In the first instalment of our two-part video interview series with UCL President & Provost Michael Arthur, he shares his opinions on the Teaching Excellence Framework and the impact it will have on UK universities. Professor Arthur also divulges some of UCL’s work in supporting graduate destinations and widening participation, as well discussing what the future holds for UCL over the next 20 years…
What’s your opinion on the Teaching Excellence Framework?
The government has proposed to bring forward the Teaching Excellence Framework and in some ways it’s a good thing because of course it’s very difficult to disagree with the notion of improving excellence in teaching, so in some ways I would be supportive. The precise way in which they’re going to measure that teaching excellence is more problematic and I think it needs to be a holistic analysis rather than being too metrics driven, I’m particularly worried about too much emphasis on the National Student Survey. Then of course the other aspect of the TEF is that it does link the amount we can charge on a future fee, it adds inflation, which actually for us is very important because we’ve been on a flat fee now for the last four years of £9,000 and our costs are still escalating so to be able to include inflation would be very helpful. I also happen to think it would be very sensible because it will prevent that need for another threshold moment. When we’ve had threshold moments in university fees there have always been really significant fee increases from £1,000 to £3,000 and then from £3,000 to £9,000 and I personally would like to avoid another threshold moment.
What impact has the National Student Survey had on the sector?
I think the National Student Survey has been a great success. I’d be slightly bound to say that having been its chair for a while! But it was really important that we could demonstrate that we were taking our student satisfaction seriously. I think it was very well designed to be national and therefore comparative. I think it’s been the single most important tool for improving student experience across all of the universities in the country and within that context also improving excellence in education. I think it’s been fantastic at driving forward improvements for students.
Are students getting good value for money?
I think the way we’re currently constructing the funding of higher education where students get government loans that they then pay back once they’re earning is an essential element of it and against that context I think there is pretty good value for money. I would be more worried if we were charging students up front and there was no loan system I think that would be worrisome. Value for money is always a very difficult concept and I think you’ve got to look across the long-term and most students that come to university it’s a completely life changing experience for them. They really do develop and they learn a lot and they learn a lot of life skills that they then carry forward into their careers. And I think if you ask students later they will see huge value for money. Of course, when you’re paying and when you’re here then it can look problematic at a high fee, but I think you’ve got to absolutely take that long-term into account before you make an assessment internally in your own mind about whether or not you’ve had value for money.
What is UCL doing to support graduate destinations?
I think obviously graduate destinations are of increasing importance to every university and obviously to the students and their parents. We have a full-on service that guides people to graduate careers, it has great links with industry. It’s not something that we save for the third term of the third year, it’s something that we try to integrate into all of our activities throughout the entire course and we manage to get very high graduate destinations and also total employment is very high for this institution up in the 90+% graduate destinations in the high 80s. We’re very proud of what we’re achieving but we’re never complacent, there’s always lots of scope to do a lot more and it’s of massive and increasing importance. It’s of major importance I think also to international students and I think traditionally universities have been less good at that but I think everyone’s getting switched on to that. Although many international students are only here for one year as a Masters there is still a lot that we can do to help them in their preparations for the world of work and we’re doing a lot more of that too.
What widening participation plans does UCL have?
UCL’s actually doing quite well in terms of its widening participation figures. The one that I always look for is whether or not we’re improving in terms of the percentage of students that are coming from low income families and we’ve seen that increase now to almost 20% of our student body which I am very proud of. As we have faced changes in the sector both the Higher Education Bill and Brexit of late, then one of our thoughts is that there is an opportunity to do more in widening participation terms and to think about accepting students with very different qualifications, think about access pathways, to think about pathways that assess potential as well as looking at actual grades and of course our involvement in trying to improve attainment in schools as well is another way of getting more people to come forward to UCL. So I think we’re hoping to increase our student numbers in widening participation by somewhere between an addition of 200-400 students each year and if we manage to do that I think it would also be important, there’s an element of UCL reconnecting with its local communities. One thing Brexit taught us is that maybe universities have gone a bit too far away from what the public are thinking and in particular what’s the benefit to the public of the university. Well one obvious benefit is if you can gain access for your children to come to an institution like this, so we want to do a lot more and we think it’s the right thing to do.
UCL: the next 20 years
What’s next for UCL?
UCL has set a strategy that runs through until 2034 and we’re very proud of the fact that we’ve lifted our heads up and looked forward for the next 20 years. So we’re trying to make decisions now that will make a big difference over a 20 year timeframe.
The two big things we’ve been involved in of late are the merger with Institute of Education which has brought together a lot of social science activity, research and education between the IOE and UCL. Obviously for UCL that brings the discipline of education, the pedagogy that’s associated with it and the expertise right into the core of this institution which I think will be critically important over the next 20 years.
And the other big project we’ve been involved in is the creation of a second campus which we call UCL East. it is both east in its geography but it’s also EAST in the acronym; Experimental, Arts, Science and Technology. It’s a huge development that will involve an additional 3-4,000 student places, 50,000 square metres and a second campus literally right on the Olympic Park just to the south of the swimming pool. So that’s a major project for us, it’s probably the largest project this university has undertaken since 1826, which is when we were first formed here in Bloomsbury.
I think there will probably be slightly more international than here on the Bloomsbury campus. Probably 45-50% of students on that campus. It’s mainly going to be Masters in the first phase of its opening. The first part will probably be open in 2020, the second part will be in 2022. When we open the second part then I think it will be a little bit more undergraduate in its profile. A high proportion of international students is the plan.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had since being at UCL?
I’m going to give you two biggest surprises since I came to UCL. The first is the absolute academic endeavour here is huge and very high quality. I’ve worked in several universities in the UK and in the US and the way I would explain it is that the best people I’ve worked with everywhere else could easily work at UCL the difference is everyone here is of that standard and it’s wonderful to be part of that.
The second surprise is the way that people will work very readily across disciplines. Both for educational activities and for research and this is traditionally a very difficult thing to make happen in a university because people tend to be very siloed in their disciplines but here not at all. People will work very readily across disciplines and in fact I would go as far as to say that if you’re not doing that at UCL then you’re slightly unusual. There’s so much of it going on and it’s unbelievably creative and productive and is one of the reasons why UCL has really accelerated up the international world league tables in recent years.