After extensive consultation, UCL have shared a draft of their new strategic plan. The plan sets out UCL’s priorities for the next five years. Read the Draft Strategic Plan.
Below is our response to UCL's draft strategic plan. If you want to make your own response, you can do so by 18 November 2022 via the Strategic Plan landing page.
- We are delighted to see that the Draft Strategy considers the student experience more widely and rightly places a focus on students’ education, co-curricular activity and skills development. In particular, the Student Life Strategy and a new Students’ Union building will be transformational for our students and will ensure that we are providing a truly world-leading and well-rounded university experience.
- Whilst we are pleased to see the need for a new Students’ Union building feature prominently in the strategy, we feel the urgency of this need is understated. Investment in this area should be a top priority for immediate action if we are to successfully tackle the current issues with students’ sense of belonging and community at UCL.
- We welcome plans to integrate student number planning with faculty planning processes and financial planning, and feel this will allow departments and professional service staff to adequately plan for the new incoming students. Similarly, we also support a strategic approach to increase in student numbers, allowing facilities, departments and enabling services to prepare for new cohort sizes and ensure that they can “provide a high-quality student experience” whilst “generat[ing] sufficient income to deliver investments projects”.
- We would appreciate further consideration of the potential impacts on increases in unregulated fees, and the impact on student housing that an increase in student numbers will bring, within the strategy, and would like to work closely with UCL on these issues.
- We are pleased to see proposals for initiatives to improve timetabling, assessments, and the module selection process as this has been consistently highlighted as a priority to us by students. Again, we look forward to continuing to work closely with UCL on these projects.
As the representative body of students at UCL, we have appreciated the opportunity to be closely involved in the development of this draft strategy through extensive consultation with subsequent papers. Since October 2021 we have continually engaged with our student leaders and student representatives to inform our response to all seven papers, ensuring that our involvement is student-led, centring the student voice and student experience throughout. With the publication of the Draft Strategic Plan, we are excited to see that our previous responses have been carefully considered and integrated into the paper.
This Draft Strategic Plan benefits from focusing more fully on the wider student experience, including co-curricular activities, student skills development and student wellbeing, than in previous papers, which we believe will help ensure that UCL’s educational delivery keeps pace with the world-leading research and innovation the university continues to provide. The Student Life Strategy will be transformational for the student experience at UCL, enabling the Union to deliver vital services for a growing and diverse student body that prioritise students mental and physical wellbeing, their sense of belonging at the university, and facilitates skills development. The proposed new Union building will benefit the whole student community; allowing us to address current issues with space and facilitates that limit opportunities for students to socialise, study, pray, partake in arts, music and sports, and create a true ‘home away from home’ for students on campus. We want to stress that this investment should be prioritised for immediate action, and completing this within the five year lifespan on this strategy would facilitate the success of the new Student Life strategy.
Overall, we feel this strategy addresses areas most pressing for our student body: limitations on space and facilities, the importance of co-curricular activities and skills development, challenges with timetabling, and with assessments. All of these commonly feature in our annual insight reports as a top priority for students at UCL. We are delighted to see students and their interests truly at the heart of this draft strategy, and we look forward to working closely with the university to bring the final strategy to life.
Vision, mission and values
It is crucial that the student experience is at the heart of UCL’s strategy, ensuring that delivering on education, skills-development, student facilities, co-curricular activities and tackling inequities keep pace with the world-leading research and innovation UCL continues to provide. We welcome the positive steps made in the ‘vision, mission and values’ section of the strategy towards recognising this and appreciate that several changes have been made from the original proposals in response to the feedback we provided in our consultation responses. As such, the proposals we make for ensuring this vision translates more concretely to every aspect of the strategy are made in a constructive spirit, and we look forward to working with UCL to facilitate this.
We are particularly pleased to see the changes made to the vision statement, which recognises the potential of both students and staff at UCL to transform the world, supported by UCL’s provision of education and research. Similarly, we support the clause in the mission statement focused on integrating activities including education for the long-term benefit of humanity. We feel that a small additional clause to the mission statement, about ‘outstanding support and development of our students’, would ensure the mission fully reflects the centrality of the student experience outlined in the vision and throughout the strategy.
