UCL Strategic Plan 2022-27


Enabling priorities

Investing in improving services and the physical and digital infrastructure

One of the strongest themes in the consultation feedback was the need to invest in improving services and the physical and digital infrastructure.  To make this happen, we need to find ways to free up the resource we spend on complexity and duplication and redirect this into simpler, more effective ways of working. Our enabling priorities set out how we plan to approach this task.

They are grouped into three delivery areas:

A robust financial strategy
A review of our size and shape
Service improvement:
   1, Research and Innovation Services
   2. Student Experience
   3. HR systems
   4. Improved management of our estate
   5. New operating models for professional services functions

A robust financial strategy

The first of these is the Financial Strategy, which will be set out more fully in a companion document to this plan.

Like many organisations, we are experiencing significant financial headwinds, which, without action, will erode our ability to invest our academic aspirations. Our new Financial Strategy articulates how we will meet our financial needs against this background, with a strong focus on maintaining our long-term sustainability.

The overall aim in this area is to maximise our income and manage our costs to strengthen our financial resilience so that we can invest in our staff and students and an environment that enables them to thrive. Wherever possible, resource will be channelled into our people (including, over the medium-term, into our pay structures, as far as we can) and into the buildings and tools that support our work. The financial strategy will also set out how we fund our strategic aims: the Grand Challenges infrastructure, our education reform priorities, our targeted academic investments, and upgrades of our physical and digital infrastructure.

To realise the financial strategy, we need new ways of working:

  • New approach to strategic planning: an annual process will be introduced, integrating student number planning and faculty planning processes more directly with financial planning. Under this new process, autumn will allow faculties and central teams to review the previous year’s progress; spring will see the development of financial and operational plans that respond to current circumstances; and summer will allow for decision and approval of those plans ahead of the next financial year. These changes will ensure that strategic planning and budgeting are more closely aligned, so that decision-making is improved and the bureaucratic burden on faculties and departments is minimised wherever possible.
  • Evolution of the financial model: the existing contribution model will be rebuilt so that there is maximum transparency about how we finance our priorities and so that we can be accountable across the institution for the deployment of resources. This will include the agreement of funding elements for institutional priorities and a planning model that can support decision-making about future affordability and levels of investment over time. As a result, incentives for efficiency and the effective use of resources will be built into the model from the ground up and costs will be apportioned more closely in line with service usage and demand, using activity data as the main driver of allocation. In the long term, these changes will also create a more responsive relationship between central service users and suppliers, by linking activity to cost allocation via robust data; will facilitate greater transparency in our internal financial management; and will support more effective overall cost control by creating incentives for suppliers to bear down on their overall costs.

Delivery Area sponsor: Chief Financial Officer


Year 1

Years 2–5

Ready for implementation

  • Agree UCL Financial Strategy to enable delivery of the Strategic Plan
  • Implement the medium-term Financial Sustainability Plan

Developmental initiative

  • Develop the medium-term Financial Sustainability Plan


Size and shape

The university has grown significantly in recent years through merger and expansion. However, there is a clear view that we are now reaching the limits of what we can accommodate in our current configuration, not least because investment in critical areas such as the physical teaching estate, our digital infrastructure, student support services and systems and processes that support the student experience has fallen behind the expansion of student numbers. This combination of growth and underinvestment has also impacted on workload, putting additional pressure on staff. The impacts of this have been clearly described in feedback to the consultation.

Tuition fees provide the largest single source of our income, and student numbers are therefore central to our financial sustainability in the absence of substantial endowments and other significant income streams enjoyed by many of our global peers. We need a plan for student numbers that balances academic excellence and financial sustainability with the demands on academic workload, the quality of the student experience, and our physical and digital resources. We will work closely with the academic community in Faculties and Departments as well as Professional Services across the university to determine the medium-term framework, and will carry out an impact assessment of proposals regarding student numbers for consultation and discussion prior to approval and implementation.

As part of this, a standing Student Number Planning Group will be established, reporting to the relevant university committees and bodies. The membership of this group will be drawn from the senior leadership team, relevant professional services, and the wider academic community. Its remit will be the development, delivery, and ongoing monitoring of policy on student numbers, operating within the framework set by this plan. Detailed proposals on membership and terms of reference will be developed as a priority. As one of the underlying principles of this work, as much student data as possible will be made available as open data, so that all parties have access to common baseline and ongoing monitoring information, drawing on the same trusted source.

