Interview with the Provost
Number one was that the budget was really quite weak; the institution was running a deficit at the time. We had to try to get the place back on a sounder financial footing. So I think that was probably the biggest issue.
The second one was that there had just been a series of discussions with Imperial College which were widely interpreted as a takeover of UCL by Imperial. It was when those talks fell through that I was approached and asked if I would consider putting my name in the hat for the job. At that time I was Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge. When I came to UCL I was quite surprised by the really depressive effect those talks had had. I think people felt oppressed by the prospect that they would be absorbed into another big London institution. So the second big challenge was to try to work with colleagues to restore a sense of purpose and affection for UCL. That’s what I really feel we’ve established here now, a sense of pride that the institution can stand alongside, if not ahead of, its former rival.
What do you regard as your greatest achievement at UCL?
There a number of things I really take great pleasure in. One is the academy. All throughout this time I’d been worried that the government was really attacking the wrong target when it was looking at widening participation in universities. Simply looking at the socio-economic background of those who came through the door at the applications and entry point overlooks a whole swathe of students who have not got that far. You can’t sit around as a Vice Chancellor and complain about the quality of secondary education not producing the students you want – that’s just not sufficient. So why not invest some real time and effort in getting engaged in secondary education? And that’s what we’ve done; we’ve founded the academy. It’s a brand new building in a fabulous position within Camden and allows us to put something back into the local community. Universities have a duty – they should be morally doing this. A lot of our staff and students are getting involved with the school through some of the clubs and societies. I’ve also made arrangements so that each of the teachers at the school has a cross relationship with the relevant department here.
Internally, I think one of the great achievements of the last decade has been the emergence, strength and strategic force of life and medical sciences. I would say now, we are practically unchallenged in Europe in terms of what our real force is. We have probably the strongest neuroscience outside Harvard. Across a whole range of areas, such as population health sciences and brain sciences and medical sciences, we’ve got a sort of coming together in a way which we couldn’t have anticipated ten years ago. And a whole new set of relationships with the hospitals as well, which you just have to have in modern medicine. I am really proud of what UCL has managed to achieve there.
The third area I think is the continuing invention of new programmes like the BASc, attracting students from all over the world. Student numbers have gone up from about 18,500 to 26,000 over my ten years here and research income has more than doubled over that period. I think it’s been a golden decade for UCL and hope that under my successor the institution will continue to prosper and thrive. When I started we didn’t have league tables, but I’m just delighted – although I constantly criticise the methodology – that UCL has continued to plough its way up through all of these independent measures of global recognition.
Is there anything you would have done differently during your time as Provost?
One of the things I would have done at a much earlier stage is to put up the new student centre that we have planned for the site adjacent to the Bloomsbury. We spent some time looking at an alternative project for that, but I think it would have been better for us to have changed course at an earlier stage and produce the new facility, as it is it won’t be available for another couple of years.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Hong Kong University and went through their new student commons building, it is just fabulous. It has an array of rooms from the really formal, library sort of rooms to others with bean bags and TV screens and multimedia going on all around. You can move between them during the day, and I think that sort of design seems to hugely improve students’ productivity and appreciation for their environment. That’s something that I wish we’d brought forward earlier here.
Which part of the Bloomsbury Masterplan are you most looking forward to seeing implemented?
Oh, I think the improvements of the historic estate, the Wilkins building in particular. Also, the investment that needs to go into refurbishment and teaching rooms. We’ve done quite a lot here already; I mean when I first came here a lot of the use of the quad was for car parking. But I still think it’s a pretty hard grained set of buildings in an urban setting, especially when you compare it with some of the other universities which have woodland and parks and rural campuses. So, I think the ability to transform buildings and make them fit for purpose is still a matter of huge attention. Look what’s just happened at the Institute of Making. That used to be a rubbish compaction plant. To be able to take space like that, use imagination and create a wholly new facility is fabulous. We’re never going to be able to compete with universities that have open green fields but I think we can still make great improvements here.
One of the biggest themes running through the Masterplan is that of merging individual offices to create more “den-like environments” for academic staff. Is this conducive to a practical working environment?
It’s very interesting; I think that’s a global discussion at the moment. I understand that in some universities, like Delft for example in the Netherlands, that style of open plan working is now very common. Others much prefer a closed style of cellular offices. I think we’re trying to balance the two. We’re not as efficient in our use of space as we might be but we’re not as inefficient as some other institutions. My old institution Cambridge would often have a member of academic staff with an office in their department and another office in their college. I think we’re more efficient than that, but there again we’ve got the highest real estate prices in London if not in the world.
It’s very much a matter of culture, and in most commercial environments now – particularly in London – it would be very unusual for anybody to have a cellular office. They will have meeting rooms which are public facing and will then work in a very much open plan environment behind the scenes. That’s a different working culture to academia where you do need some peace and quiet and to be able to focus on your research. And to escape your colleagues!
