Below is our draft response to the discussion papers Evolving the UCL Grand Challenges (full paper, exec summary) and Academic Opportunities for Targeted Investment (full paper, exec summary) published by UCL in January 2022 as part of their strategic plan consultation. Our response has been developed through consultation with students within our democratic structures, including discussions in our Policy Zones.
We want your input (below) to complete this draft, ready for submission. Are we missing anything? Are our priorities right?
This response below is in line with the aims Students’ Union holds as an organisation, to not only advocate in students best interest, but to also provide a hub for all that students do outside the classroom in their time at UCL. We provide countless opportunities for students, from clubs and societies to volunteering projects, from our arts community to our interdisciplinary networks and many more. We believe that so much of our work chimes with the values UCL hopes to achieve in the 2022-27 strategy, such as openness and inclusion, or rigour and innovation, and a thriving and empowered Students’ Union will enable UCL to more effectively achieve the aims set out so far in the consultation process.
Our own mission (‘we build a vibrant and empowered student community with real influence in UCL and beyond, that enables students to enjoy their time at university; pursue their interests and passions; see the world in new ways; and develop the skills and experience to change the world for the better’) shares a common goal with that of UCL’s; to shape a community at UCL in order to change the world for the better, and we strive to create a stronger sense of belonging and community for all UCL students.
Discussion paper #1 UCL Grand Challenges
We agree with the assessment UCL makes in this paper, that there are some issues that ‘are so profound… that they will (and should) shape everything that we do’, and that there are issues which are so widespread or all-encompassing that they require a multi-disciplinary response. The four candidate challenge areas also seem appropriate in the areas chosen as well as their focus on social issues, with scope to build in additional areas of focus such as global health inequalities related to vaccination. In fact, many of these issues mirror the priorities of the Students’ Union in its own strategic plan. For example, our own 2018-21 plan put student wellbeing and belonging at the forefront of our strategic priorities with the objective of leading the way on wellbeing and belonging at UCL. This issue remains critical at UCL today, with almost 60% of UCL respondents reporting to a survey we commissioned on non-continuation with Wonkhe/Trendence, that they felt lonely every day or every week during the pandemic.
As the discussion paper suggests, the solutions required to deal with these challenges will be interconnected, but it is important to note the ways in which the challenge areas also intersect at a causal level, such as through the impact inequality has on student mental health. On issues such as sustainability, mental wellbeing and inequality, UCL must ensure that the situation within the institution is improved as well as attempting to tackle these challenges on a global level, UCL has the opportunity to lead the way on advancing mental wellbeing and eradicating inequalities. According to a survey the Union conducted in the 2020-21 academic year, 60% of UCL student respondents reported that stress and anxiety have had a significant negative impact on their personal wellbeing, with this number rising as high as 68% for final year undergraduate students. In the priorities for working with the new Provost in January 2021 the Students’ Union pointed out the work UCL needs to do to ‘tackle the structural inequalities at UCL’, such as by improving the diversity of teaching staff, the accessibility of campus for disabled students, and in supporting LGBTQ+ students and staff. Solving these issues within UCL will have the added benefit of further enabling the organisation to deal with these issues around the world through its research and innovation, and therefore must be seen as crucial if these grand challenges are to be overcome.
In improving the situation related to these Grand Challenges, the Students’ Union can be at the forefront of helping to tackle these issues, leading on issues such as sustainability, student wellbeing, and social responsibility. When considering common approaches to delivery and how to create the conditions for success outlined in the discussion paper, areas such as academic leadership, coordination of research and ringfenced funding will indeed be crucial. However it is important that the role of student leadership and input to help drive this change is also considered, both in their academic work and beyond. Students’ Union UCL’s role as the heart of the UCL student community can aid the drive to success, helping to foster a stronger sense of community amongst students and building the interdisciplinary connections that are so often missed on campus.
