Provost's View: A challenging year, but many opportunities lie ahead
15 December 2016
The last Provost's view of the calendar year gives me an opportunity to reflect on events in 2016 and to think about how we might adjust through 2017 to begin to tackle a world of higher education with significantly more uncertainty than at this time last year.
But first, let's celebrate some wonderful achievements over the past year that will contribute positively to the ambition of our strategy, UCL 2034.
We should celebrate our achievements in equality and diversity. We are the only university in the UK to have both an institutional Athena Swan silver award and a Race Equality Charter Mark bronze award (the highest available to date).
Our congratulations go to the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, which became the first at UCL to achieve an Athena Swan gold award during 2016. Moreover, I am aware of several other departments who are preparing for a gold award in 2017.
To help more with promoting racial equality, I have asked Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu to act as a Special Envoy for racial equality and to work closely with Professor Geraint Rees (SMT Champion for Racial Equality) on improving our performance in this area.
Ijeoma gave a superb presentation to the leadership forum in November, pointing out the under- representation of BME individuals at senior level at UCL and suggesting ways in which we could make our senior appointment processes, particularly (but not exclusively) at head of department and vice-dean level more open and transparent.
Extraordinary research performance
Last month, I noted many high-level achievements in research at UCL - but, as ever, our extraordinary research performance continues at pace.
Just yesterday, it was announced that we have been successful in our bid to become the main hub for the MRC National Dementia Research Institute, which will be under the direction of Professor Bart de Strooper.
This outstanding achievement puts UCL right at the heart of basic research and clinical science to tackle this devastating disease. Full details will follow, but the capital award that comes with this achievement will enable us to make progress with our plans for a new state-of-the-art neuroscience facility to replace Queen's Square House.
We have also recently heard that we have been successful in our bid for a new Wellcome Trust EPSRC Centre for Surgical and Interventional Sciences and our Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging was also renewed for another five years.
My congratulations go to Sebastian Ourselin (Engineering Sciences) and Catherine Price (Brain Sciences) respectively and their teams for these superb achievements, won against very stiff national competition.
These and many other achievements in research, education and enterprise/innovation throughout 2016 keep me optimistic and confident of our future as a world-leading university.
My view is that no matter what happens externally, UCL will adapt to that new future and we will continue to excel and fulfil our mission to help change the world for the long- term benefit of humanity.
The past year has seen two major external events that will directly impact on our world, our funding, and the way we conduct our business as London's Global University.
I am referring, of course, to the government bill on higher education, currently in the House of Lords, and the likelihood that Article 50 will be triggered in the spring of the new year and the UK's exit from the EU will be initiated.
We have written extensively on what the EU referendum result and the Higher Education Bill, through the Teaching Excellence Framework, might mean for UCL and it is not the intention of this article to go back over old ground. Rather, I would prefer to reflect on the opportunities that these events might bring our way and to guide us into thinking about what really matters to us in this brave new world.
Responding to the higher education bill
First, as part of the Higher Education Bill, we are being challenged by our government to further improve the quality of our education and student experience across the sector.
For UCL, this is something that we already have at the heart of our strategy and have been working hard on for the past three years.
We are making slow, but continual, progress on this set of issues; so, for us, this is really about taking responsibility at an individual and collective level to accelerate our efforts. We should accept the government challenge and take pride in keeping our students at the centre of everything that we do, linking their education closely to our research excellence.
We should all make 2017 a year in which we really make progress on the timeliness and quality of our student feedback, and on supporting the personal development of our students by providing high-quality tutoring.
If we did both of those things well, we could achieve gold status in the teaching excellence framework and that has to be our ultimate objective.
Pressing government on behalf of our EU staff and students
Second, we need to be clear that we value the diversity of our staff and our student body and we must work hard to persuade government to support the retention and recruitment of such top talent to the UK.
If we get this right, many other things will fall into place. Although there have been no government announcements as yet, I am confident that our EU staff and students will be allowed to stay in the UK, by one mechanism or another.
To do anything else would be plain daft and I firmly believe that government will come good on this - perhaps with a little gentle guidance and persuasion.
In the interim, we will continue to support all our EU and international staff and students to the best of our ability.
Third, there is an opportunity to re-emphasise the importance of universities and higher education to the wellbeing and growth of the UK's economy.
In the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did announce an increase in funding for research and innovation, increasing by £2 billion per annum by 2020 and most commentators acknowledge that this is real new money.
The funding clearly underlies the government's industrial strategy and it will be handled by the newly formed UKRI, which now includes Innovate UK. Our challenge is to understand how this funding will be applied and to ensure that we prepare effectively and make ourselves eligible and ready to apply.
We also need to ensure that we retain access to EU funding while we can. If we do end up with a relatively hard Brexit, we must also ensure that our UK contribution to such funding is not only repatriated, but also that it is still spent on research.
Fourth, we want to remain a world-leading global university and to remain focused on helping to solve some of the world's greatest problems and challenges.
To do that, we have to work effectively across multiple international boundaries and in collaboration with high-quality partners. When we put our global engagement strategy together, little did we know that it would be well suited to help us respond to a likely Brexit.
The clarity of our strategy has immediately helped us to build on and strengthen our international partnership work both with European and other international partners. Six months on from the referendum, we have made great strides in strengthening our international activities and profile.
Reaching out to those 'left behind'
Finally, the vote in favour of Brexit (as well as events in the USA and Italy) has led to much commentary on the adverse effects of globalisation and a sense by many that they have been 'left behind' in a fast globalising world - with little or no chance of joining in with our seemingly meritocratic society.
As a commentator during the referendum, I constantly felt as though I was speaking to many that were like-minded and that I was unable to reach out to the 'leave' vote.
One interpretation is that universities have lost touch with their local communities and that our arguments held little sway with the 51.8% of the electorate that voted to leave the EU.
One could argue that universities have perhaps become part of the problem in that we help to create and perpetuate a meritocracy that only 45% or so of the population currently enjoy. We, thus, help to enhance the career prospects of our successful students and this has the effect of 'leaving others behind'.
I recently heard a brilliantly constructed talk on this issue by Chris Brink (the recently retired VC at Newcastle) and it touched a real chord with me.
Our challenge, therefore, for 2017 and beyond is to reconnect effectively with the communities that we operate in, engage more effectively and explain the value of universities to society.
We must be prepared to open ourselves up more to taking students from such communities that have not had the chance to develop their full potential.
We will have to work harder with communities, with secondary education and with FE colleges to identify such individuals and then to support and work with them to bring them to a university of our quality and standing.
Our widening participation team does great work and has already been working hard to design such a scheme that we will take through our academic governance processes in the new year.
I believe that this is a huge opportunity to reconnect UCL to communities that feel left behind, in a way that would make Jeremy Bentham feel proud.
I hope you will enjoy a relaxing time over the holiday season, returning in 2017, full of enthusiasm and with a willingness to seek out the opportunities that exist for each of us individually, and for UCL, as our world changes and new national policies unfold throughout the next year.
Professor Michael Arthur
President & Provost
[Image: Michael Casey-Gillman]