UCL News


Two years since lockdown: reflections on a tough time and our future

24 March 2022

President & Provost Dr Michael Spence reflects on the changes that have affected us since the first COVID lockdown as well as ongoing challenges, and announces a special staff event on May 31 to thank our community and celebrate UCL's resilient spirit.

UCL Provost Dr Michael Spence standing in front of the UCL Portico

By President & Provost, Dr Michael Spence

It’s two years on since the start of the first lockdown and it feels as if the world is just trying to catch its breath. Our growing dependence on technology, and the way that during the pandemic it has changed our expectations of the possible, makes life busier than ever before (this morning, by 9am, I had had a Korean lesson on Zoom with a teacher in Australia, done the school run, and rushed to a coffee shop to welcome people from all over the world to a UCL seminar on my phone). The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have also revealed underlying weaknesses in our economic system and the fragility of our global political order. The effects of climate change are becoming more evident every year.

In all that, it is easy to be discouraged. But at UCL, we have come through the pandemic pretty well - thanks to the creativity, commitment and adaptability of our staff and the determination and flexibility of our students. During the pandemic, our research income grew, we submitted to the REF, we kept our campus open, we helped our students achieve their learning objectives, and we took care of them and of one another.

Our community has shown that by coming together it is capable of navigating, and even flourishing in, difficult times. If the last two years have taught us anything, it is how important our colleagues and friends are to us and how much we have missed seeing them face-to-face.

In that spirit, we are holding a special Platinum Jubilee staff party on 31 May to say thank you. This event will enable us to come together to share our experiences and celebrate our wonderful community. It has been scheduled for half term so that staff can also bring their family if they wish. More information will be coming soon, so please save the date.

At the same time, it is also right to acknowledge that we continue to face challenging times. Inflation is growing and university salaries have not kept pace. Our domestic fee income has been frozen by the government for three years at a time of rising costs. And at UCL we have daily problems caused by a £600 million backlog of repairs and maintenance and decades of under-investment in our physical and digital infrastructure.

I have no doubt that we can get through these challenges together, just as we have in the last few years. We are committed to paying fairer salaries, and in the national pay-bargaining process that begins shortly, we will push strongly for an increase well above levels we have seen in recent years. Investing in our staff and students also means investing in the physical and digital infrastructure that supports them, and so we must continue to work on our infrastructure problems. If we do not, we risk undermining their world-class work and studies.

All that will involve making choices, not only between things that are more and less desirable, but even between things that are equally good. And it will involve phasing our strategic investment more slowly than we might like. But if we manage our resources carefully, if we forget the old boundaries between the ‘local’ and the ‘centre’, and in processes such as our current strategy consultation try and find the best solutions for the institution as a whole, I am sure that in another two years’ time we will have even more to celebrate. 

I love working at UCL. I admire the creative grit that has brought us to where we are, and I am convinced that, by working together, we will emerge from the current uncertainties even better equipped to serve our students, our communities, and our world.