False move

December 1, 2011

University College London plans to move "postgraduate teaching and research and accommodation for students and staff...to a new campus next to the Olympic Park...[This] could be used to house engineering, architecture, health and life sciences facilities...but no undergraduate teaching" ("UCL has sights set on new East End home (but serious cash is needed)", 24 November).

I am a middling senior academic at UCL who works in one of the areas that might be moved to Stratford. I think the proposal is a huge mistake.

Let's take research first. Much of the cutting-edge progress in basic research comes from interfacing disciplines. In addition, the challenges that our society faces mean that we need to focus our efforts and funding on translating basic science, especially in regard to human health.

More than ever, successful research requires communication across departments and interaction across faculties (especially the clinical), but the relocation proposal would make this much more difficult. At present, one of UCL's great strengths is the compact nature of its campus, which makes it easy to attend seminars in many areas and to meet regularly with clinical collaborators.

It is disingenuous to say that other universities are fragmented. In my research area, in Oxbridge or the universities of Harvard and Yale, everything is within cycling distance. This is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Witness recent moves (the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, the Francis Crick Institute in London) to bring isolated research institutes closer to teaching hospitals.

Ignore this, and research at UCL will wither and die.

What about teaching? The key strength of top universities is that research and undergraduate teaching interact. If we make this difficult, quality will decline. This will be inevitable if research-active academics are isolated from undergraduates. Good students are not stupid: they will stop applying to UCL if teaching standards decline.

My heart sinks as I write this. I have two undergraduates undertaking projects in the lab and two who wish to join us later in the year. They come in after and between classes and lectures to snatch a couple of hours at the bench; they knock on my (open) door and ask me questions. This is what university is about, surely?

I will not even go into the economics of the move (£500 million? That is almost our yearly turnover), or the planners' blight that will mean no sane academic will apply for a job here. Am I sorry I came to work at UCL? You bet.

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