Provost’s View 31/10/2013: Listening to our students and staff

31 October 2013

Two months into being the new UCL President and Provost, I remain on a steep learning curve and am still coming across some aspects of my role and responsibilities for the first time.

A double first

The past two weeks have seen me give about five presentations and/or question and answer sessions in various far-flung corners of UCL and I have also been to my first meetings of Academic Committee and of Academic Board.

Students Provost View

These latter two form the kernel of our academic governance structures and as such they are both important bodies in our university. Academic Committee is chaired by Anthony Smith and it is currently focused predominantly, but not exclusively, on education. In contrast, Academic Board is more wide-ranging in its focus and it is chaired by me.

It is true that if everyone who is eligible to turn up actually attended (over 1,000) we would have to hire the Royal Festival Hall to accommodate everyone, but fortunately the 70–80 attendees managed to fit comfortably into the J. Z. Young lecture theatre (one of our largest lecture theatre venues, which seats 187).

Chairing Academic Board is, on the face of it, a slightly daunting task, but as a veteran of some 45 senate meetings in Leeds, I was perhaps a bit more confident than I should have been.

Paraphrasing JFK

I gave a reasonably lengthy opening statement during which I somewhat cheekily mis-quoted JFK with the all-time (adapted) classic, “Ask not what your university can do for you, ask what you can do for your university.”

It makes the simple point that we are a community of like-minded individuals (academics, professional and support staff) bound together by our desire to inspire and educate our students, to discover new knowledge and to be creative in our innovation, and that we must respect and help each other to achieve those outcomes.

I am happy to report that I really enjoyed Academic Board. The standard of debate was high and, as a new Provost, I felt that there was considerable interest and support for some of the ideas that I have been expressing via this column, in my Lunch Hour Lecture and in my opening statement.

Following the latter, there was even a round of applause at Academic Board, for which I was very grateful, even though I did have to encourage an initial, stifled lone effort from the floor!

National Student Survey

The really important business at both Academic Committee and Academic Board was a discussion of our poor performance in the National Student Survey (NSS) for yet another year.

The graph (below right) shows our performance compared to the rest of the sector and it says it all. I used to chair the NSS at national level (2005–2008) and I subscribe to the view that although it has its limitations, our results are telling us something really important. I would strongly advise that we listen to that message and resolve to improve our performance across the institution.

NSS Provost View

As with any form of institution wide assessment, there are, of course, some parts of the university that have achieved very high scores, including a few that have achieved 100% for overall satisfaction.

High performers

I would highlight Archaeology, Aural and Oral Studies, English, Laws, Mathematics and Statistics and Science and Technology Studies – all of whom scored 100% or close to it and were in the top quartile of performance nationally in their discipline.

They were followed closely by Anthropology, Classics, Medicine and Psychology – all of whom scored more than 90% and were in the second quartile.

I have had the opportunity to visit each of these high performing departments and disciplines (albeit briefly, so far) and it is clear that they all share a few key characteristics.

They all put their students and their education at the centre of what they do, they demonstrate on a daily basis that they really care about their students, their education and their future.

They also listen carefully to their students and support their student academic representatives (via the STAR system, run jointly with UCLU); respond to student feedback; and, when appropriate, they change delivery to improve their educational provision.

My conclusion is that high performance in the NSS is really about hearts, minds and attitudes, and the culture of valuing education as an equal partner with research, enterprise and innovation.

Which way would you like it to go and what do you think is the best way forward for UCL? My view is very clear; we must learn from our high performers, resolve to address this key issue across the disciplinary breadth of UCL and we need to do this urgently.

UCL Staff Survey

One final issue I’d like to address this week is very much linked to the discussion above, in that it concerns staff satisfaction. Next week, the UCL Staff Survey is launched, running from 4–22 November. I encourage all members of staff to take this opportunity to give your views.

In return, I give you my personal commitment that I, and my leadership team, will listen to what you have to say and to take any necessary action as a result.

I have been struck by the commitment and loyalty of staff across UCL in my first few weeks here, and the Staff Survey gives us all a great opportunity to build on this tremendous platform and remove any barriers that may be preventing us reaching our full potential. Your views really do count.

Professor Michael Arthur
UCL President & Provost

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