University of London vice-chancellor heralds ‘HE innovator’

Sir Adrian Smith on what he feels is the institution’s undeserved reputation for fustiness

September 10, 2015
Senate House, London, Arthur Guinness, Arthur's Day celebrations, 2012
Source: Getty
Field of vision: Senate House is one of the UK’s major academic centres

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.”

In numbers

 150 years of offering degrees around the world via its International Programme

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Print headline: An ‘HE innovator’ at the heart of a city and the world

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Reader's comments (1)

The long running legal battle over the future of the Warburg was the result of the high handed action of the University of London, charging a ridiculous rent for an incomparable academic institution, failing to consult competent lawyers, and making the University of London appear incompetent, greedy and academically worthless. The road to recovery is long and painful, it is good to discover that it will be paved with platitudes and denials.


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