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In the second instalment of a two-part video series with UCL President & Provost Michael Arthur, he describes the impact Brexit had on his students and staff and urges the government to consider the human side of politics and recognise the value of UK higher education in a competitive global landscape. Professor Arthur also reveals how UCL is prioritising its international strategy, which has been renamed as the institution's 'global engagement strategy.'

How has Brexit impacted UCL?

I think the biggest initial impact of Brexit was the impact that it had on our people, both our students and staff, particularly those who are from Europe, who suddenly felt unwelcome and not wanted and obviously very concerned about their future here in the country. Would they be able to continue living here after Brexit? It was very distressing for them and it was very raw and very emotional. I literally had people in tears in my office so we moved to reassure them as much as we could within the political constraints that of course they’re very welcome here. Our European staff and students are a really key part of the very fabric of this institution. We are London’s global university and all of those European members of staff and culture add a huge amount to this institution.

I think the most important thing for the government to do as we face the triggering of Article 50 is to try and move as fast as possible to create certainty for our European citizens, so right to remain in this country after the triggering of Article 50 and obviously after we eventually Brexit is the number one issue for both staff and students. People have their lives here, they’ve built their lives here, they’ve given their best to this country. Many of them have got children at school or children coming through to university. Some of them are undergoing healthcare treatments, these are all things that have been very straightforward in the past and all of a sudden they’re all up in the air so we need that settled down as fast as possible. The human side of it is something we really want the government to focus on. 

What role do international students play at UCL?

We’re very lucky at UCL in that we’re very attractive to international students. Our reputation is huge and going very well out there, but also we’re based here in central London and that attracts a lot of students and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve got one of the biggest international student bodies in the sector. We’re well over 10,000 students now which is about 32% of our student body. They add a huge amount to this institution; their diversity, the number of countries they come from, the different cultures they come from, the way in which they apply that to their learning and in particular to the way in which they approach problems. We find that hugely creative and it’s really good for our home students because for many of them of course it’s the first time they’re meeting people from so many diverse backgrounds. So it’s good for the international students they get a great education, it’s also good for the home students because they get that interaction and you put the whole lot together and you get that wonderful creativity that I think is very difficult to reproduce if you’re more monocultured. 

What’s UCL’s international strategy?

I think our key principle at the moment with our international students is rather than focus on an individual country is more to diversify and to be interacting with multiple markets and I guess that’s about protecting the institution from individual swings in the number of students that want to study internationally. We have, of course like every other university, a large number of Chinese students, for us that’s 29% of our international student body is from China. We wouldn’t want it to grow above that, we feel that’s round about the right level. So we’d be looking for growth from other markets, South America would be an obvious one, United States of America is one that we’re also finding quite attractive at the moment and other destinations in the Far East. Our personal interaction with India at the moment is very limited and that’s another opportunity that we will look into.

Our strategy has included a complete revisit of everything we’re doing internationally so much so that we no longer call it our international strategy we call it our global engagement strategy and that kind of gives you the flavour of the way we’re thinking about this. We are not particularly keen on overseas campuses, we do have three small ones in Adelaide, Doha and Qatar, and we have also helped a university in Kazakhstan, but our experience of that is that it’s quite complicated and I think we feel it’s better to work in partnership so we’ve been developing some major partnerships the two largest ones we have are with Peking University, Beida, that’s a flourishing partnership that includes education and research, student and staff exchange and we have a similar relationship with Yale in New Haven Connecticut. So we prefer that in-depth complex partnership working model and that can involve joint provision, and it certainly involves a lot of interchange between the two universities.

What sector issues concern you the most? I suppose the biggest concern I have, the thing that keeps me awake at night if you like, is just the level of uncertainty in just about everything at the moment! So there are uncertainties about student recruitment numbers related to issues like Brexit and to immigration policies of the UK. There are uncertainties about the future funding of higher education related to the TEF and what fee we will be allowed to charge. There are also uncertainties in research, the whole of the European research funding landscape will change over the next few years almost certainly and that’s a huge amount of money for this institution, well over £60m a year from that source alone. Plus of course the Stern review and the impact that will have on the next research evaluation framework. So there’s just change everywhere and it’s the multiplicity of that change and the way those factors will interact with each other that’s the biggest worry and the thing, if at all, makes me sleepless.

There’s certainly more change going on at the moment than I can remember and I’ve been a vice-chancellor since 2004, so that’s a good number of years. Of course we’ve been through changes, the introduction of fees, increase of fees but never all of these things at once. Higher education is very much more in the political spotlight now than it was back in 2004. We’ve become part of the political scene and therefore there’s a lot of attention on us from the media and politicians, I’m not saying that’s inappropriate I’m just saying it’s different and it all adds to that feeling of constant change and things being less settled.

What’s your message to the government?

I think my message to government would be to please recognise, I think they do, just how important higher education is to this country. There are very few sectors where we can say that we’re in the top three in the world and at the moment we rank second only to the United States of America for the excellence of our higher education system. That’s something the country should be very proud of, it’s something that drives our country’s prosperity. Part of that obviously is the economy of the nation, so we’re a major part of all of that so please remember that, and please therefore make decisions that help us contribute to the future of this country.

Sophie Tudor28 April 2017