Can tutors really offer effective one-on-one pastoral care, especially that which involves potentially sensitive situations, when their office is full of other people?
No they can’t. Any arrangement that had open plan also needs some cellular rooms that could be used for other purposes. If you were to look into our administrative building on Torrington Place, most of the floors there are open plan. Rex Knight (Vice Provost) works in an open plan environment with colleagues but for a sensitive meeting would obviously go into a private room.
Another big theme of the Masterplan is the creation of many new cafés around campus. What’s your favourite chain of coffee shop?
Oooooh… I’ll give you a very honest reply and say Pret A Manger.
Are we going to see any Pret A Mangers on campus do you think?
Well, I don’t think we need one. We’ve got them very close nearby. In fact, Pret A Mangers are breeding faster than any other organism at the moment. I don’t think we should start from the question ‘What should we put on campus?’ but from ‘What do students and staff want?’ What are the facilities that people want in terms of accessibility, price, opening hours etc? It’s very different if you’re running a campus somewhere like Nottinghamshire – which has a fabulous sort of woodland and weed grass campus – they need to provide a whole array of catering and other facilities on site because nothing else is accessible. Here it’s pretty different; Tottenham Court Road is 5 minutes’ walk from here.
UCL Health Centre
Why is there no provision to replace the UCL Health Centre in the Bloomsbury Masterplan, considering its importance to staff and students?
We’re hoping to be able to do so. We’re working with them to be able to do so. There’s never been any implication that we were going to close the Gower Place Health Centre, absolutely none. What we wanted to be able to do is to move them for two reasons. One is that the space is required for other purposes and the lease is coming to an end. The other one is that the space isn’t actually ideal for a modern healthcare centre. The accessibility is not something we can recommend. In terms of being able to improve the quality of healthcare for staff and students it would be valuable if we could find ground floor premises.
One of the technical problems is that in order for them to continue to be an NHS Practice they have to have their own separate ground floor entrance. So putting it into a different student building at a different height doesn’t work for us in that respect. So we’ve been looking at other property with them to see whether we can find something that will suite them. The rent and other outgoings on the premises are paid by the NHS, the question is; are we able, with them, to find premises at a cost and without going over the NHS budget?
Why is it the case that, considering you are Chair of NHS England, finding suitable space for the UCL Health Centre wasn’t top priority when designing the Masterplan?
Because it’s an NHS practice, not a university practice. The university does provide some funding to provide additional services for students, but the general practice is an NHS responsibility not a university responsibility. Our responsibility to our students is to try to ensure there is good primary care provision for them in the immediate vicinity. As I say, we are working with them to try to resolve that. There is no intention to shut down a practice which is of huge importance to our students.
On the 7th May it was announced that plans for UCL to build a new campus in Stratford had collapsed. You must be very disappointed considering the effort put into trying to secure the project?
Yeah I think we are pretty disappointed. We had got to a point where the gap between the cost to the council of bringing the land forward for development on the one hand, and the value of the land once it had been brought forward, was simply unbridgeable. In most development situations if you’re developing on unbuilt-upon land, land price rises in accordance with the future use of the land and used to count the cost of construction etc etc so you get a residual value. On this case you would look at the site and say ‘What’s the residual value for development?’ For a university there is no such thing. Nobody builds universities in sufficient volume to be able to calculate comparisons.
We were willing to pay the highest alternative value which would have been for residential use, but the cost to Newham to prepare the land for that use was more than twice that value. We looked at other possibilities but I couldn’t recommend to UCL that we pay above the proper going rate. At that point it became clear that we had an unbridgeable gap. The reason that it hadn’t become clear earlier was that the gap was smaller earlier and it grew as our negotiations went on.
You said the cost grew. Was that completely unpredictable? Whose fault was it that these rises in cost weren’t anticipated?
Both sides have professional advisors. We don’t go into this as amateurs tossing a coin at the negotiating table. The professional advisors came to the view that it wasn’t bridgeable. Newham still believe that they could overcome that with another commercial provider. But that’s a matter for them, I couldn’t go into that. We, for our part, could see that we could still do something potentially in Stratford, on the Olympic Park or on another site, in a manner which carried less risk and lower cost. We’re reviewing that at the moment.
In what capacity would UCL continue to be involved in Stratford? Building a whole new campus still or something smaller scale?
At this stage it’s difficult to foretell. It’s a product of two or three things. First of all; our real need to forecast what our future space needs are going to be. If UCL continued to grow next decade at the rate it’s grown this decade then we don’t have the space to do it. Secondly, we’ve got to look beyond the next decade. The problem is your horizons are always relatively short term. If we look two or three decades ahead then the problem is even more exacerbated. Thirdly, if you look at what our international competitors are doing – if you look at the top 20 universities in the world – we are the smallest. Every one of them on which we’ve done research is currently involved in significant expansion and acquisition of further sites.