In parallel, our student number planning model will continue to evolve and develop, to enable greater sophistication in our forecasting. Feedback received through the consultation process noted that, while the current model represented an advance on how this process has been managed up to now, it could benefit from further refinement: more specifically, the links to the financial model could be improved, and the analysis of the resource impact of continued student number growth (for example, on estates, staff workloads, and digital infrastructure) could be further developed. This is work we will take forward.

For the purposes of this Strategic Plan, our discussions have been limited to questions of ‘size’. However, consultation has highlighted a very strong desire for us to open a broader conversation about institutional ‘shape’ and to consider questions such as disciplinary mix and the breadth of our academic teaching portfolio, structures for supporting interdisciplinary working, and our future areas of priority growth. This discussion will be initiated in year one of the plan and work with the community will define the parameters for the conversation and its intended outcomes as a first step.

An additional dimension of the impact of growth in our student population raised during the consultation process is the carbon cost of recruiting international students. While this category of emission is currently outside the scope of our sustainability strategy, we are aware of the potential long-term impact of sizeable numbers of students travelling to UCL each year from abroad. As a result, we plan now to carry out a piece of work to develop methods to calculate this impact with a view to seeking mitigation over the medium term. This is a challenge facing the whole of the UK higher education sector, and we will therefore also work in partnership with other universities and bodies in the UK to develop standardised methods of assessing the carbon impact of international student recruitment and working on collective policies to offset this.

Absolute student numbers and the mix of between fee status are not the only parameters in considering what our overall size and shape should be by 2027. We have flexibility to vary the levels of our unregulated fees to meet market demand and the opportunity to increase the efficiency of our space utilisation. Over the next five years we will therefore analyse the potential for increasing our investment capacity by using our teaching space more efficiently (through our refreshed Estates Strategy) and re-examining our policy on unregulated student fees.

There will also be an exploration of the potential to evolve and develop our online education provision, taking advantage of the rapid innovation during the Covid-19 pandemic. This initiative will look at pedagogy, technology, demand, partnerships, potential audiences (including, for example, lifelong-learners) and business models to scope an online education offering that befits our position as top ten global university. In the first instance, we will explore linking our online education provision to our Grand Challenge themes. This work will be undertaken in a partnership between the relevant Education and Research Committees and in full consultation with the community, and in recognition that we need to move carefully if we are to expand our presence in the online education market. Longer-term decisions about our place in this emerging market will be informed by our experiences over the next five years.

A summary of the initiatives we will take forward in relation to the size and shape of our student population is as follows:

Delivery Area sponsor: Vice-President (Strategy) and Vice-Provost (Faculties)


Year 1

Years 2–5

Ready for implementation

  • Work with the community to develop a medium-term student number plan, including carrying out a detailed impact assessment
  • Establish a standing Student Number Planning Group, reporting into the relevant university committees and bodies
  • Refine and evolve the student number planning model to increase its coverage and sophistication
  • Implement an expanded online education offer (depending on outcome of the review in Y1)

Developmental initiatives

  • Initiate a review of our academic portfolio and structure (‘shape’)
  • Analyse the carbon impact of international student recruitment and develop policies to mitigate this in the long term, working jointly with the HE sector
  • Explore options for maximising investment capacity by: a) increasing space efficiency; b) increasing unregulated fee levels
  • Develop the business and operational case for expanding online education



Service improvement

The third delivery area under this heading brings together enabling activities that will improve the services, processes, systems and infrastructure that support our research, innovation and education activities.

As a highly devolved university, we have become used to finding local workarounds where we consider institutional services have fallen short, rather than working with service leaders on change. Although this approach has been unsatisfactory for some time, it has worked, after a fashion; but it is no longer sustainable at scale, and we cannot afford to replicate workarounds at many different levels across the whole organisation when we need to be careful with resources for a number of years. Additionally, the duplication and perceived lack of ownership for much of what we need to do our jobs well has led to some tensions and a perception that professional services staff do not enjoy the same respect that they might at other universities. This is, in part, because there has not been investment in the tools that would allow our professional services team to do their best work.

Based on feedback, prioritised needs and the advice and experience of our professional services leads, a realistic number of initiatives have been identified where we know we can deliver sustained improvements in how UCL works. These are intended to remove the duplication and complexity that often gets in the way of our real ambitions. This programme of service transformation will be fundamental to the success of everything else we want to do over this strategic plan period. Ultimately, it should deliver wide-reaching benefits: substantially reducing the amount of time academic staff spend on routine administration, and substantially improving the resources that professional services colleagues can draw on in facilitating our academic mission.

Work will focus on the following areas:

1. Research and Innovation Services

The pressing need for more flexible support for applications for research and innovation funding, improved contracting and forecasting, and a process with integrated risk assessments has been voiced by researchers and administrators over several years. We are now funding a comprehensive programme of work that will:

  • establish a programme of continuous improvement and investment in Worktribe;
  • introduce agreed institution-wide standards for costing and pricing relevant activity, including (for example) those doctoral studentships that are funded by commercial providers;
  • determine a benchmarked service standard for in-house research contract response times;
  • provide performance dashboards against agreed KPIs to ensure service providers are meeting agreed targets and that there is appropriate transparency and accountability to users in this area.

In addition, our research ethics process will be reformed. While our research ethics service works to very high standards, its resourcing and support has not kept pace with the growing volume and complexity of the research questions that our community seeks to address. We will therefore reform the underpinning technology and processes that support our ethics committee and the colleagues who contribute their time and expertise to it. This will improve the agility and responsiveness of our service and make a positive contribution to a research culture that encourages cutting edge inquiry while placing the highest ethical standards at the heart of everything we do. 

Shared science and technology platforms will be introduced, using institutional capital finance where appropriate to fund shared equipment. Platform technologies such as high-performance computing, biological services and fundamental technologies such as light microscopy or gene sequencing underpin our academic excellence. Increasingly, such technologies require investment in expensive capital equipment that go beyond the resources available to individual investigators or require investment in training research professionals with the relevant advanced skills. To facilitate this investment, these technologies will be established as shared facilities or spaces – science and technology platforms - where many investigators can benefit from the concentration of expertise and equipment.

This approach of creating shared physical spaces will align with our estates masterplan for densifying the Bloomsbury estate and with the UCL East strategy of creating shared spaces, and will require that investment in maintenance and updating of the estate condition surrounding these shared platforms. We will pursue relevant commercial partnerships for these platforms to access advanced technology while ensuring that institutional investment in space, people and equipment is efficient, effective and cost-recovered. Initially the priority will be to increase the quality of our biological services, advanced research computing and genetic sequencing facilities, and during the Strategic Plan 2022-2027 other key Science & Technology platforms will be introduced to form a ‘family’ of such supporting and enabling services by the end of the period.

2. Student Experience

A significant programme of administrative rationalisation is planned, to include:

  • substantial changes in our approach to admissions, including the introduction of automated process where possible, to free up admissions staff to work on complex questions and support candidate selection. The proposals will improve the speed with which candidates receive offers and will support improved welcome and induction activities;
  • a new process for module selection that is user-friendly and dramatically reduces the amount of administrative time required in departments to manage exceptions and rejections. This work will run alongside proposals to develop a new programme architecture, as set out under our education priorities, above;
  • an overhaul of our approach to timetabling, moving from a locally constructed timetable process that is then ‘roomed’ by a central team to a centrally scheduled system that produces an optimised timetable that is rolled over annually. This new timetable process will be linked to student number planning and estates forecasting so that changes in our student profile and in courses offered can be modelled and accommodated well ahead of the start of term. This change project will bring us into line with practice across the university sector; it will be vital for us to work closely with departments to ensure that the new approach takes staff constraints into account and delivers a genuinely improved experience for students. This is also linked to the work on programme architecture as clearer pathways and programme diets will dramatically reduce the complexity of the existing timetable and free up teaching space across the Bloomsbury campus.
  • continued work on our new pre-arrival, welcome and induction activities, with a view to integrating module selection into that process for new first years and PGT students;
  • the full implementation of the Assessment UCL digital platform, which will allow improved management of the process of assessment through from assignment setting to marking and moderation.

3. HR systems

Reducing the amount of time and effort spent on recruitment by investment in key processes, specifically:

  • TalentLink as a replacement for ROME: this will significantly reduce the time taken to recruit new staff, as well as the experience of those involved in recruitment on both sides. The new system will be linked to contract issue, visa support and induction processes, joining up what has previously been disjointed and time-consuming. The new system will be supported by an in-house recruitment team, reducing our reliance on external consultants for more senior appointments and ensuring that deep knowledge of UCL informs our approach to hiring;
  • Appraisal: this vital process has been under-supported at UCL for some time, with a professorial framework widely regarded as unfit for purpose, and multiple local models for appraisal management for professional services staff. A new system will be introduced that will work for all roles, replacing paper-based appraisals for many and the Professorial Appraisal Review for professorial colleagues. We will also work on developing a culture of regular appraisals and career conversations at all levels of our organisation, in the interests of fostering talent and supporting our staff to progress through their careers.

