Provost's Long View: What makes a university world class?

7 November 2013

In my first two months as President & Provost of UCL, I have seen a great deal that confirms the view that we work and study in a truly world-class university.

President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur

Every day, our research is expanding the frontiers of knowledge; at its best, our teaching is challenging and is inspiring the next generation of leaders; and our engagement with our partners and society is having real impact.

I have also commented on some of the challenges that face us in delivering truly cutting-edge performance in a number of areas of activity. As we embark on a process to refresh our strategy, it is perhaps timely to reflect on what makes a university world class; to examine some of the challenges of the next 30 years; and to ask whether we can predict what the future holds for leading global universities?

The key characteristics

There are approximately 17,000 universities in the world, but taking the various measures used to rank them – and, of course rankings only measure what can be counted, not necessarily what counts – the top 100–200 can be described as world class, whereas perhaps only the top 25 could be described as being truly world leading. Most observers would put UCL clearly within this latter group.

In a 2009 World Bank report The challenge of establishing world-class universities, Jamil Salmi argues that they share a number of common factors. They have a high concentration of talent, students and academic staff; possess abundant resources for a comprehensive learning environment; produce advanced research; and enjoy favourable governance with autonomy, which encourages strategic vision, innovation and flexibility.

Research

If we begin by exploring the research side of world-class universities, they typically produce work at the leading edge, with internationally peer-reviewed funding and frequently involving high-quality colleagues from different disciplines and outstanding partners.

According to Salmi, these universities operate in global markets and enjoy an international reputation for research and teaching that is recognised not only by peer institutions, but also outside HE.

Staff in UCL CABI

They boast a number of international leaders in their fields and many world-class departments, which enables them to produce innovative ideas in basic and applied research in abundance and ground-breaking research with impact.

Future leaders

World-class universities attract the most able students and have a high proportion of international and postgraduate research students. They also produce the very best graduates.

But I believe that being world class should also be about the relationship between the research that we do and the education that our students receive. By involving students in the research process (a more research-based pedagogy), we produce graduates who are critical independent thinkers and learners, highly competent at problem solving, excellent communicators, and thus have all the potential to be great contributors to society.

In essence, we are involved in creating the leaders of tomorrow. I have an image in my mind of watching the future Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister walking into Number 11 and Number 10 shortly after the general election, and they’re both UCL graduates!

The importance of autonomy

Beyond research and teaching, other key characteristics of world-class universities concern the way in which they are run, with a sound financial base and diversified income streams.

Typically, they will have excellent leadership (spread widely across the institution) and governance, with clear strategic vision. Equally important is the autonomy of the host country’s university system and the competitive nature of the environment in which they operate.

We’re very privileged in this country, in that we are afforded a great deal of autonomy by our government, relatively speaking. Of course, we are regulated through the Higher Education Funding Council, but we are one of the most autonomous university systems in the world.

We can run this institution, with the guidance of the UCL Council, in ways that that will bring most benefit to UCL, our students and our society, without any fear of direct interference by local or national government.

We can be free-thinking, highly creative and, at times, critical of our own government without fear for the consequences.

Such a high degree of autonomy does not exist in the university systems of many countries in the world. Even in the US, a lot of the state universities are more highly regulated by their state legislature and in the German university system, regional government plays a really significant regulatory role.

The autonomy we have in this country and the healthy level of competition for good staff, the best students and research funding are, in my view, factors that really drive our university system forward.

The changing environment

So, having outlined some of the key characteristics of world class universities, we need to think about the future and how our global environment might change.

Over the next 30 years, the world will need to address some very complex problems.

My list would include climate change and the human response to it, or otherwise; food and water security; carbon reduction, sustainable energy and the ongoing depletion of fossil fuels; improving intercultural understanding; prospects for sustainable economic prosperity and the equitable distribution of wealth; the social consequences of ageing, obesity and dementia; and the promotion of global health.

This daunting list is not intended to be comprehensive and you may wish to add your own views and concerns.