Discussion paper #2 Academic opportunities for targeted investment
We agree with the paper’s core argument, namely that there are certain areas in which major investment exceeds resource in cost or complexity, and that targeted investment is needed in order to improve UCL and help respond to the Grand Challenges. We believe that such an approach will create more coherence across the institution and that if implemented correctly with suitable criteria, accountability and oversight this can also be done in a transparent manner. With this in mind, a process for investment decisions which allows the University Management Committee, which currently has no student representation, to meet regularly as an investment committee and make investment decisions, and only seeking advice from its Academic Board may not completely adhere to these standards of transparency and partnership working. Students should have a role in assessing the opportunities for targeted investment, making sure that areas that receive investment are beneficial to both current and future cohorts. This will ‘ensure that our students, at every level (UG, PGT and PGR), feel that they are a key and integral part of our university community and that their opinions and suggestions are valued and acted upon, as full partners in the future of UCL’.
We also believe that the principles for targeting investment outlined in the paper as seven criteria should have a much stronger student focus in order to most fully benefit the whole UCL community. Areas such as a demonstrable potential for transformation, responding to UCL’s London location and improving external perceptions of UCL are important, however explicit criteria about how these targeted areas of investment benefit the student experience are noticeable in their absence. The inclusion of student satisfaction and the benefit to the student experience both inside and outside the classroom as an additional criterion will help this process of targeted areas of investment best fit in with the key enablers from UCL 2034, to ‘give our students the best support, facilities and opportunities’. Placing the student experience at the heart of decisions on targeted investment will also help close the gap between student satisfaction and research at UCL, which is currently ranked 6th in the world for its research but only 14th in the Russell Group for student satisfaction in the 2021 National Student Survey.
Where should investment be targeted?
With regards to the current list of candidate areas set out, we believe that it covers a number of important aspects of life at UCL that would benefit from investment. Many of the candidate areas proposed would offer significant levels of investment and therefore benefit, to a particular department, faculty or group of students and staff. However, it is our belief that of the areas suggested, a new Union building (for which the whole UCL community has been waiting since 1959) and new Union sports facilities would most widely benefit the whole UCL student community across all disciplines and across all levels of study. This investment would also help to begin to reverse the extent to which UCL has fallen far behind other leading UK universities as well as its international peers in recent years with regards to Students’ Union facilities. For example, LSESU moved into a new £25 million Students’ Union building in 2014 which has since won numerous awards for its architecture, and Kings College London Students’ Union moved into a new space in 2019 opened by Her Majesty the Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge. On top of this, our ability to generate the income we need is currently drastically reduced due to a lack of commercial space. A new Union building would help to meet student needs, and enable Students’ Union UCL to reinvest in student activities appropriate for an organisation of this size, providing long-term financial benefit on the investment.
This targeted investment is crucial to the whole of UCL in many ways. There is currently an issue with adequate prayer spaces across campus, particularly for Muslim students, with many currently having to pray in meeting rooms and spilling out into corridors due to this under-provision. In addition, dedicated music practice facilities are extremely limited and of poor quality at UCL, especially when compared to many other universities which have high-quality, modern music rehearsal and recording spaces, often including a well-equipped music centre. 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
A new Union building would also help UCL to make huge progress in strengthening the sense of community and belonging at the institution. This currently severely lacking; according to a survey the Union conducted in the 2020-21 academic year only 38% of UCL respondents agreed that there was a ‘Strong sense of community at my University’. A new Union building offers countless opportunities to grow this sense of belonging. For example, there is currently a lack of social study space at the institution, where UCL students can gather in informal and collaborative spaces, share ideas and study and revise together. Such a space would combine a greater sense of community and belonging amongst students with increased opportunities for rigour and innovation at UCL, helping to tie such a targeted investment to the Strategic Plan’s values.
Investment in new student facilities would help drastically improve the co-curricular and extracurricular offer to UCL students, which is currently significantly held back by a lack of adequate facilities. A new Union building would help establish a real focal point for student life on campus, bringing students together to truly create a home from home for all students at UCL.
Your feedback, including examples of your experiences, will significantly help support our subission.
Make your own submission, direct to UCL
Below are links to the consultation landing page and relevant papers:
Below are links to submit a response: