Provost's Long View: My vision for UCL
10 October 2013
In the first edition of a new monthly column, President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur outlines his initial thoughts on how the university can build on a record of tremendous success to address the challenges ahead.
It’s a very great honour to take on the role of UCL President & Provost of this fabulous academic institution. I’ve been here for a month now and I’m having a great time. I had the opportunity to speak directly to more than 400 of you at the opening Lunch Hour Lecture of the term, with several hundred more watching the live stream.
In this first monthly Long View piece for staff and students, I want to start outlining my thoughts on how we continue to build a compelling vision for UCL. And to seek your active engagement in the process, the appetite for which has already been shown by the questions that came in before, and via live tweets, during my Lunch Hour Lecture.
I have inherited two key platforms that form a very sound base from which to build the vision. The first of those is the values of UCL, which are outlined in the White Paper. They are: a commitment to excellence and achievement on merit; fairness and equity; diversity; collegiality and community building; inclusiveness; openness; ethically acceptable standards of conduct; fostering innovation and creativity; developing leadership; and, finally, environmental sustainability.
That’s a wonderful list and the first part of my vision would be to uphold those values personally and promote them very widely across UCL. There are two areas where more attention or perhaps a new or different approach are required: diversity – particularly in regards to gender and to black and minority ethnic issues – and fair access for students of all backgrounds to UCL.
I am particularly interested in students coming to us from low-income families and low-participation neighbourhoods. I think we would be incredibly proud if we could bring even more students from all backgrounds, irrespective of their ability to pay, into this institution. I think we need to do more work to find more talented students from around London, of course, but also from around the country as well.
The second key platform I’m inheriting is a record of performance and an outstanding reputation for this institution. We can regard ourselves as one of the top 20 institutions in the world, and certainly a leading world-class institution. Research income has also witnessed incredible growth.
A key element of this platform, which is deeply impressive, is the ability to work across disciplinary boundaries and create inter-disciplinary research at all levels but exemplified by the Grand Challenges. That was a very clever and galvanising idea and it has gained UCL a phenomenal reputation. So, as I see it, we are a major force and a significant player on a global scale.
We must maintain and grow our research performance, but we must continue to foster the permissive, autonomous culture that has allowed that level of activity to develop. Alongside our research excellence, we must foster and grow our entrepreneurship and innovation, and we have to do that through identifying, protecting and exploiting our intellectual property.
In order to persuade the government to reinvest in research and come up to internationally competitive levels of funding, we need to provide them with the evidence that research does lead to innovation and economic growth. Those of you from the arts, humanities and social sciences might be a little bit worried about that rather mechanistic approach – of course, I understand the importance of creating knowledge for the sake of knowledge. But we also need to explain the value of that to society and build relationships with government that allow them to continue funding in those academic areas too.
These two platforms – the values and our academic excellence and performance – allow us the privilege and the pleasure of thinking about a vision for UCL over a much longer timescale than would be typical in an academic environment. So, instead of thinking of just five to ten years, I think we should be thinking of a twenty to thirty-year time frame and the opportunity to make a real difference on a global scale. We certainly have the opportunity over that time frame to create a comprehensive university that remains of global importance for decades and possibly centuries to come.
Areas for development
As well as reflecting on our undoubted strengths, I want to touch on five areas where I think we need to focus and either improve our profile, our performance or both. Some of these are already going quite well, but some need quite serious discussion, refinement and then effective implementation.
Education and Student Experience
We need not only to be good at teaching our students, but also to become really good at inspiring them. We need to lift them into places that they didn’t know they could go, and a mechanism to do that in this university is to build a really close relationship between the research that we do and the education that our students receive.
We should move to involving our students in the research process in great detail much earlier in their courses than we currently do; we should move from a research-led kind of pedagogy into a research-based pedagogy. If we do that we can take our students right to the edge of knowledge – we can get them to understand what knowledge is, how it’s created and how it changes with time, and we can teach them how to deal with that uncertainty.
We can use it to develop their creativity, critical independent thinking and problem-solving skills. We can build their confidence, their ability to communicate and work in a team and we can create those highly desirable, highly employable graduates – many of whom will become leaders of the future. Because we are UCL, we can, if we want to, become the very best at this in the world. We can use the outstanding excellence of our research base, and I think we should embed this concept in the DNA of this institution.
There are other aspects of the student experience that need attention at UCL. The recent National Student Survey results were poor; there is a great deal to do. I believe it is very important in a highly competitive environment that we get this right.
We need to ensure a very high-quality student experience in both their education and other aspects of their time at UCL that matches our performance in research, and we have to do it without the research performance falling away.
Our international approach
A university’s international strategy is a complex issue. I do acknowledge that the UCL niche model of research-intensive overseas campuses associated with postgraduate education such as UCL Qatar, UCL Australia and our support of Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan has, to a degree, been successful; but I think we need to think deeper than that. Our international strategy needs a unifying theme, and something that is a bit more distinctive and perhaps consistent with our history and our values.
We are currently discussing a different approach, one in which UCL becomes more of a helpful partner, where we give rather than take from our overseas interest and activities. So we should think about partner activity and working with the Global South – expanding, for example, the concepts and the work of the Development Planning Unit or the Grand Challenge of Global Health. In other words, a more systematic, organised, problem-solving, partnership approach to our international activities.
A generous partner
I like the idea that we can be very generous in our partnership approach. We could be generous in our style, flexibility and willingness to listen to partners and engage new ones; we can also think about being generous financially. The Francis Crick Institute and the London Centre for Nanotechnology are two examples and I think we need to do a lot more of that style of partnership approach.
We also need to think about our role in London as a city. London has the opportunity to be the number one destination for higher education in the world and within that and alongside our key partners such as the NHS and UCL Partners, we also have the opportunity to be the number one city in the world for excellence in biomedicine and health.
There is also a strong desire being expressed by the Mayor to create a significant, and perhaps different, post-Olympic legacy. We need to decide whether or not we want to put UCL at the centre of that concept, especially if, over the time frame, it allows us to develop new activities and partnerships in research, entrepreneurship, innovation and education that we simply would not have the room to house here in Bloomsbury.
The role of alumni
I also want to emphasise the notion of UCL as a lifelong community. Our alumni and our other committed supporters are a major force for good for UCL and we should work closely with them to create a university that they would be very proud of. Fundraising at this university is critically important; we have an endowment that is far too small for a university of this reputation and importance in the country, and I certainly feel the need to do everything that I can to grow that as urgently as possible.
In summary, we need to move from broad ideas of what UCL might look like over that fifteen to thirty-year time frame into building a more comprehensive strategy. The White Paper is a superb document but it is 51 pages long; if we’re going to achieve at the very highest level, we need a strategy that everyone knows about, that people have contributed to and something that we can then turn into a plan that we can effectively implement.
This process has already started, and input from staff and students will be very important to me. The many comments and questions I’ve had already in my travels around UCL, and through the questions submitted for my Lunch Hour Lecture have already been invaluable. You can see some of my initial responses on the video of the Lecture, and I intend to reflect on the other issues you’ve raised in both my weekly and monthly communications.
More formally, when we’ve got an initial draft of the revised White Paper, we will open it up to consultation through some open meetings, webcasts, perhaps a Newsnight-type event where people can send their questions in and quiz me about it - and we’ll also, of course, have an open website for your comments.
And that’s the point – harnessing the combined intellectual might of this institution is something I am very keen to achieve. If we can do that, pulling together something that we all believe in, then I believe that our future will be assured.
Professor Michael Arthur
UCL President & Provost
To watch the Q&A session that followed Professor Arthur's lecture, visit the UCL LHL YouTube channel.