Steady hand needed on the tiller as UCL charts global waters

Malcolm Grant's successor must look abroad while keeping an eye on home. Elizabeth Gibney reports

June 7, 2012

Just follow the plan: the next provost's role may be to implement, not innovate

Malcolm Grant's decision to step down as president and provost of University College London has created an intriguing vacancy at the helm of an institution that continues to push its international credentials.

Whoever takes the mantle in September 2013 will lead an institution that is much larger than the one Professor Grant inherited in 2003 and that has even greater ambitions for expansion and collaboration.

UCL now markets itself as "London's Global University", and among the attributes needed for the provost role is the ability to enhance the institution's "outward-facing profile...on the global stage".

Stick or twist

Deciding whether to continue to increase UCL's international initiatives or consolidate will be a key decision for the next provost.

Measures started under an international strategy by Michael Worton, UCL's vice-provost, in 2005 already appear to have paid off.

According to Alison Woodhams, the institution's finance director, the proportion of UCL income from outside the UK - tuition fees, research grants and contracts, plus its overseas operations - rose from 11 per cent in 2002-03 to 19 per cent in 2010-11. This was driven in part by a trebling of European Union research funding and an increase in the number of international students (see graph below).

Another university official made the point that UCL no longer compares itself to UK institutions but to top US universities.

As well as attracting more overseas students and research income, the Bloomsbury-based institution has begun to establish postgraduate and research institutions overseas.

Fledgling initiatives that will be expected to thrive include UCL's campus in Qatar, which offers postgraduate degrees in archaeology and museum studies, as well as a campus in Adelaide, Australia.

Under an agreement with Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, UCL has accepted the first undergraduates on its engineering course at the site.

The institution also plans to expand the collaboration it established with Yale University in 2009, aimed at improving global health, into other areas.

David Price, UCL's vice-provost for research, told Times Higher Education that growth in such partnerships is likely to continue, but not in "an aggressive fashion".

"As things evolve in the future, we must not do anything which destabilises or compromises the 'core mission'...but I think one could hypothesise...that if the opportunity arises we wouldn't set our minds against it," he said.

UCL is also looking to acquire additional sites in London.

After merging with the School of Pharmacy, University of London, in January, UCL last month extended an initial six-month "consideration" period with Newham Council to develop ambitious plans to establish a campus near the Olympics site in Stratford, East London.

Further UK-based collaborations are also on the cards, with UCL's research strategy pledging the institution to act as a "hub" for smaller "islands of excellence".

UCL is already the founding academic partner for the £700 million Francis Crick Institute, being built in St Pancras, London (now joined by Imperial College London and King's College London), and it has brought two London universities and one NHS trust into UCL Partners, its Department of Health-funded academic health science centre.

Students at the heart of the system

However, expansion cannot come at the cost of the world-class student experience UCL aims to offer, Professor Price said. Balancing its ambitions with the will of an increasingly vocal student body will be a vital task for UCL's next leader.

Ben Towse, the UCL Union officer for postgraduates, said that stemming retrenchment and threats to academic values should be the top priorities for the incoming head.

"With Grant we're currently seeing major threats to academic freedom, a narrow-minded obsession with the research excellence framework and similarly vacuous metrics, and an amoral, cost-cutting ethic defining UCL," he said.

The UCL Council White Paper 2011-2021, published last year, recognised the need to focus more on students in the wake of increased fees.

As well as promising to boost educational excellence and student employability (including provision of a more "liberal arts" education), it pledged to provide more student beds and to relocate activity not focused on undergraduate education to other parts of London.

A key test for the next provost in this area - and again reflecting UCL's global drive - will be to ensure that the university's plan to replace its honours degree system with US-style grade point averages moves ahead smoothly.

Meanwhile, over the next decade the university plans to invest more than £500 million in a programme of "rationalisation, new development, refurbishment" and enhancement of its public spaces.

The scale and range of plans under way highlight that the provost will join an institution with a well-established leadership team and plenty of momentum.

So while Professor Grant was himself a vociferous advocate of modernisation, his successor's job may be to steadily guide a ship that is already moving at breakneck speed.

"I suppose the challenge is for the next person to continue to do great things with a delicate touch," said Alex Acland, principal at international headhunting firm Heidrick & Struggles.

"I think this is a subtle leadership role."


Heavy-hitting heads who could wear the crown

Leaders of internationally recognised universities and senior industry executives with academic experience are the most likely contenders to succeed Malcolm Grant as president and provost of University College London.

The university has appointed a selection committee, which includes academics, members of the UCL board and one student, to find the successor to lead the institution once Professor Grant retires in September 2013.

Alongside headhunters Odgers Berndtson, the committee will come up with a shortlist by November and a decision by the end of the year.

Alex Acland, higher education specialist in the London office of Heidrick & Struggles, another headhunting company, told Times Higher Education that the search will mostly encompass established leaders with impressive academic careers, sourced from within the world's top 50 institutions.

Although in-depth knowledge of the UK higher education landscape would be an asset, especially in such turbulent times, UCL's global "brand" means that the candidate need not be British nor have worked in the UK, he said.

"Put it this way: when Chelsea look for their next manager I doubt they'll be doing what the FA has done and insist on a UK manager. It'll be the best person," he said.

Despite UCL's strong existing team of vice-provosts, recruiting internally is unlikely, he added.

"The top (universities) do tend to look outside. It's hard for internals to re-establish their credentials at the top level, but that's not to say they can't."

For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently appointed L. Rafael Reif, its provost and a member of staff for 32 years, as president. He will take up the post next month.

Recruiting from outside higher education also happens only rarely. But given UCL's size and £800 million budget, finding an academic leader who also has business experience would be the holy grail, said Mr Acland, citing Sir Richard Sykes, former rector of Imperial College London and chairman of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline as an example.

UCL's search is likely to be affected by Imperial also being on the lookout for new leaders: a president and rector to replace Sir Keith O'Nions when he retires at the end of 2013, as well as a provost.

And students at UCL have their own ideas about who should rule.

The UCL Union has passed a motion kick-starting the Democratise UCL campaign, which calls for the selection committee to feature more students.

The current student representative was not the body's first choice, said Zubair Idris, chairman of the union.

Without more students on the committee, the renegade provost who Mr Idris would like to see "stand with students in Parliament Square and shout down a (bad) policy" is even more likely to remain a pipe dream.

Leadership potential? Figures who might fit the bill

David Eastwood

Vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham since April 2009, previously chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. A historian, Eastwood was also vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

Eric Thomas

Vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol since 2001 and president of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' umbrella group, since August 2011. Professor Thomas, an expert in obstetrics and gynaecology, is also chairman of the board of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education Europe.

Stephen Kevin Smith

Vice-president of research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Former pro-rector for health at Imperial College London and chief executive of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. Smith was also a founder member of biomedical start-ups Metris Therapeutics and GNI Group.

Michael Worton

UCL vice-provost (international)

The professor of French language and literature has developed and coordinated UCL's global policies and strategies over the past 14 years and has overseen the management of its academic centres in Australia, Kazakhstan and Qatar.

Ed Byrne

Vice-chancellor and president of Monash University in Australia. Professor Byrne moved Down Under after a two-year stint as vice-provost for health at UCL. The UK-born neuroscientist has also sat on the board of Australian biotech firm Cochlear and been a director of Bupa, the UK private healthcare provider.

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