I think the choice for UCL is either to sit still and contract, or try to maintain competitiveness in the world top 20. What we’re going to be able to do, either on the Olympic Park or nearby, will depend very much on our continued assessment of demand. Whether the shift in location alters peoples preferences as to the sort of facility they’d like to put there, our partnerships potentially with industry or with other universities would allow us to phase or to accelerate the development. These are hugely complex decisions that you have to take with a very tightly reasoned options analysis.
Was the decision not to proceed in any way influenced by the vocal campaigns of both students and residents against the plans?
I think they were a component. It was clear that if we/Newham – and it was really Newham’s responsibility – couldn’t provide a fair and reasonable way of rehousing and reassuring people then it was going to be a difficult scheme to progress. One of the things that really worries me is that with our withdrawal there is no relief of the uncertainty for people on the site. So it’s not a victory for anybody.
UCL UnionIn December 2011 you received a motion of no confidence from UCL Union, which was overturned by referendum a month later. What was your reaction to this initial attempt to no confidence you?
Well I still find it difficult to understand where it had come from. Student politics remains a rather black hole, as far as I can see. But I was very pleased that the student body by two to one voted it out.
Do you harbour any resentment towards the Union?
No, I could hardly do that.
Clearly one of the most traumatic moments for you as Provost was the shaving of your beloved moustache in 2005…
Yes, I blame The Cheese Grater for that. I do harbour resentment for that.
Did you notice people respected you less during your brief period without a ‘tache?
Actually it was only a weekend! So I think I did notice it, particularly amongst my family. My wife was very upset. But no, it was a nice thing to do at the time.
University of LondonDid you ever consider disaffiliating UCL from the University of London, especially after Imperial College pulled out in 2007?
Yes, but we decided not to. I think the University of London is an institution that has had a magnificent past, but our relationship with it now is much, much more limited. Historically it did a great deal more. It used to control the funding that came to the individual colleges, but that disappeared in 1994. And since then the University of London has been principally a library. It has a very good international programme, a sort of distance learning programme, and it has a set of small institutes within the university. But it’s no longer fulfilling the functions of a university in its own rite. Each of the 18 or 19 colleges is completely autonomous and independent. So it’s more a membership club than a governance body.
Last week the London Collegiate Council, of which you are part, voted unanimously to endorse a review which advocates the abolition of the University of London Union. How damaging is it for the University of London to lose its flagship union?
Flagship union? Hmmm… I don’t think it’s damaging at all.
You think ULU’s had its day?
Yes, I think it’s had its day. It’s had two functions; one has been representation of students and it’s clear that quite a number of college student unions had come to the end of the road on that. They felt they could equally if not better represent their own students. We have six, or is it ten sabbatical officers here? So you have to ask, can’t they do that job? Do they need to actually be led by ULU? I just don’t see the case. And then secondly the provision of student facilities, which the college collegiate council review has suggested should continue.
We had discussions about five years ago at the last review of ULU and made a proposal that we would take on the building and invest in it, to run a world-class student union with facilities open for all students of the University of London. It needs an enormous amount of investment, I think, to bring it up to standard. That would’ve helped us to resolve some of the shortfalls of our ability to meet student needs here. The complaint that I had in those days from our sabbatical officers was that we were subsidising ULU to undercut UCLU in its provision of catering and other facilities.
ULU costs us about £200,000 a year. You have to ask the question: is that money best invested there? Or should I invest it in providing student facilities on campus for UCL students. For me the answer points in one direction.
London Living Wage
Why has UCL been so slow in implementing the London Living Wage compared to other institutions?
No, I think we’ve been pretty good at it actually.
Even compared to the likes of LSE, Birkbeck and SOAS? [These institutions implemented the London living wage several years before UCL.]
Yes actually. What we did was wait until the contracts came up for renewal. A number of them have now been renewed and we have the London living wage. We at the outset announced what our programme would be and we’ve stuck to it.
In one word, what will you miss the most when you leave your role as Provost?
I think the community. I’m passionate about this place. The thing I really love about it is I’ve never before found such a sense of community and loyalty to an institution. I didn’t find it in Cambridge. In Cambridge there was immense loyalty to each college, but not across the whole institution. And the thing that’s really puzzled me from time to time is you wouldn’t expect to find it in London, a big metropolitan city. Many of our staff and students commute in from a distance and that does tend to promote in many other institutions a 9 to 5 mentality. I don’t know what your impression is but my impression is that this place does command affection in a way which I don’t see elsewhere. (Professor Grant not really grasping the concept of the whole ‘one word’ thing here)
Interviewer: James Donaldson-Briggs