out to consultation later this month - bringing together initiatives around curriculum reform to ensure an excellent research based education (Connected Curriculum), our UCL teaching qualification (Arena) and ChangeMakers, our programme to support students to create their research project focusing on improving, enhancing or innovating the learning experience at UCL.

We also have a new framework for academic promotion in development that will give equal parity to teaching and research in promotions criteria.

Other key concerns for UCL's future

Other key challenges for the future will include enhancing 4* performance in future REF exercises in order to mitigate the funding impact of the increase in 4* grading across the sector. This means that we need to continue to attract and retain the best staff and provide them with an excellent environment in which to work.

We need will continue to work on equalities and diversity, a subject at the heart of our strategy on which I could talk for a long time. We should be proud of our recent institutional Athena Swan Silver award and our Bronze Award in the Race Equality Charter - currently we are the only university in the country to hold both awards. Our new equalities and diversity strategy lays out some of the challenges for the next period.

We absolutely need to hit our financial targets in order to realise UCL 2034, which I discussed in depth in my previous Provost's View on university finances. Our soon-to-be-launched Campaign for UCL will help with that. The recent news about the funds raised by supermarkets through the plastic bag levy to be directed to dementia research at UCL is a wonderful example of what fundraising can do.

Over this academic year, we also need to develop a comprehensive strategy for London - a challenge that I have now given to Dr Celia Caulcott, our new Vice-Provost (Enterprise), and which will necessarily take in aspects as diverse as enterprise and innovation, health in partnership with UCL Partners, education and arts and culture. I believe that UCL also has a role to play in being a significant think tank and advisor to London - thus helping to shape the future of our capital city.

There are many more challenges too - my final message is that UCL is one of the world's leading universities, but we can't rest on our laurels. There is much we can do to improve this university still further and I look forward to working with you all to achieve such outcomes.

Professor Michael Arthur

UCL President & Provost
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