Provost’s View 03/10/13: Tackling space issues at UCL

3 October 2013

After only a short time as Provost, it is with apologies that I turn to an early and hopefully premature discussion of my potential demise, but I am fairly certain that if my departure from this earth were to occur sooner rather than later, my tombstone would read; ‘Professor Michael Arthur, President & Provost of UCL (2013–?). He died of space and estates issues’.

It has become a standing joke that other leaders at UCL try not to mention ‘space and estates’ in my presence because they know the subject will already have filled much of my day. They are generally correct, but in many ways this is a very fortunate problem to have, because it has been borne of great success for UCL over the past decade with significant expansion of research, innovation and student numbers. On that note, it was wonderful to see the campus spring to life last week as the new students arrived for enrolment and their lively welcoming fair dominated the quad. I felt a real sense of a creative and diverse university community coupled with the natural optimism of a new academic session.

Professor Michael Arthur in the Flaxman gallery

You will all have your top favourites, your bêtes noires, and your personal concerns with respect to space and facilities, but on my current journey around campus I have seen perhaps the best in the Octagon, the main library and Central House, whilst, to date, vying for bottom of the estates league are Wates House and Queen’s Square House – both buildings are frankly rather tired after many years of great service. I should emphasise that I have visited only four faculties to date, with more to come next week, but it has been incredibly helpful to be out and about, meeting people and hearing about their activities, issues, and concerns.

So, how do we go about solving such a complicated problem? First, we must become a university that tackles its space issues ‘head on’ and it is incumbent on all of us to contribute to a programme that helps to create a dramatically improved estate over the next decade. We are not starting from scratch. Our Estates team has been labouring under intense pressure and inadequate resource to do as much as they can, and there is plenty of evidence of the quality of their work in projects that have been completed. We must all work constructively with our colleagues in Estates and help them to move things forward as quickly as possible. There is so much to gain from getting that right.

I fear that the sums of money involved in further developing our estate in central London will be huge, and so we must put together an estates strategy and plan that is wholly convincing if we are to succeed, such that government, HEFCE, industry, alumni and philanthropic donors are all queuing up to make their contribution. Simultaneously, we must also handle our own finances skilfully, such that we have the headroom to invest in our future, as well as borrowing wisely. When the year-end accounts are published, don’t think ‘surplus’, think ‘essential investment margin’.

As a senior team, we have also been discussing how to streamline the complex issue of prioritising different estates projects and make such decisions more transparent. I am confident that we can do that in a way that is based on sound principles. For example, strategic importance, estates projects that improve the student experience, tackling the worst first, projects that are enabling of others in the ‘chess game’ of estates moves, space efficiency gains, contribution to carbon reduction and environmental sustainability, statutory requirements, health and safety, full or significant external funding, are all elements that may feature in our thinking about how to prioritise. I am also keen that we link final decisions to the important work that already goes on in each faculty and the three schools to identify top estates priorities. I have suggested that all Deans are involved collectively in helping to make the final decisions and we are thus in the process of constructing a new ‘Estates Prioritisation Group’ to guide our choices.

Hitherto there has also been a lot of really important work, as outlined in the ‘Bloomsbury Masterplan’. I am sure that much of that is still valid and highly desirable, but I also think it is important that other elements of our Estates Strategy are updated and improved. Many have noticed the recent acquisitions of the LSE and others, and have reasonably asked if we are doing anything similar. Rest assured there is a very active programme of bidding for, and hopefully winning, existing properties to help ease our immediate needs. Ultimately though, we need to get ahead of the game, to become even more proactive, and to ground our thinking about our estate in the long-term strategy of UCL and to create a single integrated estates strategy and plan.

New students in the quad

New students in the quad during the Welcome Fair

I have been giving our overall level of ambition, our vision and the key elements of our strategy some considerable thought, both before and since I arrived. One of my questions on my journey around UCL has been to ask assembled teams of staff, many of them in leadership positions, if they have read and are aware of the key elements of the ‘UCL Council White Paper 2011–2021’. The short answer is that only a relatively small number of hands go up each time. The document contains everything that you might expect in an institutional strategy and more, but clearly it is not well read and thus probably not adequately understood on the ground.

If we are to convince our Council and our key stakeholders to move forward with a significant and possibly massive programme of investment in the future of UCL, then I think we need a strategy that is owned and understood by us all. It must also be distinctive, exciting, and easy to communicate, as well as being grounded in the history and values of UCL. I would suggest that ownership and willingness to move ahead and, where necessary, to accept change, are just as, if not more, important than content. But we don’t just need an exciting and wonderful strategy – we must turn our thoughts into a workable plan throughout the organisation, building many key academic and service elements from the bottom up. We must also develop both an appetite and an ability to implement key improvements effectively.

The senior team of UCL, some of our key service directors, some members of our Council and I, have already been discussing how we build on the white paper, update it along the way, and create a strategy process that is widely owned and understood around UCL by all our staff and students alike. Our initial ideas about how we might approach this will feature in next week’s Provost’s View.

Professor Michael Arthur
UCL President & Provost

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UCL President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur opens the 2013/14 Lunch Hour Lecture programme today (3 October), outlining his vision for the future of UCL. The public lecture takes place at 1pm at the UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, with doors opening at 12.15pm. Alternatively, you can watch the lecture live from your desk at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lhl/streamed/live_view/

The lecture will later be made available for viewing at UCL's Lunch Hour Lecture channel  http://www.youtube.com/UCLLHL