UCL News


Vice-Provost's View – Reflecting on the past five years of UCL’s global engagement

9 September 2020

Dame Nicola Brewer reflects on her six-and-a-half years at UCL and UCL’s first five-year Global Engagement Strategy, as she steps down as Vice-Provost (International) at the end of September.

Dame Nicola Brewer

Over the past six months, everyone at UCL has been adjusting to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Our Global Engagement Office (GEO) has focussed on how best to maintain and develop international partnerships, which used to depend on face-to-face interactions, through virtual means. It’s just as well that ‘disruptive thinking’ is a core part of UCL’s identity, as is expertise in epidemiology, virology and public heath generally, which our new School for the Health of the Public will draw on. We’ve learned some early lessons about engagement in a virtual world and discovered some welcome opportunities to accelerate the sustainability agenda that I’d like to share before I leave.

Like with friendships and family relations, we’ve found that we can go online to keep key partnerships going. Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp as well as email all work well. Old-fashioned telephone calls add helpful variety. And they all show that the time and effort we invested, institutionally over the previous five years and by individual academics over decades, in building and strengthening strategic global partnerships has returned real value to UCL during the pandemic. We’ve received donations of Personal Protective Equipment and COVID-19 testing kits from a number of universities and have been sharing best practice and information on managing the crisis and plans for exiting lockdown with a range of our global partners. We’ve initiated and responded to discussions about new collaborations on COVID-related research, as well as warm letters of support. I strongly suspect the response wouldn’t have been as wide-ranging or as supportive five years ago, before UCL had a Global Engagement Strategy (GES).

Partnerships that make a difference

The strategic partnerships UCL has co-created around the world, with Peking University and University of Toronto, the Max Planck Society, Yale, the National University of Singapore and others, are some of the things I’m most proud of GEO for building during my six and half years at UCL. True partnership, based on mutual trust and respect, takes time. When you’ve got it, it becomes immediately apparent during difficult times. Partners reach out to each other, emphasise and support each other. They also create opportunities to further research and teaching, providing a diversity of perspectives which speeds up the process of discovery. Over the past five years, we’ve set up match-funding schemes with eight partners (with three more in the pipeline) to encourage more joint activity. One of the ways we’re seeing impact from this is in the number of co-authored papers with strategically important partners, which is significantly higher over the past five years than the trend across all of UCL’s international partners.

Delivering a global student experience

I’m also proud of how the GES has helped UCL to deliver the kind of global experience that our students want. In 2014, the three top asks from our students were: increased student mobility opportunities; greater clarity on international student fees; and academic English support. We met all three, working with dedicated professional colleagues from across UCL. The Finance team led efforts to make international tuition fees more predictable. Student Registry Services exceeded their mobility target a year early (this was of course before COVID-19 slammed the breaks on non-essential international travel). 30% of our undergraduates now have the opportunity to study overseas during their time with us. We now have to think even harder about how to deliver student mobility opportunities after Brexit and COVID-19 and in more sustainable ways. The Academic Communication Centre run by UCL’s Centre for Languages and International Education in the Institute for Education gets great feedback on the 4,000+ workshops it has run since its inception in November 2019.

Working with talented people

The GES was only able to achieve all of this (and a lot more) through the hard work of hundreds of amazing academic and professional services colleagues across the university, all keen to collaborate across UCL Faculties and globally to make a positive difference in the world. This includes but goes even wider than the networks of Vice-Deans (International) (VDIs) and Regional Pro-Vice-Provosts (Regional PVPs) that GEO developed with the support of Deans and faculty.

It also includes the 650+ UCL academics who received Global Engagement and Partner Funds to work with 560+ different organisations in 90+ countries. To date, GES funding schemes of £974k in total have generated £32m in external research funding. This figure doesn’t include the early outcomes of seed-funded Cities Partnerships Programme projects which have led to joint research funding applications, ranging from €12k to €10m. All of this seed funding is accelerating our access to external research funds, which in turn enables our academics to increase UCL’s global impact. The impact and popularity of this seed funding makes it a strong category for continuing in UCL’s next five- year GES.

It’s been a real pleasure and privilege to build an outstanding and high performing team in GEO. Their expertise, energy and enthusiasm matches that of diplomats and international development professionals I’ve worked with in the past. We’ve worked incredibly hard, with a small budget, to facilitate the fabulous international outreach of UCL’s amazing academic community. Over the last year, it has been a similar privilege to support Lori Houlihan’s great teams in OVPA/CAM. I’ve also loved getting to know the IOE better, and working closely with Becky Francis and now Sue Rogers.

Since March this year, GEO have worked with academic colleagues across UCL to re-imagine how to stay globally engaged in an era of lockdown, a future of much more limited travel and face-to-face interaction, a shifting world order, and continued change in the UK’s HE sector. GEO colleagues, VDIs and Regional PVPs have delivered four virtual global engagement events during June and July: the UCL African Partners Summit, NUS-UCL Virtual Neurobiology Symposium, European perspectives on COVID-19 webinars and UCL Latin America Online Lecture Series. The team are now working with members of the academic networks and with colleagues in OVPR to co-deliver the Beyond Boundaries: Realising the UN Sustainable Development Goals conference in October. Taking our engagement online has enabled more global partners to join and participate in events that would normally be held on campus: we’ve been able to attract high calibre international speakers without incurring the cost of flights and accommodation, or increasing our, and their, carbon footprint. We’ve found that it’s easier for busy people, who already know the value of working with UCL colleagues, to give up an hour or two of their time, than to plan to be with us in person which would mean taking several days away from their own university or home base.

In July, we sent our latest ‘UCL 2034 Principal Theme 6’ report to Council, which looked back at the first five years of the Global Engagement Strategy. You can read more about what UCL has achieved through the GES on the UCL Global website. So now feels like the right time for me to move on and for the next President and Provost and the next Vice Provost (International) to decide how to build on the success of the last five years and shape the next five. I’m totally confident that the world is going to hear even more about UCL’s global impact in the years to come, and I’ll be cheering from the side-lines and retweeting all the good news stories on @UCL_Global. It’s brilliant news, for UCL, for GEO and OVPA and for global engagement and advancement generally that Professor Dame Hazel Genn has been appointed as UCL’s next Vice Provost (International and Advancement). Hazel brings exactly the right experience, knowledge and skills to what is a huge and fascinating role in this world-class university.

What I have valued most of all are two things that I can, I hope, take with me as I leave UCL: a lot of fun memories, and the lasting friendships that I’ve been lucky enough to make, at UCL and among our strategic global partners. Friendship, like partnership, is built on trust and respect. Our planet needs both of those qualities now more than ever and we should all try hard to recognise, create and value them. Universities are perfect places to keep them alive and thriving.