4. Improved management of our estate

UCL’s maintenance backlog is higher than other comparable universities, at between £600m-£800m. It has been clear from consultation feedback how vital a period of investment in the nuts and bolts of our physical estate really is; and the difference that we could make by prioritising investment in the basics of campus management and room quality. This must be our priority focus from an estates perspective over the period of this Strategic Plan.  A comprehensive Strategic Maintenance plan will be drawn up and the focus of our estates investment over the next four years will be on addressing the quality of our spaces and the backlog of repairs and maintenance work that has built up over time. The upgrade of our digital infrastructure will be part of this programme, to ensure that our physical spaces are equipped with state-of-the-art facilities. Building on the planned overhaul of approach to timetabling, a proposal is being scoped for a teaching block that will deliver high-quality spaces for teaching. This will be considered within the targeted academic investment process outlined above, but it would deliver substantial benefits very widely if it proves feasible over the next few years.

The Estates Strategy will also align closely with our Sustainability Strategy so that our sustainability commitments are addressed directly through the prioritised programme of infrastructure and capital works, including through improved energy efficiency and the introduction of energy generation technologies that generate heat and power with no/low carbon emissions. Although this work will not be complete within the period covered by this Strategic Plan, the headway we need towards our sustainability ambitions will be prioritised.

For historical reasons, and often because of merger, our campus is fragmented and widely distributed. This is costly to maintain and undesirable in terms of fostering community. Our Estates Strategy for the next five years will therefore explore how more of our activity can be brought together on the Bloomsbury campus, allowing us to save money by exiting leases for satellite sites, and consolidating similar activities together, as well as building up the public realm that will create focal points for staff and students to come together on campus.

5. New operating models for professional services functions

As an organisation that has consistently solved – or managed – problems locally, we do not currently have clear lines between those professional staff located in departments and those in the relevant central teams. This has meant significant duplication and a disconnect in ways of working across the university; we simply cannot afford to keep organising ourselves in this way. So that we can free up time for staff to use their skills and expertise where they have the most impact, we need a consistent framework that means departments do not have to come up with their own approaches to what should be standard work across the university. To do this properly, we will need to look again at how our professional services are structured across the university and bring them within defined lines of management and accountability. The first step in this process is the appointment of an Executive Director of Faculty Operations, who will facilitate more effective service delivery across faculties and work with central teams to co-ordinate this move to more consistent professional services structures across the university. This will be followed by a programme of operating model review, identifying where various professional services functions are best undertaken, and reconfiguring teams to make this happen. This will enable professional services functions and Vice Provost (VP) offices to connect with faculties more effectively; it will allow us to accommodate important local differences within a process that has a clear institutional owner who can be held accountable for service quality and will enable the further development of business partnering roles to ensure central services work with faculties and departments in an aligned and consistent way.

Taken together, the service transformation programme will require a substantial amount of work, but it is intended to effect a step change in how we operate over the next five years. The provisional timings for each piece of work are set out below:

Delivery Area sponsors: Vice-President (Operations) and Vice-Provost (Faculties)


Year 1

Years 2–5

Ready for implementation

  • Create a recruitment service and replace ROME with TalentLink (Chief People Officer)
  • Achieve a benchmarked standard for research contract response time (Executive Director of Research and Innovation Services)
  • Upgrade the appraisal system (Chief People Officer / Director of Organisational Development)
  • Upgrade the approach to strategic and financial planning (Chief Finance Officer / Director of Finance and Business Planning)
  • Recruit Executive Director of Faculty Operations (Vice-Provost (Faculties) / Vice-President (Operations)
  • Implement the Estates Strategy (Executive Director of Estates / Vice-President (Operations)
  • Implement the Strategic Maintenance Plan (Executive Director of Estates Operations)
  • Implement consistent professional services structures across the university, including business partnering (Vice-Provost (Faculties)  and Vice-President (Operations) working with Executive Director of Faculty Operations / Faculty Deans / Faculty Directors of Operations
  • Establish end-to-end processes with single accountable owners (Vice-President (Operations)

Developmental initiatives

  • Develop the Estates Strategy (Vice-President (Operations) with Executive Director of Estates
  • Develop the Strategic Maintenance Plan (Executive Director of Estates Operations)
  • Develop excellent science and technology platforms (with individual priorities to be confirmed)
  • Map consistent professional services structures across the university Vice-President (Operations) working with Vice-Provost / President team and Faculty Deans / DOOs