We support the four value clusters outlined. While the strategy does not go into depth regarding how these values are integrated throughout the strategy, we recognise the work that has gone into embedding them throughout the draft strategic plan. We feel there are further ways in which these values could be more thoroughly embedded in the strategy, which are outlined below.
Integrity and mutual accountability
Greater emphasis could be placed on clarity and honesty in decision-making regarding key aspects of decision-making at UCL. This is particularly important with regards to the financial strategy and potential areas of savings which could have significant impacts for students. We note that ‘student accommodation assets’ and ‘unregulated fees’ were two areas mentioned in the UCL ‘financing our future’ town hall as potential areas of revenue generation. Selling accommodation assets and increasing unregulated fees would have a range of adverse impacts for students and it is important that the Students’ Union and student leaders are consulted extensively before any decision is made regarding these two points.
Openness and inclusion
The focus on closing the minority and ethnic award gap and discriminatory pay gaps outlined in the inequality grand challenge action plan is crucial and welcomed, as is the metric of improving the percentage of buildings meeting accessibility standards as requested in our previous consultation responses. This should be extended to include reference to disability inclusion more broadly, ensuring that funding is not a barrier to a diverse student body, and ensuring that dealing with these issues is not hindered by a slow pace of change within a large and complex institution.
Care and respect
The strategy makes greater reference to student wellbeing than previous proposals which is greatly welcomed. The student life strategy will go a long way towards helping address these issues. Improving support and pay for PGTAs, further increasing resources student support services and improving the student interruption process are areas the strategy would benefit from also including.
A new Student Life Strategy
We are in strong support of the initiatives set out in the section ‘A futures-focused approached to education’ and feel that this delivery area will have a positive impact on the student experience at UCL. We are particularly pleased to see the inclusion of the Student Life Strategy which we strongly agree will “create an opening, welcoming and inspiring campus” and ensure the student experience at UCL is truly world-leading. We are excited to continue to work in partnership with UCL for the benefit of our students.
Co- and extra-curricular activities are a core part of a well-rounded student experience. At Students’ Union UCL we provide students with extensive and diverse opportunities in skills development, leadership, collaboration, and community building. The Union facilitates new friendships and supports students in both their physical and mental wellbeing. Most recently we facilitated our most successful Welcome period yet, for our largest ever cohort of new students. We hosted more than 620 student-led events, met more than 14,000 students at our Welcome Fair, encouraged 600 students to sign up for volunteering opportunities, and saw 7200 students join a club or society during Welcome. The role the Union plays in welcoming new students, showcasing the world-leading experience we can offer them, and ensuring they feel included in a thriving community from the very start is one we are very proud of, and has only been possible due to the supportive and productive partnership we share with UCL.
As well as improving students belonging, social opportunities and wellbeing, this work also has direct links to their confidence in their academics. Research has found that students not involved in any kind of co-curricular activity are twice as likely to report not feeling confident about their degree, and found that confidence in their degree strongly correlated with how connected students felt to their university. When thinking about preparing our students for graduate life, students who felt like they belonged at university were more likely to report that they feel confident about their future career. It is clear that the prioritisation of co- and extra-curricular elements of the student experience in the form of a Student Life strategy is both a continuation of the important work we have been achieving together over recent years, and marks the start of an exciting new chapter in student life at UCL which will transform the experience of our students and be truly world-leading in how we deliver a futures-focused, well-rounded educational experience for all.
