UCL News


Provost’s Update: UCL’s political engagement

1 March 2023

The first in a series of monthly updates from the President & Provost, Dr Michael Spence.

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

Dear colleagues,

It has been suggested that I might, once a month, drop you a line about the context in which we are operating and what we are doing to address it. In so far as is possible in such a large community, I hope that this can be a conversation and would welcome any and all feedback, including on any topics or questions you would like me to address.

I thought I would start with two questions that I am often asked. How much do Whitehall and Westminster understand about both the needs, and the contribution, of our university communities? And what are we doing to ensure that they do?

The answer to the first of those questions is shockingly little. When I came back to the UK after 12 years in Australia, I have to say that I was taken aback by what seemed like a deterioration in the social licence to operate of the UK universities. Many people did not seem to understand the value for money that the domestic undergraduate fee represents, or the extent to which our domestic undergraduate education and our research are supported by international student fees. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, the traditional political consensus that our universities are core to an innovative economy was no longer taken as a sine qua non.

This is surprising because, even in the ‘jobs-and-growth’ terms that are the stock and trade of politicians, far less when you add our enormous social and cultural contribution, a university such as UCL is a major asset to our community. As a London Economics study showed last year, UCL alone contributes £9.9 billion annually to the UK economy and supports 18,000 jobs, 7,000 of them outside London. In terms of economic contribution, that is the trade boost of the London Olympics every year. And, of course, we are the largest and most comprehensive higher education provider in the UK, with 80% of our graduates moving on to regulated professions.

In the past UCL has done its lobbying mainly through the Russell Group and UUK but, while it is useful to be able to act as a block, my experience is that the personal relationships are absolutely crucial. Building those across the political spectrum has been a focus of my first two years at UCL. The ease with which I have been able to do this demonstrates the power of the UCL brand. We have been able to get access to ministers or their offices to address matters of concern, explain our actions and approaches and get our perspective heard in an informal way, and all this can definitely have a nudge effect, though we have to be realistic about where the sector is on the Government’s, and indeed the public’s, list of funding priorities. Thanks to one-on-one meetings with ministers and attending networking events such as the party conferences, I have been able to get time and establish some rapport with most of the main players in both Conservative and Labour (both helped and hindered by the frequency of ministerial change last year!)

But where UCL can really leverage our influence is though our expertise, and a big focus for me has been on offering our support in a variety of ways to help ministers or shadow ministers get across a complex portfolio or carry out sustained work to support robust, evidence-based policy development. We have been showing in our work both with local Boroughs, and with the Government and Opposition, the huge intellectual resource that sits within the university on everything from cities to foreign policy. Engaging in conversation about things that matter most to the politicians gives us licence to talk about higher education policy. Our very small public affairs function has been a great help in this activity, working with people from across the university.

Speaking up for international students

Of course, this is always a balancing act, and working hard to have a constructive and non-combative relationship with government does not mean we do not speak out on issues of particular concern, including doing so publicly if we feel it is necessary. That is the case right now, with concerning rumours coming out of Whitehall that international students will be subject to greater restrictions as part of a focus on reducing immigration. Leaving aside the question of whether it is useful or wise to include international students in these statistics in the first place, being able to attract incredible global talent can only be a boon for the UK and the fact that the Government may be considering such an act of national self-harm is quite extraordinary.

The two measures said to be under consideration are restrictions on the ability to bring dependents to the UK for the duration of their study and changes to the graduate visa so that students can stay and work in the UK for only six months after graduation rather than the current two years. The latter in particular would be devastating to our competitiveness in the international market for these top students, and would send a highly unwelcoming message that they will certainly hear loud and clear.

Of course, there is a bottom line to worry about; UCL depends on the tuition fees paid by international students. However, their value is so much greater than that. Having diversity of cultural perspective and experience within our community underpins innovation and understanding, and enhances the readiness of all our students for the global careers on which they will be embarking. And when they go home, as the vast majority of international students do, they take with them a connection to the UK that provides long-term benefit and soft power to us as a nation.

Thankfully the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is making positive noises that she understands this very well; we have conveyed our thanks and offered our support to make the case.

University Management Committee discussions

UMC, the university’s senior management team, meets weekly to focus on key decisions, planning and issues and I will share the top decisions and discussions coming out of those meetings in my emails to you. Recent meetings have covered:

  • Ahead of Council’s discussion of the university financial strategy, and in light of Academic Board’s advice to Council on the subject, UMC considered its recommendations on the appropriate balance between increases in student numbers, increases in unregulated fees and further savings programmes. The outcome of those discussions were presented to Council and, in part, informed their decision to approve the Financial Strategy
  • UMC has also discussed and approved the governance for ensuring that we can deliver on the 2022-27 Strategic Plan, and more on this will be published in the coming weeks, following discussions with Council in March
  • UMC keeps reporting of sickness absence under regular review to identify trends early; the data here is not as comprehensive as we would wish and there was a discussions of ways in which we might encourage staff to report sickness directly. It is worth noting here that sickness absence can now be notified in around 10 seconds through the Inside UCL app
  • Confirmation that we will hold our graduation celebrations at ExCel and the Royal Festival Hall in 2023 and support for confirming dates early to our students. Agreement to freeze the cost of graduation guest tickets at £35, (no cost for graduand tickets)
  • There has also been regular discussion of the impact of strike action on the university, including the need for all departments to ensure that strike action is recorded appropriately so that lost learning claims by students can be assessed accurately. As a result of these discussions, the Vice-Provost (Education & Student Experience) has been leading work on identifying the information that needs to be captured and considering with faculties and departments how this can best be achieved. The question of financial compensation for lost learning is increasingly prominent for students so by ensuring they have accurate data, faculties and departments are putting themselves in the best possible position to consider claims in a timely manner, and to challenge any claims that are unwarranted.

Thank you to everyone who read this far and please do let me have your feedback.

Best wishes,

Dr Michael Spence
UCL President & Provost