With its grand neoclassical tower and marbled lobbies, the University of London is often regarded as one of the UK’s more old-fashioned universities.
It is a reputation that its vice-chancellor, Sir Adrian Smith, is keen to shake off.
“We have always been at the forefront of what is innovative,” says Sir Adrian, who notes that the university “invented outreach” with pioneering distance learning courses that helped to spread higher education across the country, and beyond, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
The university, established in 1836, currently has some 54,000 students in 180 countries studying on its International Programmes, a tally it hopes to increase to 70,000 by 2019.
“Only the Open University does this on any kind of scale internationally,” says Sir Adrian.
But the federal university had been running such programmes overseas long before the Milton Keynes-based institution was even envisaged, he adds.
Sir Adrian will shortly head to Mauritius for a ceremony to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first internationally awarded degree.
“I’m sure I’ll be accused of going on a jolly, but these things are very important to many countries across the world,” he says, adding that the UK benefits hugely from the university’s “global brand”.
The university was also the first UK higher education institution to offer a massive open online course (Mooc) via Coursera, Sir Adrian adds.
“It’s not the sort of thing you associate with the tower and the wood panelling here at Senate House,” he says of London’s innovative delivery of degrees.
Sir Adrian is also keen to strengthen the more traditional academic activities found “in its backyard” at Senate House, which he says is wrongly viewed by some as a “mausoleum”.
In fact, Senate House is not only the university’s administrative heart, but remains one of the country’s major academic centres, each year attracting around 150,000 library visitors and a further 60,000 to events at its postgraduate centre, the School of Advanced Study.
The school has recently announced a number of high-profile appointments. Rick Rylance, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is to become director of the Institute of English Studies, and Sarah Churchwell will leave the University of East Anglia to become the school’s first professor for the public understanding of the humanities.
David Freedberg, a distinguished art historian from Columbia University, has just started as director of the Warburg Institute, whose future has been secured after a long-running legal battle over its funding finally concluded last year.
In another major development, next year City University London will join the federal university, which currently has about 115,000 students at 17 self-governing colleges and 10 smaller institutes.
Mixing City’s vocational focus (law, business, healthcare) with London’s research-led institutions had previously been seen as problematic for the federal university’s brand.
But Sir Adrian believes it was important to look beyond City’s (recently improved) research record to see what it might bring to the federal university.
“The most recent institutions to join before City were the (now) Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music, because they were major entities for practitioners,” he says. “You don’t expect every institution to make the same class of research,” he adds.
The “big beast” of City’s Cass Business School and its links to the City of London’s livery companies will be significant assets to London, he adds.
After a turbulent first three years in the post, including the occupation in 2013 of his office by student protesters angry at the closure of its federal student union, Sir Adrian is looking to shape a new future for the university.
The plans will include upgrading and consolidating the university’s complex estate – located mainly in Bloomsbury and, at 390,000 sq m, as big as 44 Wembley stadiums – and expanding its international offer.
With its constituent colleges now fiercely independent entities, Senate House no longer dictates curricula in the way it once did, Sir Adrian says.
“The idea of us as a powerful centre that controls things has long gone, but something else has replaced it and…it is world-leading in scale and innovation.”
150 years of offering degrees around the world via its International Programme
University of Exeter
Cities should feature large parks and green spaces alongside compact development if they want to foster healthy ecosystems, research has concluded. A research team at the University of Exeter along with Hokkaido University in Japan looked at nine cities worldwide and concluded that this was a better way to preserve urban ecosystems than having more, yet smaller, green spaces. But they also stressed that street trees, smaller parks and gardens were important.
University College London
People with intellectual disabilities – generally those with an IQ below 70 – are being prescribed antipsychotic drugs even though the drugs are ineffective and risk possible harm. Researchers from University College London made the discovery by analysing anonymised GP records of more than 30,000 individuals from between 1999 and 2013. Antipsychotics are designed for severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, but not behaviour problems when they are linked to intellectual disability only.
University of East Anglia
Bacteria could be used to protect the environment by “mopping up” methane, according to a study published in Nature. Researchers from the University of East Anglia found that bacteria called methanotrophs contain proteins that can bind large quantities of copper, which in turn can be used for methane oxidation. Co-author Colin Murrell, professor at UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, said that the finding “will really help us to formulate new strategies for exploiting these bacteria both in the laboratory and in the environment”.
University of Northampton
Pets can have a beneficial impact on the behaviour of young people with autism spectrum disorder. That is the main finding from research by a student at the University of Northampton, who studied the effects of animals on 11 under 18s with the syndrome in the Midlands and Northern Ireland. Katy Bolus said that the parents of the children reported changes such as “increased calmness, increased social interaction and communication and decreases in negative behaviours, such as meltdowns”.
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Health workers in Nigeria are wasting valuable malaria medicines by prescribing them to patients who do not have the disease, scientists have found. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Nigeria discovered that staff used rapid diagnostic tests on less than half the patients attending pharmacies and health clinics to check whether they had the disease, despite extensive staff training.
The findings of a seven-year research project are being displayed in an exhibition at the site of the former Nazi extermination and labour camps in Treblinka, Poland. Finding Treblinka: An Exhibition of Forensic Archaeological Research showcases physical evidence uncovered at both camps during a research project led by Caroline Sturdy Colls, associate professor of forensic archaeology and genocide investigation at Staffordshire University’s Centre of Archaeology.
University of Edinburgh/University of Dundee
Scientists have discovered a protein that could be used to create ice cream that melts more slowly. Researchers at the universities of Edinburgh and Dundee said that the naturally occurring protein can bind fat droplets and air bubbles in ice cream, making them more stable in a mixture. They estimated that ice cream made with the ingredient could be available within three to five years.
Robert Gordon University
A website launched by Robert Gordon University aims to improve the accessibility of nursing theses and dissertations from around the world. The International Network for Electronic Theses and Dissertations in Nursing, a partnership with Duquesne University in the US and Australia’s Curtin University, will host links and resources to make it easier to access the work of master’s and doctoral students.