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Vice Provost (International): First impressions

By Kerry Milton, on 9 July 2014

Since I started at UCL, I’ve met hundreds of amazing people who research, teach and study here or who support those who do. I’ve been able to sit down and listen to around 50 colleagues and students talking about UCL’s current international activities, our global impact and the future direction of our international strategy. Thank you all very much indeed for your warm welcome, time and frankness.

What follows is my distillation of what I’ve heard so far – which may not be exactly what you said, or meant! It combines some blindingly obvious observations about this wonderful university, aspects which we must hang on to at all costs, with a few things people are telling me they’d like to change about UCL’s global impact. Please let me know at vpi.global@ucl.ac.uk if anything in this article provokes a strong reaction – positive or negative – from you, or if you think I’m missing something important.

Firstly, how proud everyone is of UCL. In Whitehall, civil servants bemoan the lack of thinking time. Bloomsbury (I haven’t ranged wider yet, except for a short excursion to Arizona to see what Arizona State University is doing internationally and online), is a sea of intellectual creativity, with a strong tide of interdisciplinary working. A long way from my experience as a doctoral student in linguistics back in the 1980s, when I was urged to keep my research focused on one discipline only.

To extend the ‘sea’ metaphor, I see my job as not getting in the way of the many thousands of individual academic international interactions taking place, but as identifying the ‘currents’ – where institutional-level attention, effort and investment can make UCL activities more than the sum of their parts. I want to apply my knowledge of the geo-political ‘wind and waves’ to help those currents take us in a positive direction, towards solving global problems and grand challenges – and avoid the rocks!

Awareness of UCL’s current international strategy is very low. The International Strategy Board, earlier this year, defined the “previous approach” as “increasing UCL’s global footprint through… research-intensive overseas campuses associated with postgraduate education”. There’s a sense that our international institutional presences, in Kazakhstan, Qatar and Australia, don’t quite ‘wear the strategy on their faces’. Our teaching activity in Astana will conclude by August 2015; our relationships in Qatar need to be reviewed in light of a changed political context there; and our operation in Adelaide has now shifted to the Faculty of Engineering Sciences, and is concluding a strategic review that will see an enhanced focus on energy and natural resources engineering.

Also in the pipeline is ‘rebooting’ the UCL Yale Collaborative, building on Professor John Martin’s sterling work, now that both institutions have new Presidents keen to explore opportunities to extend that strategic alliance. We’re exploring other ‘anchor’ partnerships with leading universities and organisations, in China, Hong Kong and Japan. Starting with those countries is deliberate. We are also thinking hard about how to engage in North and Latin America, Africa, Europe and India. I am pretty confident that new overseas campuses are not going to be part of our revamped international strategy. Introducing a new undergraduate international summer school might be.

The clearest messages I’ve been picking up include: UCL needs to have a higher profile and reputation globally, in line with our world leading university status; our international strategy should be aligned with the 2034 Strategy, particularly the Global Impact theme, have a clear purpose and be based on a set of principles consistent with our radical history and ethical values; and we need to give more support to and opportunity for our students, as global citizens and professionals. As means to achieving those goals, we need: a finite set of strategic or ‘anchor’ partnerships, which could be with corporates, NGOs or Trusts as well as universities; networks across the globe especially with the fastest growing parts of the world; closer links with other world cities; better ‘mapping’ of and coordination between our existing international activities, with clearer responsibility and accountability for them; more investment in marketing and in relationship management, including with our alumni networks; deeper area expertise, on the lines of SSEES, the European Institute and the Institute of the Americas, joined up with or applied to our interdisciplinary strengths; and improved communication.

That’s my initial diagnosis. Where we go from here depends on the feedback on this message, and on a process of open consultation which we’ll kick off in the new academic year. The International Strategy Board met on 1 July. We’re aiming for a ‘town’ meeting in early October. We may set up a small steering group to oversee the consultation process. In the meantime, the various UCL teams with international responsibilities will be getting together to pool their analyses of the critical stakeholders to engage in developing our new international strategy, starting with students and staff. I’ll continue my one-to-one conversations with colleagues – now that I’ve met the Deans, Vice Provosts and Pro Provosts, I’m looking forward to a session with Faculty Managers and to meeting more Heads of Department and the new SABs and STARs. And we are commissioning a piece of research into the international strategies of other world class universities. We don’t want to copy them – our international strategy needs to be distinctively UCL in character – but it’s good to get the literature review out of the way before getting down to your own research. If I have a ‘starter for 10’ notion of what might be at the core of our new international strategy, it might be, ‘to be a force for good in the world by developing a targeted set of reciprocal international relationships in research and education, in ways that increase UCL’s impact and enhance UCL’s reputation for producing wise, shared solutions to global challenges’.  I’m sure that together we can refine that and work out what it would look like in practice.

Nicola Brewer

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