Inside Track – Sir Alan Langlands

Grasping new opportunities: the Vice-Chancellor's latest Leader Column.

Si Alan Langlands (Inside Track only) June 2018

The University – and the higher education sector as a whole – face a significant period of change in the next few years, much of it unpredictable. This brings challenges but also a great many opportunities to advance our work in student education and research and innovation. We are well positioned to face these challenges and to grasp new opportunities as they arise. 

In the past few months, the Office for Students (OfS) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) have been established. OfS will regulate universities and other higher education providers on behalf of students and UKRI will embrace the work of the seven research councils, Innovate UK and – through Research England – the research and knowledge exchange functions previously undertaken by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Despite their different reporting lines to Government, my hope is that both will collaborate to ensure the symbiotic relationship between education and research is maintained.

The University has made strong progress in recent years as we continue to promote outstanding education that attracts, excites and retains high quality students from diverse backgrounds; world leading research with improvements in quality, income and impact, as well as much greater international reach. Recent investments in PhD studentships and academic staff (circa £50 million) and new academic facilities (c£400m) mean we should have the self-confidence and drive to develop further.

The early focus of the OfS on regulation, value for money and improving access and participation is an exacting but essentially narrow agenda, which we should address without breaking stride. This will certainly not distract us from our wider commitment to work in partnership with students and staff to ensure the further development of research-led education designed to expand the intellectual horizons of students – encouraging deep subject knowledge, a wide range of co-curricular opportunities and the skills required to succeed in the global employment market. To do this at scale means we will have to streamline our programme portfolio, develop more flexible patterns of education and assessment, find the right balance between home and overseas students, take full advantage of new learning technologies and radically improve the systems and processes that underpin the student education service. All of these issues are now being addressed in a systematic way, but rapid progress is required if we are to remain at the forefront of educational development. 

In contrast to the OfS, UKRI has published a Strategic Prospectus, which is wide-ranging and ambitious. It proclaims that it "will play a fundamental role in ensuring the UK is able to meet the unprecedented societal and industrial challenges we face, both locally and internationally". It also talks of attracting and retaining leading talent, providing the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish and delivering economic, social, environmental and cultural impact. The scale of this ambition is, in no small measure, dependent on the Government meeting its commitment to provide an additional £7 billion for research and innovation by 2021-22 and its ability to incentivise an increase in R&D spend across the wider economy to 2.4% of GDP.

There are, of course, some important policy issues to sort out in UKRI, including the research councils' over-dependence on matched funding, the future of the dual support system and the temptation to invest in large-scale projects across a narrower range of universities. And whilst the threat of Brexit to higher education may be receding, it seems implausible that the current high levels of EU research funding in UK universities can be sustained beyond 2020.

Nonetheless, I am confident Leeds will continue to grow in strength as one of the major research-intensive universities in the UK for the following reasons:

  • our track record of delivering interdisciplinary research, which is systems-facing and solution-focused, is well established, ensuring we are well placed to tackle global challenges in key areas of health, water, food, energy, climate, cities, culture and social change
  • success in the Global Challenges Research Fund, launched in 2016, has drawn strength from long-established international collaborations, with almost £25m in grants to support research on global questions in low and middle income countries
  • we are one of a carefully selected group of universities playing a central role in developing major new national institutes in data science and artificial intelligence (Turing); the physical sciences/life sciences interface (Rosalind Franklin); research and innovation in materials science (Henry Royce); and climate and atmospheric sciences (the Met Office Academic Partnership)
  • astute investment in new or updated research platforms – for example, in medical and biological engineering, structural biology, data analytics, robotics, and pre-clinical and clinical imaging. These facilities support skills training for PhD students, encourage interdisciplinary research projects and provide a great foundation for industry partnerships. New initiatives in 3D weaving and textiles innovation, global food and environment, high-speed rail and systems integration, and virtual reality will open up further such opportunities; and
  • the excellent progress of our 140 University Academic Fellows, great success in external fellowship schemes and in attracting doctoral training centres, and some excellent new academic appointments are increasing the range, quality and funding for research.

These successes will have an enduring impact on the work of the University, building self-confidence and ambition and opening up new opportunities in education, research and innovation. During the next two years, further investments in the University farm, biological sciences laboratories and the Business School will enhance facilities for staff and students; the Bragg development will accommodate the Schools of Computing and Physics and Astronomy and provide a 21st century environment for research in materials and bionanotechnology; and Nexus will promote innovation by linking businesses, large and small, with world class researchers, leading-edge technologies and highly skilled talent.

Despite the pressures and uncertainties in higher education, I am sure we can continue to build on strong foundations of academic excellence, partnership working and an enthusiasm to play our part in tackling many of the societal and economic challenges that confront people around the world.

And, finally… as we come to the turn of the academic year, we can look forward to the installation of our inspiring new Chancellor, our summer degree ceremonies and the blossoming of our cultural partnerships with Ilkley Literature Festival and the Leeds International Piano Competition. I wish every one of our graduating students all the very best for the future and I thank students and staff for their unfailing contributions to the life and work of the University – all much admired and greatly appreciated. 

Sir Alan Langlands


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