In particular, the proposals for a new home for Students’ Union UCL on the Bloomsbury campus will create a hub of student activity and connectivity on campus which will benefit the whole UCL student community across all disciplines and levels of study. With a new Union building we will be able to expand our provisions for students and meet their growing needs, and, as it will enable us to expand our commercial space, will enable Students’ Union UCL to reinvest in student activities appropriate for an organisation representing a membership of this size. This targeted investment will have a profound impact across the whole student community it many ways. We would be able to address the lack of adequate prayer spaces across campus, as well as the extremely limited amount of dedicated music practice facilities for students, and ensure adequate social and group study space for our growing student population. A new Union building would help provide a huge breadth of opportunity for students; enabling them to practice their faith, engross themselves in the arts, undertake physical activities to improve their health and wellbeing, seek support and advice, and so much more, all contributing to higher levels of student satisfaction and attainment, and lower levels of non-continuation. Whilst we are extremely pleased to see the Student Life Strategy and the proposal for a new Students’ Union building featuring so prominently in the strategy, we feel that the urgency of this project has been understated. Currently, students at UCL face widespread issues regarding a lack of sense of community and belonging, which in turn exacerbates the challenges for students’ mental wellbeing. Consistently, students report that the size and complexity of UCL creates barriers for them to form close friendships and find communities, and this issue is particularly prominent for commuter students and students from marginalised communities. A lack of a proper student home on campus – where students can meet, study, socialise and bond – only exacerbates these issues. Students’ Union UCL already has some of the worst student facilities of all the leading universities in the country, and unfortunately, we have fallen very far behind our peer institutions during the many years we have been waiting for a new Union building. This requires immediate attention, particularly to facilitate the success of the new Student Life Strategy.
Furthermore, we welcome the inclusion of “the expansion of sports and physical activity facilities” within the strategy and feel this should be an urgent priority. Sports and physical activity play a vital role in developing skills, teamworking abilities, confidence, and supports student health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, the current sporting facilities at UCL are far below the standard of other leading universities in London and across the country, seeing students limited to facilities that have received little investment in decades and having to travel significant distances to attend training or participate in competitions. The limited facilities also increases the cost of participation for students, as the vast majority of activity takes place in externally hired facilities. During a cost of living crisis we will unfortunately see students unable to afford to take part in sports if facilities are not targeted for prioritised investment. Specifically, the Lee Valley development should be fast-tracked given that this is a unique and time-limited opportunity to enable UCL East to successfully capitalise on its location with the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and enable us to develop a strong connection between our campus through sport.
A new Students’ Union building and further investment in the co-curricular offer for UCL students will benefit the whole community: establishing a real focal point for student life on campus, bringing students together to truly create a home from home for all students at UCL, and helping to future-proof UCL’s appeal to prospective students from around the world at a time where we risk losing our appeal due to very significant investment in student facilities by other institutions. This investment in particular would help to ensure that the brightest and best students around the world continue to choose UCL and ensuring the sustainability of the University’s tuition fee income in an increasingly competitive global recruitment market, as well as ensuring that the students we have at UCL are receiving a truly world-leading, life-changing educational experience.
A robust financial strategy
We welcome the new approach to strategic planning, particularly with regards to integrating student number planning with faculty planning processes and financial planning. Currently the disjointed nature of these processes means that many departments are unable to adequately plan for the new incoming students; we are optimistic that these improvements will lead to an enhanced student experience.
We are also encouraged to see that the university will be aiming for “maximum transparency about how [they] finance [their] priorities” as we believe that institutional accountability is of benefit to everyone in our community, and will help improve mutual trust and respect between the student body and the institution.
Size and shape
Acknowledging the financial pressures that UCL are under, we are encouraged to see that the university intend to move forward with modest and controlled growth. We also support this being achieved through a strategic increase in student numbers given that this will allow facilities, departments and enabling services to prepare for new cohort sizes and ensure that they can “provide a high-quality student experience” whilst “generat[ing] sufficient income to deliver investments projects”. We believe that this dual approach is crucial in order to mitigate additional pressure on staff, financial uncertainty for the institution and, vitally, to ensure a positive student experience.
Concerning actions moving forward, we would be keen to work closely with UCL on ensuring that links to the financial model are improved, and that the analysis of the resource impact of continued student number growth (for example, on estates, staff workloads, and digital infrastructure) are further developed.
Following our previous responses to papers six and seven (‘Enabling our academic mission’ and ‘Size and Shape’), we are encouraged to see that the implications of under-investment are acknowledged in relation to inadequate access to space on campus – particularly for socialising, taking part in co-curricular activities, informal group study spaces, and prayer facilities. Specifically, we believe that the proposal of a new home for Students’ Union UCL will be integral to providing a high-quality student experience.
