Inside Track - Sir Alan Langlands: Plotting a course in uncertain times

The dawn of a new academic year can give rise to mixed emotions.


For some, there is a sense of exhilaration and renewal, for others a sense of frustration that overdue writing commitments are still work in progress and that August, once the Platonic ideal of summer, seems to get busier every year.

However, as we enjoy the international welcome and introduction weeks, and the start of the autumn semester, a natural balance – often simply expressed in the words “it’s great to have the students back on campus” – is somehow restored.

There are very few institutions in other parts of the economy where about one third of the population changes every 12 months, and this brings new energy, new ideas and new insights to the University community. It is my privilege to welcome new staff and many thousands of new students from across the UK and around the world to Leeds, a great University in a forward looking, compassionate city. I hope you will all have a happy and fulfilling time here.

UK universities face many uncertainties at the moment, including the Government’s review of funding for post-18 education, unease about pensions, the implications of Brexit and the importance of international collaborations and global connections. Faced with this position, we have taken the view that we will be much more effective if we put most of our time and energy into the things we can control, whilst seeking to influence the wider policy and funding landscape at every opportunity.

Put simply, the University wishes to increase knowledge and opportunity by doing four things really well: providing outstanding education that will attract, excite and retain high quality students from diverse backgrounds; striving to be a world-leading research university by achieving significant increases in research quality, income and impact; promoting an integrated approach to innovation and enterprise; and increasing our international reach by boosting global education and research collaborations.

Recent results in each of our strategic priorities have underlined the benefits of this highly focused approach.

We have recruited almost 7,000 new UK undergraduate students, 47% with AAA or better at A-level. The University’s commitment to widening access and participation is also reinforced by the recruitment of more than 1,000 students joining us through our Access to Leeds programme. EU student numbers are significantly ahead of plan and international undergraduate numbers have also grown, but are unlikely to meet our ambitious target. Preliminary signs are that international recruitment of postgraduate taught students is strong. In the latest National Student Survey, Leeds recorded an overall satisfaction level of 88% – one of the strongest results for a research intensive University and first equal in the Russell Group.

The University has also seen continued progress in research funding, with more than a thousand new awards in 2017-18 totalling £175 million – an increase of more than 20% during the past two years. The University’s success in the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund – ranked third in the country by Research Fortnight – will change the lives and life chances of people in many of the poorest communities across the world. Meanwhile, the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities – a collaboration with York and Sheffield – has been awarded a £13 million grant to extend an already successful doctoral training centre, and there has been great activity in the summer to respond to an invitation from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to submit a number of bids for major centres for doctoral training.

Nexus – the University’s centre for innovation – will open during this academic year under the direction of Martin Stow, who will ensure it quickly becomes a place where ideas, expertise and opportunity come together, creating new economic value and developing collaborative working between entrepreneurs, businesses and researchers. And major funding bids are being actively pursued with industrial partners in areas as diverse as digital pathology, specialist glass manufacturing, medtech, high speed rail and advanced textile science and digital technologies linked to the fashion industry.

Good strides are also being made in delivering our international strategy, with a continued focus on the recruitment of international students and staff, developing global research collaborations (for example, our work on environmental sciences with Shanghai Jiao Tong University) and stepping up targeted engagement with our worldwide alumni, global companies, NGOs and other partners. These are all important steps to support academic development as the UK prepares to exit the European Union.

The University has more limited influence in a number of policy areas that could have serious consequences for the direction and funding of universities.

These include:

  • the review of post-18 funding, which will land with the Government in early 2019
  • the Joint Expert Panel on pensions will report during September, leaving Universities UK, the University and College Union, their Joint Negotiating Committee, the USS Trustee and The Pensions Regulator to determine an agreed position
  • Brexit discussions, which may or may not offer greater clarity towards the end of this year; and
  • the Government’s post-Brexit immigration policy, which will draw on advice from the Migration Advisory Committee.

Amid the current political bickering, the tendency at the top is to focus on means not ends. The University prefers to be clear about the need for positive outcomes in each of these areas, which I define as:

  • stability and sustainability of university funding and a fairer deal for students
  • a pension scheme that is stable, sustainable, fair and valued by staff
  • opportunities for staff and students to collaborate with European institutions on major research initiatives; mutual recognition of professional qualifications; guaranteed rights for EU nationals working or studying in UK universities and continued UK involvement in Erasmus+; and
  • establishing the UK as the country of choice for talented students and staff from around the world and providing research funding to develop collaborative working beyond the EU.

The financial risks associated with each of these challenges are real and, if they remain unresolved, will have a significant effect on University funding. This would require incisive mitigating action.

2018-19 will be a year of uncertainty in higher education. However, the University is in a strong position to navigate a way through this, with committed staff and students, who are achieving great progress in education, research and innovation, and extending our international reach; and a strong balance sheet that provides a secure platform, enabling us to tackle external financial risks in a considered and timely manner. We will also work hard using every route possible to ensure positive outcomes to the major policy and funding risks facing the sector.

Posted in: