UCL Strategic Plan 2022-27


Academic initiatives

A programme of change to support our research and education excellence

On this page:


Grand Challenges

Planning for the future: education and student experience:

Targeting investment in our academic endeavours


The strength of an institution such as UCL has been, and will always remain, the excellence of the education, research, and innovation that goes on in our departments and faculties.  It is a deep commitment to disciplinary excellence, and to creating space for the disciplines to innovate, that has placed us amongst the world’s leading universities. Over the period of this strategic plan and beyond, our core commitment remains empowering departments and faculties to pursue excellence in their education and research, and to do so with their external and internal partners and collaborators.  For that reason, it is important that local departments and faculties continue to set their own academic strategy.

Within that core commitment, however, there are three contexts in which setting institution-wide academic priorities is appropriate.  The first is that UCL has, and should continue, a tradition of investing in Grand Challenges; areas in which the coordination of, and investment in, issues-based work across faculties and departments enables us to capitalise upon our disciplinary excellence in work that cuts across disciplinary boundaries.  This builds upon our excellence and creates an important entry point into the work of the university for communities seeking answers to the complex challenges of the modern world.  At a time when the social licence to operate of British universities is being challenged, the importance of this latter consideration cannot be overstated.  

The second context is that our students at all levels often engage in the teaching activity of more than one department or faculty and have a right to expect certain standards of a UCL education, standards for which we are externally accountable as an institution.  Moreover, much of the administration of our education offering takes place at the institutional level, as well as that of the department and faculty. 

Third, there are times when investment needs to be made in a particular academic discipline beyond that which might reasonably be expected of a department or faculty itself.  In that context, the institution needs to regularly review candidates for investment (as we have as part of this strategy consultation process), and to outline a principled approach to deciding between them (as we do below).  

Grand Challenges

We have a long tradition of applying our cutting-edge research in pursuit of solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, and of doing this collaboratively across discipline boundaries. The Grand Challenges programme, conceived over a decade ago at UCL and emulated at many other institutions, acknowledged the strength of this impulse at a grassroots level, and provided seed-funding for collaboration and early-stage research ideas. The momentum of that programme has accelerated over time, and its impact was evident through the consultation process.

Our Strategic Plan evolves the initial ambition into a more established programme of five academically led Grand Challenges. In keeping with our institutional values of rigour and innovation, they will drive investment in faculties and departments that supports new areas of research and innovation and provide a framework through which our decision-making on related themes can be shaped by the expertise of our academic community.

Importantly, each of these Challenges will also be pursued, not only as a collaborative venture across the university, but in partnership with our existing academic and external partners. For example, each Grand Challenge is likely to raise questions of human health and we are fortunate to be at the heart of a vibrant life sciences ecosystem that includes leading NHS Trusts such as UCLH, the Royal Free London, Great Ormond Street Hospital, Moorfields Eye Hospital, the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore and the Whittington NHS Trust.  These centres of excellence are not only crucial partners in our globally leading work in health itself, but will also, like many other external organisations, be crucial to the development of our Grand Challenges agenda.

Following extensive consultation and discussion in our community, five areas have been selected. They are areas in which we have distinctive academic strengths and in which there is enthusiasm in our academic community for the better coordination of our work.  Investing further in working across disciplinary boundaries will augment our academic excellence, empower joint working of academic and professional services colleagues and create a positive impact on the world.

  • Climate crisis
  • Mental health and well-being
  • Data-empowered societies
  • Inequalities
  • Intercultural communication.

The extended scope of each Grand Challenge will empower networking across not just research but all that we do:

  • Research and knowledge exchange: Grand Challenges will allow us to channel investment for collaboration, debate and experimentation in departments and faculties into these key interdisciplinary areas of enquiry. A proportion of funds will be set aside, as now, for seed funding, distributed competitively to stimulate emerging areas of research and knowledge exchange.
  • Education: we will explore the feasibility of an online learning programme relating to the Grand Challenges, including whether this can be provided in non-traditional formats (e.g. modular credits), can be offered in interesting combinations and made available to audiences beyond those already at UCL. We will ensure any new teaching material assets are available to existing students as well as to those enrolling on fully distance learning programmes. We will also seek to create space for some new study opportunities in the Grand Challenges themes throughout our curriculum as part of our review of both our programme architecture and the structure of our academic teaching year.
  • Operations: each Grand Challenge theme will inform how we operate as an institution and a community, allowing us to draw on our research expertise as we determine how best to respond to questions of equity and sustainability. This will entail close working between the teams responsible for our Sustainability Strategy and our Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Strategy and the Grand Challenges leads in those areas. The Challenges will also provide a clear framework for securing advice and consultancy from our experts on questions such as our internal use of data; our support for the mental health and wellbeing of staff and students; and how we ensure diverse voices are heard in institutional conversations.

