From here to posterity

Queen Mary can best serve its local community via the pursuit of global excellence, Simon Gaskell tells critics of recent 'restructures'

August 9, 2012

Queen Mary, University of London, has attracted rather a lot of attention lately. Much of the press coverage we have received has been positive and has talked about, for example, our invitation to join the Russell Group and our strategic alliance with the University of Warwick. You may also, however, have read about the restructures we have been undertaking in some of our academic schools and the criticism this has attracted in some areas.

Few of us need reminding that the current environment for higher education in England is the most challenging for a generation, or that the problems are primarily associated with uncertainty surrounding the financial and regulatory environment in which we work.

Successful universities will respond in a number of ways, but in the current context it is vital that we retain a clear view of our purposes and are able clearly to articulate our defining characteristics.

At Queen Mary, these are to create and disseminate knowledge, and this is enshrined in our institutional objectives. This of course includes teaching, but also research and the subsequent application and commercialisation of those findings, interactions with the cultural and commercial sectors and provision of policy advice to government.

The vocabulary we use to articulate our core purpose may vary, but the essence of that purpose is shared by many universities. At Queen Mary, however, we have a character that, if not unique, is very unusual, and this derives from a combination of our history and current achievements.

Our origins lie in the People's Palace, an exercise in Victorian philanthropy that sought to provide education and entertainment to the residents of the East End of London. Its education element provided the foundation for the current Queen Mary, which has evolved through transformation and merger throughout our 125-year history.

Our place in the local community is still important, and annually more than 10 per cent of our new students come from our local neighbourhoods. This sense of community responsibility stretches beyond the academic, and we were the first higher education institution to pay all staff the London Living Wage.

I believe that of all the contributions we can make to our local communities, one of the most important is to be a university of the highest distinction as judged by national and international standards.

Queen Mary's progress in this respect in recent years has been remarkable. In the last research assessment exercise, our overall UK ranking moved from 49th to 13th, with several subjects ranked in the top five. We've invested in our campuses at Mile End, Whitechapel and Charterhouse Square and this, combined with excellent teaching, has been reflected in a significantly improved student experience, with student satisfaction in 2011 five percentage points above the national average.

This combination of academic excellence that merits comparison with the finest universities in the UK and an unswerving commitment to our local communities is distinctive.

We cannot, however, assume that we will retain this position without substantial continuing effort. For example, our proud record at Queen Mary of enabling students from a wide range of backgrounds to study here is one that we will need to work hard to maintain under the new funding regime.

Nor can we assume that academic excellence develops and perpetuates without effort and focus. We will have to continue to ask for extraordinary contributions from all members of the Queen Mary community, including academic and non-academic staff, and we must anticipate difficult decisions as we maintain high standards.

Our recent restructuring programme has been driven by differing combinations of academic and financial considerations. We appreciate that these changes have been difficult for colleagues. Where academic performance has been assessed, it has been important to do so on the basis of objective criteria including metrics - any subjective assessment would be quite unacceptable. These objective criteria were based on generally recognised academic expectations and set at levels that reflect the imprecision of any such measures.

The changes we have undertaken have been made in the context of a confident institution, where focus and quality are critical to our future but where we remain committed to an intellectual spectrum that spans medicine, through science and engineering to the social sciences, arts and humanities. As we move on, we are investing in those areas that have been restructured, with a focus on establishing strengths over the medium to long term.

Our ambition remains unchanged - to be characterised by academic performance of the highest order in an institution with unparalleled community commitment, reflecting the defining characteristic of Queen Mary.

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