However, our core concerns in this area are the consideration of increasing unregulated fees, and the ongoing lack of attention that the implications of growth on student housing has been afforded. As highlighted in our response to paper seven (‘Size and Shape’), student housing continues to not be considered despite the enduring housing crisis at UCL whereby students are struggling to find secure accommodation, and many are being pushed into precarious and unsuitable housing conditions. We would therefore encourage a more thorough consideration of student housing; the proposed increase in student numbers will exacerbate these issues and, we believe, have a profound impact on the overall student experience and student wellbeing. With regards to unregulated fees, we would ask to be directly involved in these conversations moving forward in order to mitigate the impact on our international student population.
Given the expected benefits for the student experience, we welcome the proposal of enabling initiatives that will reduce staff workload and the admin burden on academic staff. As stated in previous consultations, students have often felt that staff workload was too high to allow them to provide a personalised student experience and sufficient support. We hope that the realisation of these service improvements will provide a tangible difference to the lives of students.
Linking to the programme of administrative rationalisation, we are particularly encouraged by the ‘Student Experience’ section of the Draft Strategic Plan. Repeatedly, students have highlighted the need for a more user-friendly module selection process, as well as more information about their module options to ensure that they are able to make informed choices; we believe that the proposal to create a new process that is user-friendly and dramatically reduces the amount of administrative time required in departments will improve the quality of the student experience.
We also welcome the proposed student-data-informed improvements to timetabling. If carried out in conjunction with the proposed physical and digital infrastructure improvements, we believe that this will reduce the current challenges being faced by all members of the UCL community (e.g., delays in room bookings, double room bookings, lack of available space).
Finally, we would like to be closely involved in the development of new pre-arrival, welcome and induction activities. As highlighted earlier in this response, the Union plays a key role in facilitating a successful start of term through our extensive Welcome Week schedule, our Active Bystander induction training, and our pre-arrival communications. We also look forward to helping to shape the new Assessment UCL digital platform, which is greatly welcomed by Students’ Union UCL. We would like to highlight that such a platform must be able to provide students with personalised, in-depth feedback, whilst also ensuring that academic staff are guaranteed the time to do so.
Living our values
We welcome the university’s renewed commitment to inclusion, belonging and equity. We would like to seek further clarification on how the university will ensure that all voices are heard, whilst also protecting the right that everyone in our community holds to not be discriminated against based on a Protected Characteristic.
While we understand that it is important for all members of the UCL feel safe to express their views and opinions, we feel that it is important to ensure that collective consideration of what academic freedom means does not lead to situations where ‘freedom of expression’ is placed above the Equality Act (2010). We would therefore ask that the “need to examine the boundaries of academic freedom” is balanced with UCL’s renewed commitment to sustained action inclusion, belonging and equity.
Looking to the final Strategic Plan, acknowledgement of the need to satisfy these competing priorities would be welcomed.
Delivering and performance
Students’ Union UCL are looking forward to future engagement and working together as the strategy takes shape over the coming years. We believe that it is essential that we are consulted on further decisions, particularly regarding the financial strategy and potential areas of cost reduction and revenue generation. For example, through a sabbatical officer being represented on the Strategic Plan Programme Board, as well as the new Investment Committee. This would ensure that students continue to be meaningfully represented in crucial discussions and decision making going forward as the strategy develops.
In conclusion, we are pleased to see a draft strategy truly placing students at the heart of everything UCL does, including detailed considerations of students’ wellbeing, belonging, co-curricular opportunities and skills development. We have appreciated the opportunity to meaningfully consult and engage with earlier stages of the strategy development and feel the result has been a more well-rounded approach to the student experience at UCL. Whilst there are a few areas we feel warrant further consideration – such as ensuring consistent student representation on key committees and boards, the issue of student housing and unregulated fees – overall we do feel this strategy speaks to the areas of student life at UCL which students have informed us are most pressing for them. We look forward to working with UCL closely, both to further refine the final version of the strategy, and to help bring the strategy to life in the future.