Each Grand Challenge will have an identified academic lead. Their remit will be to foster collaboration, kick-start new research, innovation and education initiatives, and ensure that our institutional expertise is consistently brought to bear in decision-making on these key issues. They will be embedded in a department or faculty relevant to their disciplinary expertise and will channel investment into academic departments and faculties that network and empower colleagues. A steering committee will be put in place for each Grand Challenge, and there will also be funding associated with each programme; the consultation paper suggested this would be in the region of £1m per challenge per year over five years. The final amount will be determined in the wider context of our financial strategy once this strategic plan is finalised.

Our institutional readiness to engage with these Grand Challenges varies, and this is reflected in the timeline for the expansion of the programme over the next five years, as follows:

Delivery Area sponsors: Vice-Provost (Research, Innovation, and Global Engagement) and Vice-Provost (Health)


Year 1

Years 2-5

Ready for implementation

  • Recruit academic leads into relevant faculties/departments for the Grand Challenge of Climate crisis and the Grand Challenge of Mental health in 2023


  • Recruit academic leads into relevant faculties/departments for Grand Challenges of Data empowered societies, Inequalities, Intercultural communication.
  • Implement and review Grand Challenge governance structure
  • Deliver Climate crisis and Mental health projects
  • Deliver Grand Challenges projects for Data empowered societies, Inequalities, Intercultural communication

Developmental initiatives

  • Scope Grand Challenge of Climate crisis and Grand Challenge of Mental health with plan through to 2027
  • Design Grand Challenges support governance structure


  • Scope Grand Challenges of Data empowered societies, Inequalities, Intercultural communication and any further Grand Challenges for sequential launch

Planning for the future: education and student experience

The second delivery area focuses on the education that we offer our students and their broader experience. The consultation recognised that we have undoubted strengths and excellent practice across the university, but also that we are not yet consistently meeting the needs and expectations of our students, whether they be undergraduate and postgraduate taught, postgraduate research, flexible or online learners. Significant numbers of staff report excessive workloads and high administrative costs for processes that ought to be straightforward. We have made steady progress over the last ten years and the efforts of dedicated staff in departments has seen us begin to turn the tide on a period of low student satisfaction scores. To accelerate that process, it is time to look more fundamentally at the structures and ways of working that have built up incrementally. There are real opportunities here: by thinking more fundamentally about how our curriculum operates, we can create space for interdisciplinary project working, delivered at scale. By freeing staff of administrative tasks, we create more time for students and teachers to work together on a curriculum that will genuinely prepare students for the changing world, and for student advisers and departmental pastoral staff to engage more directly with those requiring support.

Our Student Life Strategy will see work in partnership with Students’ Union UCL to deliver an expanded programme of extra-curricular activities, and create an opening, welcoming and inspiring campus that brings students at every level together wherever possible. An institution prioritising care and respect needs to address the complexity that drives excessive workloads for its students and staff; an institution that strives to be open and inclusive needs to make space for students to capitalise on all that we – and London – can offer. Both are priorities for this strategic plan.

There was strong support for a substantial programme of structural change through the consultation process. Respondents made clear the overall scale of ambition for maintaining the quality of education at UCL and improving further, with an emphasis on reducing the administrative burden on all parties, particularly in the interests of student and staff wellbeing, and increasing student academic support. The initiatives below are therefore focused on projects that look at the structure of our pedagogic provision and projects that aim to improve the efficiency and responsiveness of the teaching infrastructure.

Of course, wide consultation and collaborative development will continue to be crucial for real structural change to be possible. Academic Board and Education Committee will have vital roles to play in catalysing those discussions and advising on the feasibility of plans from inception to delivery.  Education Committee has endorsed the general direction of the education plans, and it is noted that once institutional direction and ambition are clearer following Project One, more detailed project plans can be developed for the other projects (there was widespread support for the second project listed below). Our priorities for undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate taught (PGT) education will fall into five broad areas:

  • A UCL teaching and assessment framework: over the next year, we will agree a set of shared principles for a UCL-distinctive, futures-focused, research-intensive education, which brings our students close to our research to an ever-greater extent. Our aim is a broad institutional framework for education that evolves our UCL Connected Curriculum principles in pragmatic ways, so local determination and interpretation can flourish. This should provide the framework for decisions about future investment in the tools that support our teaching and consider explicitly how we can increase interdisciplinarity in the curriculum and give our students, regardless of discipline, the grounding to navigate, for example, questions of sustainability, data science and carbon reduction, given that this capacity will be increasingly sought by employers;
  • A new Institute for Higher Education (HE) Development and Support: the aspiration here is to bring together the currently fragmented support for all involved with education at UCL, and to establish an institute that will improve the ability of those who study with us - and those who guide that study - to access high-quality practical information and advice. In particular, we will bring together institutional support for staff development with our support for students’ skills development and our careers and employability team, so that their efforts are connected to a greater degree.
  • A revised structure for the academic teaching year by 2026-27: by looking again at how we structure the teaching year, we can move forward on long-standing concerns from students about over-assessment, a high-stakes end-of-year exam period and the lack of new teaching in Term Three. We can also address the need to better support staff with their education workloads by spacing the undergraduate year out more consistently and creating opportunities for our UG and PGT students to engage in for-credit projects outside their departments. The principle of a new structure received support in the consultation and from Education Committee but will require careful planning and engagement ahead of implementation, particularly as we consider how different structures can accommodate and enhance local constraints and pedagogies. Working with Education Committee, and in full consultation with the community, our aspiration is to have a revised structure in place for the 2026-27 academic year.
  • Introduce a new programme architecture for UG and PGT courses:  under the guidance of Education Committee, a range of options and accompanying impacts will be identified for further consultation and deliberation. New proposals will address the negative impact of our existing approach to student choice, where most of our modules are available in principle to most of our students, but without the infrastructure to make this theoretical breadth feasible in practice. Where we do manage to offer relative freedom of choice, this happens in ways that can be detrimental to cohort identity and students’ sense of belonging. We propose to conduct a full review of the pathways through our taught programmes, simplifying and agreeing the most desirable set of options for each programme so that we are confident that the flexibility and choice we offer students is academically coherent and achievable within campus and other practical constraints. This undertaking will also address existing, ultimately unsustainable, levels of administrative and organisational complexity that create huge frustration and challenging workloads for those teaching and for those engaged in supporting education. Given the scale of the undertaking, our first step is to work up a set of principles for consultation in the 2023-24 academic year, and to phase the next steps in response to that consultation across the strategic plan period.
  • A new Student Life Strategy, in partnership with Students’ Union UCL: building on existing strong relationships with student leaders at all levels of the organisation, and working with the Students’ Union UCL sabbatical officers, a Student Life Strategy is being agreed. This will set out how we prioritise the co- and extra-curricular elements of the student experience and agree how UCL can facilitate and support student aspirations. This Strategy will sit alongside this strategic plan and includes:
    • the expansion of sports and physical activity facilities and opportunities for students
    • the development of the successful artsUCL initiative, with a focus on a major new programme to expand the capacity of the Union to support entry-level mass participation in art, drama, dance and music
    • a continued focus on volunteering as a core UCL student activity, with increased opportunities for students to work on research with local organisations through an expanded Community Research Initiative for Students (CRIS) programme
    • investment in the infrastructure that supports student-led departmental and subject societies, helping to build student engagement at departmental level;
    • increased opportunities for intercultural activities and engagement for students to reflect the diversity of our student community
    • proposals for a new home for Students’ Union UCL on the Bloomsbury campus; these will be taken through the new investment framework for major institutional projects that support the academic mission (which is set out in more detail below). Although the scale of investment cannot be guaranteed at this stage, the question of space and facilities for the Students’ Union must be prioritised if we are to remain attractive for the future.

The initiatives in this education delivery area are summarised in the table below. They are long-term, structural projects that will put us on a new footing. Rather than always seeking incremental improvement, we are planning to tackle some more deep-rooted problems in the interests of making the university education system work better for all involved.

To be successful, we will need, in parallel, to change how we work and how we organise ourselves. Consequently, our strategic plan for education is heavily reliant on the service transformation projects that are set out below in the enabling priorities section. To give an idea of the scale of what is proposed over the next five years, those projects have been included in the table below. The programme includes a new approach to student admissions, making it more user-friendly for applicants and much less time-consuming for staff. The timetabling project, taken together with work on the shape of the year, and a review of programme diets will result in a stable timetable that can roll over year-on-year, and that allows us to plan for the upgrade of our learning spaces. There will also be work on module selection and confirmation so that students find it easier to choose their courses and staff spend less time supporting them with the administration of that choice.

