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.”
175 years of an international perspective
Scientists have developed a new way of encrypting confidential information that uses a mathematical model based on how the heart and lungs exchange information in the human body. A patent application has been filed for the innovation, which grew out of interdisciplinary research in Lancaster University’s physics department. It is hoped that it will lead to better encryption for the identification codes that are used in everything from car locks to online bank accounts.
There is nothing worse in a pint than “biofilm” – a slime that forms inside pipes delivering beer from keg to tap. But Coventry University biomedical science undergraduates Raquel Rossiter and Daniel Perfitt are on placement with Lincolnshire-based Cambridge Scientific Solutions to help refine new technology to rid pipes of the substance. Working out of Coventry’s microbiology labs, the students are helping CSS to understand how its “BeerSaver” system works at a microbial level and are exploring other possible applications for it.
University of the West of England
Academics have compiled a database that explains the meaning of 45,000 surnames. Researchers at the University of the West of England said that it was the first step in creating an online searchable dictionary of surnames scheduled for publication in 2016. Entries for each name will include how common it is, its main location, its origins and references to documents that show its early use. The team, which includes historical linguists, medieval historians and lexicographers, analysed records from the 11th to the 19th century.
University of Reading
The public can now sign up to a massive open online course about the causes and consequences of obesity, developed by an institution in the South East. The University of Reading’s Mooc will begin in early June and explore the impact of cheap fast food, sedentary lifestyles and changing transport modes. The four-week course is Reading’s fourth Mooc and is available on the FutureLearn platform.
Queen Margaret University
A university has joined forces with three local authorities to help develop the next generation of public service leaders. Public management experts from Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University have worked with the City of Edinburgh Council, Dundee City Council and Orkney Islands Council to create a master’s course in public services leadership that aims to improve the delivery of public services across the country.
Researchers are collaborating to develop a camera the size of a fingernail that will be able to view how molecules move within cells. A team from the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University hope to be able to capture single light photons with the device. Robert Henderson, of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, said the camera “will allow us to look at what goes on in living cells, which until now has eluded scientists”.
London South Bank University
Students can be unfairly stereotyped as less than alert – particularly when they have a 9am lecture to attend. Now, those in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at London South Bank University have a real reason for feeling weary after the department acquired an “age simulation suit”. The suit, which will help health and social care students to understand how their future patients feel, can restrict eyesight, dull hearing and even cause involuntary tremors in the hands of those who wear it.
University of Southampton
Oceanographers at a university have contributed to a chemical atlas that maps the distribution of elements and isotopes in oceans worldwide. The project involved researchers from 30 laboratories in 10 countries gathering and analysing almost 30,000 water samples. Researchers from the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton worked on the tropical and South Atlantic portions of the atlas, which includes three-dimensional maps and rotating images.