UCL News


Provost's View: Why we must reach out more than ever in a post-Brexit world

29 September 2016

Welcome back for what promises to be an exciting, and transformative, year at UCL.

Professor Michael Arthur Whether you were working on your research, preparing for teaching for the next academic year, working in professional services or relaxing and taking a vacation, I trust you had a good summer.

For higher education, like Westminster, one issue will dominate this year: the referendum vote on EU membership and its consequences. I want to keep our focus on the continuing human side of all of this by sharing with you some words that the Vice-Provosts and I used during the 2016 graduation ceremonies. They were as follows:

"It is impossible to stand here, thinking about the future and your role in it and not say something about the recent EU referendum. I am not going to say anything about the politics of Brexit, but would simply ask you to think for a moment about the human side of it all.

We have had many of our EU, and indeed other international, staff and students become deeply concerned by this turn of events. They describe a sense of no longer feeling welcome in the UK and many have become quite distressed. This has sadly been intensified by the increased incidence, reported in the media, of xenophobic and racist behaviours in UK society.

We must redouble our efforts

Ladies and Gentleman, to put it simply, we are a better country than that - a much better country than that. We must redouble our efforts to welcome those from other shores, and we must reach out more than ever and be in the vanguard of internationalism and international collaboration.

We must work hard to maintain the trust and confidence of the rest of the world in our great country. I would ask you to join me in contributing to that endeavour.

Where we see things going on that are morally wrong and counter to our values, we must all call it out, when we safely can, and stop it happening. As graduates of UCL, I would also like you to carry that responsibility into your future."

Those sentiments were generally very well received by our graduates, their families and by our own staff present at the ceremonies, so I wanted to share them more widely.

As we all work hard to mitigate the potential impact of Brexit on UCL, these human factors, and therefore reaching out to others, will remain important.

There is still little clarity from the government about what Brexit will actually mean and it is not yet clear when Article 50 will be invoked, other than that it won't happen before the end of the year. 

Many commentators suggest that it will be well into 2017 and possibly as late as next autumn, after both the French and German elections. 

I sense that the government is preoccupied with a host of fundamental and essential preparatory questions and ground work before it presses the Article 50 trigger, which is no bad thing. Together with other UK universities, UCL is working hard to make sure that the questions that matter most to our staff and students are firmly in the government's sights.

The ongoing uncertainty continues to worry the UCL community and their families, and at a recent open forum, we heard some of the personal concerns and frustrations directly from a small number of staff. You can view the recording of the forum on our EU referendum advice website

Much of the concern relates to the future right to remain that staff from the European Economic Area (EEA) may be granted by the government once the UK leaves the EU. 

In partnership with our campus trade unions, I have written a letter to the Prime Minister, urging her to resolve this issue promptly and without further delay. 

Until we know what the future arrangements for staff from the EEA will be, we are limited in terms of how we can effectively deploy our resources to assist you.

In circumstances where nothing has yet changed to affect the rights of EEA citizens to live and work in the UK, we held a series of information clinics to provide information that is more tailored to your personal circumstances from immigration lawyers. 

I understand that the information clinics were heavily booked with a waiting list, but I also understand that the 'no attendance' rate (i.e. where staff register to attend a clinic but then fail to do so) was very high too (i.e. more than a quarter of all appointments). 

We are currently organising more clinics, which we will advertise on the EU referendum advice website.

So, if you do make an appointment and then find you can't attend, please let the information clinic know, so that we can put someone else into the precious slot. 

I also point you to the FAQs and video from the immigration clinics that have already been held on our EU referendum advice website. I promise that we will do our very best to help and support you. Since the open forum, we are looking again at whether there is anything more that we can do.

Getting the best deal for our EU students and staff

Also please rest assured that we are lobbying government hard on all aspects of Brexit, trying to get the best possible outcome for all our EU students and staff, as well as for the long-term future of UCL. 

Our most urgent priority right now is to emphasise the importance of the funding support (tuition loans) and fees for EU students for entry in 2017/18. UCAS has already opened and government is aware of the urgency to make an announcement soon.

We are also considering in the UCL Brexit mitigation group - which I chair - how we might mitigate any loss of EU student numbers. We need data on what is happening to 2016/17 entry and 2017/18 applications to help steer us through this potential problem, but revised plans for our international marketing effort are emerging.

UCL also has a great deal of expertise in many different facets of European and EU affairs. An academic group has been formed (chaired by Professor Graeme Reid and Dr Uta Staiger) to coordinate the various fields in which UCL can offer policy advice and expertise, and we are increasing our efforts to ensure the relevant government ministers and departments are aware of this. 

I have written to the three Brexit Ministers, David Davis (Exiting the EU), Liam Fox (International Trade) and Boris Johnson (Foreign Office) to make that offer, and we will be hosting a senior team from the Foreign Office at UCL this term for a round table discussion. 

We have also written to the Science and Technology Committee and are about to make a submission to the Foreign Affairs Committee, drawing their attention to key Brexit-related questions for the higher education sector. 

Continuing EU grant success

On the EU research side, I am delighted to tell you that we submitted 36 EU grants last week - eight more than this time last year. The advice to carry on as normal with Horizon 2020 and ERC grant applications seems to have been well heeded at UCL. 