These projects are about evolution and change behind the scenes, rather than about a radical shift in direction; nevertheless, the results of that change should make a real, positive and lasting difference to all those involved with education at UCL.

Delivery Area sponsor: Vice-Provost (Education and Student Experience)


Year 1

Years 2–5

Ready for implementation

  • Create a new Institute for Higher Education Development and Support
  • Deliver the Admissions Transformation Programme*
  • Initiate the Timetabling and medium-term Estates projects*
  • Implement the first year of the new Student Life Strategy jointly with the Students’ Union

*See Enabling priorities: Service improvement

  • Implement the new Teaching and Assessment Framework
  • Implement the new Programme Architecture
  • Implement any agreed changes to the structure of the academic year
  • Implement the prioritised set of projects arising from the Student Life Strategy

Developmental initiatives

  • Design a new Teaching and Assessment Framework
  • Design a new Programme Architecture
  • Revisit the structure of the academic year
  • Prepare a business case for a new Students’ Union building and sports facilities for consideration as part of the new investment framework



Targeting investment in our academic endeavours

Our third academic priority delivery area targets our resources at those academic and infrastructure projects that deliver the greatest benefits, measured against criteria that have been agreed through consultation and consistently applied. This is vital in an institution which values transparency in decision-making and ensures that we have real and genuine accountability at all levels.

It is also important that we have a way of channelling and prioritising investment in a community that has no shortage of ideas and enthusiasm. During the consultation process, the community was asked to put forward their most significant proposals for investment for the next 5–10 years. These proposals were for projects that were beyond the scale of any one faculty, department or service to deliver; by definition, cross-university projects. The scale, breadth and significance of these projects was an impressive reminder of the scale of ambition across the university. At the end of the consultation period, there were 139 projects on the longlist, more than half of which emerged through the consultation process.

The initial candidate list of projects was published in the consultation paper, Academic areas for targeted investment. It included proposals for investment in areas of academic strength with transformational potential, such as:

  • detailed planning for the further expansion of our campus at UCL East
  • opportunities for interdisciplinary innovation in a number of disciplinary areas, including Mathematics in collaboration with Statistical Science; the continued evolution and transformation of the Slade; and a UCL Computer Science collaboration with the Kings’ Cross Knowledge Quarter
  • the established of shared, flexible and high-quality general teaching facilities on a central Bloomsbury site in Gower Place
  • new facilities for departments including Economics, Anthropology and Archaeology and a new site for Chemistry.

It will not be possible to deliver all of these within our capital programme and our financial context means that large-scale new-build estates and infrastructure projects will not be feasible until at least 2027. This is partly a consequence of financial constraints, but it also reflects a deliberate choice to focus for a period on investment in the infrastructure and working environment of all members of UCL, with a comprehensive strategic maintenance plan (see below), rather than in new buildings for specific disciplines.

However, it is important to begin the process of determining where we will invest for the future, and so, during the 2022–23 academic year, all proposals received through the consultation will be assessed within a new, transparent governance structure and against agreed criteria. This will allow us to decide our main investment priorities and allocation of resources. The new criteria will ensure that student views are represented more clearly in decision-making and that there is appropriate cross-disciplinary input into decisions before they are confirmed. Decisions about targeted investment over the next ten years will therefore start to be clearer from 2023-24. In our planning work, which will be directly aligned with our Estates Strategy, we will learn from the new ways of working that are being implemented at our new UCL East campus.

To support this process of prioritisation, a new Investment Committee (with associated underpinning governance) will be established. In addition, the Vice-President (Strategy) will lead the development of an institution-wide portfolio view of all eligible major projects. The Major Strategic Projects Portfolio (MSPP) will ensure that every major investment has a clear rationale aligned to strategic priorities and business needs, is affordable and achievable, has a clear owner and accountability chain, and will lead to the realisation of benefits.

An overall summary of the initiatives we will take forward in relation to our Targeted Academic Investments is therefore as follows:

Delivery Area sponsor: Vice-President (Strategy)


Year 1

Years 2–5

Ready for implementation

  • Set up the Investment Committee of UMC, to meet termly
  • Set up a new Major Projects Portfolio structure and related processes
  • Carry out initial assessment of the Targeted Academic Investment proposals to take forward, and provide support for proposals that need further development
  • Take forward the first set of prioritised academic investment projects

Developmental initiatives


  • Evolve and regularly review the pipeline of Targeted Academic Investment initiatives
  • Monitor the delivery of strategic projects, to mitigate and manage risk
  • Reprioritise projects as appropriate to respond to changing economic circumstances