Campus close-up: University of Westminster

Innovation and outreach are bred in the bone at institution, its head says

April 17, 2014

Source: Kobal

Surreal and terrifying: acclaimed documentary The Act of Killing showcases Westminster’s artistic talents

Listening to Geoffrey Petts, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster, relaying the core values enshrined by the institution’s founders, you would be forgiven for thinking the university was created just the other day, not 175 years ago.

Among the very contemporary-sounding values on his list are innovation, which was espoused by Sir George Cayley, the first chairman of Westminster’s predecessor the Polytechnic Institution, and widening participation and international outlook, issues championed by the philanthropist Quintin Hogg, who developed it after Sir George.

“Hogg was known for working with students on the street, getting them into education, broadening their scope…He also recognised that the institution was about innovation, creativity and research,” Professor Petts said. “What’s not well known is that Alice Hogg, his wife, pioneered higher education for women. She started the first women’s courses here, which led to us having our own institution for women.”

Their belief that “students, even then in the 1880s and 1890s, should experience the world – get that global perspective before coming back to London”, underlined their forward-thinking attitude, he said.

“We’re still learning how pioneering the institution was. [Our] history is part of our future; it is something our alumni and stakeholders associate with.”

When Times Higher Education spoke to Professor Petts, Westminster was eagerly awaiting the Academy Awards ceremony. One of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature was The Act of Killing. The film about the 1960s genocide in Indonesia was directed by Westminster academic Joshua Oppenheimer, artistic director of the university’s International Centre for Documentary and Experimental Film, with the help of executive producer Joram ten Brink, academic director of the centre. Although not an Oscar winner, it did collect a Bafta award for Best Documentary.

According to Professor Petts, such successes were inextricably linked to Westminster’s heritage. Its Regent Street site was where in 1896 the Lumière brothers presented the first moving film to a paying British audience. The cinema – which became the home of British film and photography – is being refurbished by Westminster with “many elements of the original cinema” in mind.

“We specialise in documentary film for two reasons: it’s a fascinating way of recording events and engaging the public in events. It’s also a research tool. The Act of Killing gained acclaim not just because it is a terrifying story, but the way the documentary was developed was very innovative.”

Professor Petts credits three key factors behind his “distinctive institution”: the polytechnic agenda, interdisciplinarity, and inspiration from different cultures.

Playing no small part in the last element is the fact that the university is based in the capital’s West End. “Being part of London – networked with Westminster, Parliament, the BBC and employees in the City – is of enormous benefit.”

At the same time, there are downsides to an urban site. Seventy per cent of Westminster’s students live at home, rather than in halls of residence, Professor Petts said.

“We’re not a campus institution. [Our] students need a particular type of education. We’re developing a programme called Learning Futures. [This is] about understanding how our students – coming [from] different family, educational and cultural backgrounds – [can] have the opportunity to develop their talents and become independent thinkers, [working] in a democratic, inclusive society.”

He said he hoped that by listening to what students wanted, the institution could provide an attractive and enticing environment. “That is reflected by the numbers – applications are going up. And certainly we see ourselves, as far as you can be in the university sector these days, as masters of our own destiny.”

The uncapping of student numbers, of which Professor Petts was a vocal supporter, will help, he said. Although he stressed that Westminster would not be raising student numbers immediately, he preferred a system in which institutions had more control and could plan ahead.

Just as important in planning for the future was attracting staff.

“The most important KPI [key performance indicator], to me, is the ability to attract top staff,” he said. “That is my number one role here, wearing my academic hat; if I can do that, then we have a very strong footing.”

Securing a solid base of talented students and staff allowed Professor Petts to look to the future with enthusiasm rather than trepidation.

“There’s no doubt that there are huge challenges. There are these unknowns. But those universities that have a clear mission and identity and plan for their own future will be in the best position to ride through whatever unknowns there might be in front of them,” he said. “So I feel very comfortable in my skin here. I dare say I’m actually enjoying it.”

In numbers

175 years of an international perspective

john.elmes@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

It is a great shame that Geoffrey Petts chooses to betray some of the values that he describes by offering degrees in unproven and disproved 'medical' subjects like Traditional Chinese Medicine. I did ask him about his opinion, as a geomorphologist, of the assertion that "amethysts emit high Yin energy" (as taught in a course at Westminster). Sadly he didn't reply. You can see some of the teaching materials here http://www.dcscience.net/?s=Westminster
This was once a great University when it was a Polytechnic - the first (1838) and one of the best in Europe. It excelled in STEM subjects especially engineering (the hard ones - Bachelors, Masters and Phd in mechanical, electrical, civil, etc) and then in the 1990’s it dumped these subjects assuming they weren’t trendy (UK ignorance and prejudice about STEM). Becoming a “traditional University” had a negative impact on this great Polytechnic school. The fact that it is situated next to the BBC (media, journalism) and the fashion district meant it put emphasizes on these “soft” subjects. It was influenced by the culture immediately around it not by world trends and values. But no university that makes these “soft” subjects their prime focus will ever have a high reputation in their own country never mind being world class. When it started to offer non-academic "trendy" subjects its reputation faltered and ever since it has collapsed in the ranks. How could such a great institution with 180 years history be 106th in the UK? It all comes down to poor management vision (global perspective) and know how at the top going back to the 1990’s. A series of poor leadership regimes and weak unfounded visions steered this school in these controversial directions (alternative medicine). Notice all the worlds top universities all have world class STEM subjects especially engineering schools (MIT, Imperial, Cambridge, Chicago, Caltech, UCL, ETH Zurich, Toronto, Pennsylvania, Lausaane Polytechnic, Cornel, UCLA etc). But Westminster has this vague Faculty of Science and Technology with all kinds of alternative heath care and medicine courses etc, and it sinks to the bottom of the rankings. There is probably nothing wrong with many of these courses but they are not strategic courses that underpin the wealth of innovation nations. And this is where Westminster missed the boat. It choose trendy subjects over substance. It should never have given up what it originally excelled in for a 150 years - STEM subjects.

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