A big thank you to Michael Browne and his team for providing great and thoroughly professional advice at a difficult time. The Chancellor Philip Hammond's announcement that all EU research grants will continue to be funded by the UK government post-Brexit was also very helpful. 

Recently, I've turned my thoughts to research and innovation post-Brexit and what we will need for continued success in the UK.  

How we safeguard UK higher education post-Brexit

First, we have to persuade our government and the general public that universities are important and that there is a direct link between the skilled graduates that we produce, our research and innovation and the impact that all of this has on the British economy.

Although many leading politicians understand that, I am constantly reminded that it isn't necessarily a given and that we must continually provide evidence to back up our assertion. 

We also have to remind politicians of our outstanding performance as a higher education system, ranked second in the world, with only the USA ahead of us. 

There have been many drivers for that level of performance - but it has, of course, happened over a time when we have been a major player in European research and EU-funded research networks. 

Leaving the money aside, the EU is the best agency globally for funding research collaboration and research networks across multiple borders. The ERC funds a huge number of early and advanced career fellowships as well as providing more funding for research excellence. 

The EU is currently also pushing hard to increase opportunities and funding for innovation and entrepreneurship. 

If we leave the EU, it is difficult to see how we can maintain our current level of international performance in higher education, research and innovation, unless we strike a deal that gives us continued access to these funding strands and opportunities. 

Alternatively, we would need to enhance significantly our national capabilities in all of these areas and recreating all of that administrative machinery certainly doesn't look cheap. 

You can see that I personally favour cutting a deal with the EU that keeps us involved in that research and innovation ecosystem. 

Reasons for optimism

Looking forward to the rest of the academic year, I am feeling optimistic despite all these external pressures. We are all part of a truly great, world-leading university and we will adapt, survive and improve - we are very enduring. This time of year always marks a new beginning, with thousands of students joining us from countries across the globe, and I know that they will be warmly welcomed into our community. 

There are also many positives to look forward to, ranging from individual research projects to major institutional initiatives. I am looking forward to sharing with you UCL's Digital 2034 Review, which contains numerous case studies of the work we are undertaking - in teaching, research, our infrastructure and our public engagement - to ensure that we thrive. 

Just one of these examples is our work on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which continues at pace - we are about to move through to the design stage. Professors Paola Lettieri and Andy Hudson-Smith have taken up their positions as Academic Director and Deputy Director respectively and have brought great new energy and enthusiasm to the project. 

The Campaign launch: UCL at its very best

This year also sees us launch It's All Academic - the new Campaign for UCL - across the globe. We are starting from a very strong position, with £253 million of true philanthropic funding already raised since 2011 from donors in 76 countries.

The launch event on 15 September was a brilliant way to announce our ambitions to the world. It was a public event open to all, that brought together a very broad mix of people including donors and supporters, alumni, staff and students, and members of the general public, all coming together at UCL's Logan Hall to debate 'How Will Society Survive to the 22nd Century?'.

The topic was a great way to demonstrate the breadth of expertise and impact that UCL has, and huge thanks go to our star academic speakers Professor Lucie Green, Professor Henrietta Moore, Dr Kevin Fong, Professor John Hardy and Professor Philippe Sands, not only for their outstanding talks, but also for their brilliant and insightful contributions to a lively question and answer session. 

It was expertly hosted by Noreena Hertz, a UCL alumna, honorary professor and ITN economics editor.

The popularity of the event was demonstrated by the queues to get in - both the Logan Hall and a spill-over space were packed, and I have never seen so many people in that lecture theatre. It was UCL at its very best. 

If you weren't there, you can watch it on the video below. I thoroughly recommend it - it will remind you why we are all here, working in one of the best universities in the world.

The event ended with the announcement that we intend to raise £600 million for UCL's big priorities as outlined by our strategy UCL 2034 - medical research and translation, transformative capital projects and expanded student support, shaping the future of London, and our ability to bring together diverse groups to think differently and disruptively. 

Pledges of £2.5 million have already been achieved in the two weeks since the launch, so we are off to a flying start. Thank you to our Vice-Provost (Development) Lori Houlihan and her team for putting the whole event together and for getting the Campaign for UCL to this launch point. 

The Campaign launch event also coincided with the Iceland Dementia Ball, hosted by Malcolm Walker, Iceland's CEO and Founder. Iceland is the leading member of our Retail Partnership, which raises money for dementia research at UCL from the 5p plastic bag levy. 

It was an excellent event that really pushed the boat out to raise funding for dementia research, with help from star names including Joanna Lumley, whose fantastic message you can watch on the Office of the Vice-Provost (Development) YouTube channel.

Huge thanks from us all go to Malcolm, who is an energetic and passionate crusader for dementia research at UCL, and to the Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation and all its Trustees.

So despite the uncertainty we are currently living with, it's important to remember that we have so much to celebrate and so much to look forward to. I will give the final word to Kevin Fong, who summed up brilliantly the adventurous, pioneering spirit of UCL: "Accept the uncertainty and be the best explorer you can be".

Professor Michael Arthur
President & Provost

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