These challenges are enormous, but our experience at UCL shows how we can begin to tackle them by working across disciplinary boundaries.

We are already focusing, through the Grand Challenges, on many of these issues and it is interesting to note that other universities are now imitating our approach.

The challenges for HE

There are also issues of more immediate direct relevance to the changing HE environment; these include rising costs, the massive globalisation of higher education, and the huge levels of investment in higher education elsewhere around the world – all of which place serious pressure back on the UK higher education system and, in turn, on UCL.

There will certainly be increasing competition for everything that we need to remain successful and it will potentially become increasingly more difficult for us to maintain our position in the global top 25.

As the Russell Group pointed out in its 2012 report, Jewels in the crown: the importance and characteristics of the UK’s world class universities, while the average annual expenditure on HE by OECD countries is 1.5%, for the UK it was only 1.2% in 2008, down from 1.3% in 1997.

In the current straitened economic times, we can expect nothing more than a flat cash investment in science and research for the duration of this parliament – yet China will invest 1.7% and the US, 2.3% of GDP.

The impact of technology

Another significant issue is the rapid development of educational technology and whether or not this will be disruptive to higher education in its current form. There is significant political interest in the development of online education, particularly in the form of Massive Online Open Courses, colloquially known as MOOCs.

Many politicians around the globe see such technological advances as a much cheaper way of delivering higher education on a grand scale.

Moreover, many commentators have predicted that MOOCs and other forms of online education will ultimately lead to ‘the end of the campus university’.

Not to beat about the bush, my view is that this analysis is complete nonsense, for reasons that I will explain.

Such commentators are confusing the provision of ‘content and information’ with an ‘education’ and the important emphasis that we put on our desire to inspire our students, help them to become critical independent learners and help them at a personal level to develop their full potential.

While some of that can be delivered online, a high-quality campus experience will never, in my opinion, be surpassed.

Student hub in the Anatomy Building

For certain, the one thing that is most difficult to do online is to involve students directly in research, take them through the research process and get them truly involved in the cutting edge of creating new knowledge.

If we are to put this set of issues firmly at the heart of our strategy and pedagogy, then for us and our students, the future use of online learning fits better into a much more ‘e-enabled future’ where high-quality blended learning is the norm.

It will, therefore, remain very important for us to develop such high-quality online material, but our students will largely use it in the context of their overall campus-based experience.

Of course, we will also use such material to demonstrate to the world, via the internet, what we are about and, above all, the very high international quality of our educational provision.

The world-class university of the future

Finally, let me turn to the question of predicting the future of world-class universities. Increasingly, these institutions will face pressure to articulate why they matter, but thankfully, the arguments are compelling.

World-class universities represent a critical mass of excellence, marrying international reach with soft diplomacy, while their interdisciplinary approach and partnership working will enable them to tackle global challenges across national boundaries.

They will be the powerhouse that lies behind further development of the knowledge economy and will drive international competitiveness, economic growth and inward investment.

Even with such clear strengths, world-class universities will need to evolve to meet future challenges.

They will remain campus-based and their research and education will become more closely integrated, but they will become more e-enabled, allowing their students to derive the very best value from their tutorial, practical, social and extramural experiences on campus.

My prediction is that there will be an increased focus on ‘grand challenge research’, and these and other big societal questions will include the need to focus on how we most effectively set about changing human behaviours; the social sciences and arts and humanities will thus make a major contribution to our global future.

Research funding will become even more concentrated, yet a critical mass of disciplines will be vital, as will the ability to work effectively in partnership with other HEIs, industry, health services, local and national government and the third sector.

Ultimately, world-class universities will create outstanding graduates, scholars and leaders of the future, and the translational research and innovation that they produce will contribute to economic growth, prosperity and social benefit.

These thoughts represent the scale of the challenge for us at UCL as we review our strategy over the next few months. I very much look forward to your contributions to the debate.

Professor Michael Arthur
UCL President & Provost