Interview - Retiring UCL doyen’s tales of triumph and regret

Upon his retirement, UCL’s Michael Worton tells Elizabeth Gibney about his triumphs and regrets

September 26, 2013

The year in which John Lennon was shot, Yes Minister first aired and Margaret Thatcher claimed she was “not for turning” was also the year Michael Worton started work at University College London. He has been there ever since.

Since 1980, the researcher in French language and literature has climbed from the rank of lecturer to end up as vice-provost academic and vice- provost international. But at the end of this month his time at UCL draws to a close when he retires.

Despite many years at the institution, he still has big ideas.

“I’m never terribly keen to be jumping on bandwagons; I prefer to be driving the wagon and seeing who else is jumping on,” he says.

In this instance, Worton is talking about massive open online courses, an area of educational innovation about which he is not optimistic (a rarity for him), despite two such courses being planned at UCL.

Although he is an advocate of many new forms of teaching, with UCL’s bachelor’s of arts and sciences being one of the things he is most proud of, Worton questions universities’ motivations in opting to create Moocs instead of “really robust online provision”.

“Is this being driven because of the technology making it possible and because of a certain degree of hype around it, or is it for institutional reasons?” he asks.

Worton certainly cannot be said to be conservative when it comes to education. During his tenure as vice-provost international, the institution has expanded its global reach with the creation of UCL Australia and UCL Qatar. In addition, the number of overseas students recruited to its UK campus has grown markedly.

But after 33 years there are bound to be causes for regret. The Fielden professor of French language and literature says he still kicks himself for not having mounted stronger opposition to the government’s decision in 2002 to make the study of foreign languages optional for pupils aged 14 and above - a move he calls “a disaster”.

“Perhaps I could have done more with other people to really try to stop that foolish piece of legislation, which has led to British graduates having a much less competitive place in the international market,” he says.

Fears are growing over the future of modern languages at UK universities, with some predicting that the introduction of £9,000 fees will push students away from those areas and towards more clearly vocational degrees. Last year, the number of undergraduate entrants to modern languages courses fell by 12 per cent against 2011-12 figures, twice the overall drop in student numbers.

Worton says the message on the value of language skills, especially in business, needs to be articulated more clearly by employers and the government, as well as by universities.

“The leaders of the future are people who are going to be engaged constantly with colleagues from other cultures and languages,” he adds.

However, Worton is wary of “shroud waving” - creating an atmosphere of negativity that he says can itself cause decline - especially given that the picture is much rosier for young children.

From September 2014, foreign languages will become compulsory for primary school pupils aged seven to 11 in state schools in England. And innovative approaches to the teaching of languages at primary level are pushing secondary schools to create more interesting curricula, he says.

Influence a two-way street

Pre-university education is an area Worton should know about. Overseeing the creation of the UCL Academy, a secondary school in North London at which all students and staff must learn Mandarin, is another of the achievements of which he is most proud.

“The academy was seven and a half years of tough work. It was highly politicised because of…the objections to academies. But it is astonishing and I’m enormously proud of it,” he says.

While UCL thought that it would influence the school through its curriculum and ethos, Worton says he had not realised how much the school would affect the university.

“They’re all so fantastically committed to their vocation as teachers that it is beginning to rub off on us here…there is so much you can do if you are committed.”

As a former vice-provost with responsibility for teaching, raising the profile of learning is another area in which Worton believes he could have done more.

“We’ve come a long way but still people think of the promotion process as being determined essentially by research publications in top-quality journals…but I would like to see teaching and research as not just equal but intertwined,” he says.

Worton is leaving UCL at around the same time as its provost for the past 10 years, Sir Malcolm Grant. Whether the institution will continue to be as radical under new head Michael Arthur remains to be seen. But Worton points out that the university is already committed to many of its most ambitious plans, such as creating physical presences in China, India and Latin America.

“We’re a big ocean liner and once we’ve gone off in a certain direction we can’t stop, stall or turn 180 degrees,” he says. “Clearly Michael Arthur’s views will be vital in this; he will be the captain, if you like. I think he’s indicated that he’s enormously ambitious for UCL and has some very good ideas about how he wants to take this institution forward.”

Facing the future

Despite being offered many jobs at other universities and leadership roles elsewhere, Worton says he has stayed so long at UCL precisely because it is an institution that “allows you to do things”.

“It’s a place where I’ve been able to take big risks with the backing of various provosts and councils,” he says.

Looking to the future, Worton confesses to getting “a bit irritated” when people “go on and on” about Jeremy Bentham (who many call UCL’s “spiritual father”), the renowned philosopher who died in 1832.

“We can take what we like out of [his thinking], but we need to be ourselves in the 21st century.”

He adds that the institution also needs to lead rather than compare itself with others.

“Each university needs to realise that in the modern world, being ambitious is about not trying to be better than others but to be more completely ourselves. At UCL we look at rankings, but more than anything else we have a sense of who we are. We are different,” he says.

Worton’s plans for retirement have yet to take full shape. He says he plans to spend more time at home with his partner, who is disabled. But as a self-confessed workaholic, he will have to do something - probably in the higher education and charitable sectors, although perhaps not immediately.

“I want to spend the first two months…how should I put this? Just gently detoxifying from UCL,” he laughs. After more than three decades, this may take more than a few cups of green tea.

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