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Putting the student experience at the heart of UCL

By Ruth Howells, on 10 October 2013

An audience of more than 400 gathered last week in the Bloomsbury Theatre to listen to a lecture and Q&A with the man now steering the big ship UCL, new President & Provost, Professor Michael Arthur.


Professor Michael Arthur

The event was the first of the new season of Lunch Hour Lectures, as well as a first opportunity for many members of the UCL community – a collectively curious bunch – to begin to form an opinion about the man in charge.

One month into the job, Professor Arthur declared that he is “having a great time”, but it is clear that he has already begun to form a view of the university’s current strengths and weaknesses, as well as a tentative but compelling vision for its future.

It is early days, of course, and UCL is a large and complex organisation. However, this lecture made Professor Arthur’s feelings on a number of key issues clear and gave a good sense of the institutional direction of travel he anticipates – one with the student experience at its heart.

Past and future UCL
Professor Arthur paid tribute to Professor Sir Malcolm Grant’s legacy, including UCL’s performance and reputational rise over his decade in charge, the establishment of the Grand Challenges: “a clever, galvanising idea”, and the focus on entrepreneurship.

He touched on the existing White Paper, asking for a show of hands of audience members who have read it (not many). Although he made it clear that he thinks much of the content is good, he promised a “dramatically shorter” new strategy forged from genuine staff engagement and drawing on the combined intellectual might of the institution.

Students, students, students
He highlighted five areas where he has already identified room for improvement. The first, and the one that was at the centre of the lecture, is the student experience. Namely, UCL’s need to move from being a research-led to a research-based university, where research and teaching are fully integrated and fully “embedded in the organisation’s DNA”.

He mentioned our mixed National Student Survey results, saying that although recruitment is currently buoyant, there is a great deal to be done in a highly competitive environment to ensure it stays that way.

He also felt that we need to do more to tackle diversity and fair access for students, encouraging talented students from low income and low engagement backgrounds to apply.

Advanced partnerships
On international and partnership issues, he said that these are highly complex and that no-one in the sector is excelling at them.

Although he approves of the approach taken by UCL in establishing specialist postgraduate centres overseas, he made it clear that he does not favour international undergraduate campuses and that, in future, UCL should seek more of a partnership approach to international activity. He makes an interesting point about not only aspiring to work with “the best” and there being a good case for partnering with upcoming, “hungry” universities.

He admitted to being highly competitive personally and for the organisations he works for, but not at the expense of sound partnership working.

MALHL2Although people outside of UCL might believe we, King’s and Imperial are at each other’s throats, he sees the brilliant partnership working at the heart of initiatives such as the Francis Crick Institute and the London Centre for Nanotechnology and believes we should be doing more in this vein.

He believes that London has the opportunity to be the number one destination for higher education in the world, particularly for biomedicine and health.

He also touched on the UCL community of alumni and contributors and their key role in controlling the reputation of UCL and inspiring current students, saying that we must do more to engage with them and make them lifelong champions of UCL.

In his closing remarks, he said that the UCL community at large is “unique, complicated, highly creative, slightly rebellious” – and that he would respect that history and work with that grain.

The lecture highlight, and the part where Professor Arthur seemed to most enjoy himself, was the Q&A. He tackled a number of tricky questions that had been submitted in advance via the #askprovost hashtag on Twitter and from the audience.

The questions chosen were fairly lively, including ones on making UCL fossil-free, the London Living Wage and the relocation of the Gower Place GP practice.

Asked about the one thing he’d do to improve undergraduate education, he reiterated that what the university lacks most is a reputation for student experience and that would be what he’d address most urgently.

As part of his answer, he revealed that when he applied for the job at UCL, he wrote in his application that if what was wanted was somebody to “simply drive the research machine”, that he wasn’t the man for the job.

The tone of the lecture was measured, but Professor Arthur certainly did not shy away from identifying the challenges and issues facing UCL. The audience reaction seemed to be one of tentative approval – not too bad considering he’s only been in the job for a month.

Watch the full lecture below:

For a full account of the lecture and Q&A, visit the staff news website. Professor Arthur’s regular communications will also appear on this site.

Ruth Howells is News Editor in UCL Communications and Marketing.

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