Provost's View: My priorities for 2015-2016
1 October 2015
It is my pleasure to welcome all staff and students to the beginning of a new academic year - a very important one for UCL, with much to do - as always.
If you are new to UCL, a very warm welcome. For those of you returning after the summer break, I hope you found time to recharge your batteries and that many of you also made good progress with your research and preparations for the new academic year.
It is the start of my third year as President and Provost of UCL, and I now feel firmly embedded in the university. I will be giving the first lecture of the regular Lunch Hour Lecture series on Tuesday 13 October, which will give me an opportunity to address 'the state of the nation' and to take stock of our achievements against our strategy, UCL 2034, both major strategic issues and those that are more immediate and operational.
In this Provost's View, I would like to give you a feel for how I see the priorities for 2015-16. Many important activities will continue to run in the background, but this is a view of where we need to redouble our efforts.
Change our culture to improve the student experience
Prominent in my thoughts is the ongoing need to improve the 'student experience' at UCL. I will discuss this in depth in next week's Provost's View, and outline the way forward. Suffice it to say for now that we didn't do at all well in this year's National Student Survey (22nd of 24 in the Russell Group). In the Times Good University Guide we ranked 10th overall (compared to 9th last year), but 124th of 127 universities for the 'student education and student experience' elements. We could argue about league table methodologies, but this is simply not good enough for a university that aspires to be, and in many other aspects is, amongst the best in the world.
I know that there are many examples of excellence in this regard around UCL and I salute everyone who does an outstanding job for our students. However, we suffer from patchiness of performance and we do not have the consistency that we need for our future.
We have to address this set of issues very firmly and seek relentless improvement. The culture change that I believe is necessary would essentially make every student feel that they are a valued lifelong member of this university community and that we care about them as individuals, their learning and all aspects of their experience at UCL. The very best performing departments and faculties at UCL have already achieved that, and we should all learn from their success. More on this next week.
Build the most inclusive university in the UK
I'd like to restate the importance of, and my unwavering commitment to, equalities and diversity. I'm more determined than ever to make our university the most inclusive in the UK and remove needless barriers to progression.
That's why I am so delighted to announce that we've just learned that we have been awarded an institutional Silver Athena SWAN award. I'd like to congratulate everyone across UCL whose hard work has enabled us to gain an award at this level - UCL is one of just seven UK higher education institutions to hold a Silver Athena SWAN award, and we're the only institution to have been granted both a university Athena SWAN Silver and a Bronze Race Equality Charter.
UCL was one of the founding members of the Athena SWAN charter in 2005, and has held a Bronze award since 2006. The charter was established to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) in higher education, but has recently been expanded to include all academic departments and professional services staff. Athena SWAN now recognises work undertaken to address gender equality more broadly.
We are committed to continuing our work in this area, embedding the ambitious activities outlined in our Athena SWAN action plan. Many of the aims of Athena SWAN are reflected in UCL's new five-year Equalities and Diversity Strategy, to be launched this month.
It is a bold yet wholly achievable vision, developed in consultation with staff and students. Perhaps its most striking feature is that it will continue to improve diversity across all faculties and professional services divisions by means of our 'accountability framework'. What this means in practice is that my senior management team are set annual challenging, but attainable, equality objectives, and I hold them to account on their performance.
We are also keen to improve our ranking in the Race Equality Charter and the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) staff. There isn't an equivalent scheme for disability equality in higher education so we will work with our Staff Disability Forum to develop innovative actions and champion a culture where Disabled People can thrive.
Critically, to improve the day-to-day experience of the whole community, we need to challenge and report bullying and harassment when we see it. In short, we cannot afford to be bystanders, as the cost to individuals and the organisation is too high.
In the coming year I'm keen for UCL to review and enhance its bullying and harassment reporting mechanisms so that we can identify where the problems are and nip them in the bud. It is a fraught and complex area but I am confident that we can do more to assure staff and students that coming forward is the right thing to do.
Create financial surpluses to invest in our future
Third on my list of the highest priorities is to keep UCL's finances in good shape and to create sufficient surpluses to invest in our future, in terms of top quality people, infrastructure, estates and IT, and state-of-the-art equipment. This doesn't just mean shiny new buildings, we also need to upgrade and improve current stock.
The good news is that it does look as though we will achieve our target surplus of 2.5% for last year (although Finance are still finalising figures). If you need reminding why this is so important, please see my previous Provost's View on this topic, with an FAQ section that everyone should read. Having moved in the right direction, we must stay on top of our finances if we are to achieve sustainable academic excellence at the highest international level.
Build four-star research quality
Talking of which, we are already 18 months into the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) and it is increasingly clear that our focus needs to be on building four-star quality in terms of our research environment, outputs and impact.
There are rumours, of course, of potential changes to the research evaluation process, and even of the future of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) itself, as we approach the comprehensive spending review (CSR). In my experience it is always like this in the run up to a CSR and we would be best served by assuming that there will be some form of REF in the 2020-2021 period and that we must do even better than last time if we are to maintain our leading position. I have asked all the deans, and through them, all heads of departments to focus on promoting four-star excellence, as I feel that we cannot afford to be at all complacent at this stage of the cycle.
Update the academic plan for UCL East
Finally, this year will see significant emphasis on ensuring that two major projects continue to make excellent progress. The first of these is UCL East. Led by Professor David Price (Vice-Provost, Research), the academic group are now putting together the finishing touches to an updated academic plan and we intend to share these exciting plans with all of you over the course of Term 1. Current work includes ensuring that there is sufficient attention to financial sustainability. We continue to liaise closely with the exciting range of academic and cultural partners that will also be on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park site, as well as with community groups and leaders in Stratford.
Launch publicly a fundraising campaign
Key to our future is our second major project for the year, the creation of a fundraising 'Campaign for UCL'. Much of the work that underlies this campaign has already been done, such as an extensive bottom-up process to identify the projects that align strategically with UCL 2034, and that would be attractive to donors.
There is ongoing 'silent phase' active fundraising (which occupies some 25% of my time) and we are also currently reviewing draft campaign documents. This year will see us prepare ourselves for a 2016 'public launch' of the Campaign for UCL. We don't have a formal campaign target figure as yet, but when asked this question recently in the USA, let's just say I came up with a big number. Lori Houlihan and the assembled team turned pale, albeit momentarily - but I always think it helps to think big, because if you don't, you will never get there. Enjoy the new term.