Inside Track – Sir Alan Langlands: Embracing new ways of working

In this season of transition and renewal, there's a collective intake of breath – within the HE sector and the wider community – as we brace ourselves for the outcome of 11th-hour Brexit negotiations.


Friday 29 March represents a critical moment in our history*. But even as I write, there is still a great deal of uncertainty in this long drawn-out process.

As we leave the EU, we will ensure the University faces any new challenges this might pose with clarity of purpose and confidence. The possible implications for staff – particularly those from other EU countries – and students will of course be our prime concern.

Throughout this uncertain period, we will stick resolutely to our core mission – to create knowledge and opportunity through sector-leading education and globally-recognised research and innovation; and to extend our international reach, welcoming international staff and students to Leeds and working in partnership with universities around the world.

Away from the political uncertainty, for the University, spring signals two exciting new initiatives – the unveiling of Nexus, our new innovation centre, and Council approval of funding for the Student Lifecycle Programme.

Nexus will bring together a vibrant community of entrepreneurs, start-ups and early stage companies and innovators with our researchers, professional partners and emerging student and graduate talent, to form new and valuable collaborations that will deliver breakthrough solutions to real world problems and economic growth for the Leeds City Region and beyond.

The Student Lifecycle Programme (SLP) is a four-year transformation project aimed at improving the processes, systems and ways of working we use to enhance the student experience. 

One aspect of the programme is calling for ‘change champions’ among colleagues, to provide insight and expertise to help shape the direction of this initiative. Open communications and the careful implementation of change will be increasingly important to us all as we face the many challenges emerging in higher education.

Student education

Outstanding research-led education equips our students to succeed in a competitive global employment market.

Funding for the SLP will build on a forward-looking curriculum, an exciting range of co-curricular activities and a sector-leading partnership between students and staff.

Our many achievements in education are reflected, in part, by the annual High Fliers Research survey, which confirms we are one of the top ten UK universities most targeted for recruitment by leading employers.

Student education has been further boosted with two key appointments. Professor Tina Overton is the new Director of Leeds Institute of Teaching Excellence (LITE), while Dr Christina Edgar has been recruited as Director of Student Opportunity. Their combined expertise will strengthen the University as we tackle the impact of the post-18 funding review and ensure students remain front and centre in our post-2020 strategy.

Research and Innovation

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) announced last month that Leeds will receive more than £15m to fund three Centres for Doctoral Training, creating more than 150 new PhD researcher places. This new generation of scientists and engineers will work in three key areas: Molecules to Products, led by Professor Elaine Martin; Fluid Dynamics, led by Professor Peter Jimack; and Water and Waste Infrastructure Systems, led by Professor Barbara Evans.

It has been confirmed that Leeds received more than €19m in funding from the prestigious and highly selective European Research Council (ERC) during 2018, placing us in the top 10 recipients of ERC funding among UK universities for the first time.

Leeds also retains its position in the top 10 of UK universities for research council funding, according to latest figures from Times Higher Education (THE), with particular progress made in the Faculties of Arts, Humanities and Cultures, and Engineering. 

In addition, the University is growing and diversifying its research funding, securing awards from a range of national and international partners, including industry, charities and other UK Government funding streams. One such example is the combined £4.5m awarded this year by Cancer Research UK, enabling researchers to investigate potential new treatments for bowel cancer and also leading to the creation of a new Leeds Clinical Trials Unit, which will allow doctors and scientists to continue researching and testing better treatments for patients.

Another first for Leeds is a substantial Wellcome Humanities and Social Sciences Collaborative grant on ‘Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures’, awarded to Professor Stuart Murray and colleagues.


As part of our preparations for the UK exiting the EU, delegations to high-ranking institutions in Europe and further afield have strengthened existing research and student exchange agreements.

An example is in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). The White Rose Partnership – comprising the universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York – held an event at the European Parliament, with leading northern robotics and AI researchers, MEPs and representatives of other bodies, to share their expertise in this field.

The meeting was chaired by Professor Hai-Sui Yu, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: International at Leeds. Professors Pietro Valdastri and Rob Richardson, from Leeds, led discussions on the impact robotics innovation can have on consumers. It has also been confirmed by the EPSRC that Professor David Hogg will lead a Centre for Doctoral Training (with 50 fully-funded PhD students) to unlock the potential of AI in medical diagnosis and care.

A civic university

Leeds is a University intent on making a difference. We are proud of our track record of economic, social, cultural and environmental development. It is embedded in the very fabric of what we do and who we are. 

A great example is the 10th anniversary celebrations for water@leeds – one of the leading interdisciplinary centres for water research in the world. The team here is surveying the global sector to find and prioritise the most significant research questions for the future, helping to direct research, policy and resources towards addressing major water challenges – locally, nationally and internationally.

Looking to the future

These successes, and other plans already underway to expand the Business School, develop the Sir William Henry Bragg Building as a hub for Engineering and Physical Sciences, refurbish the Faculty of Biological Sciences and to create a site on the outskirts of Leeds for high speed rail and other engineering projects, are the product of our 2015-20 Strategic Plan. This has seen investment of £520m in capital developments for education and research, and £150m in academic staff. But, above all, these successes speak to the excellence, creativity, determination and sheer hard work of staff and students.

Strategic ambition can only be built on a strong base of academic and financial sustainability. If we are to maintain this sort of momentum deep into the 2020s, as we develop our next strategic plan, we will have to tackle the combined financial impacts of Brexit, the post-18 funding review, the additional costs of pensions and the possible effect of immigration policy on international student recruitment – and do so alongside internal challenges, including the need to balance home and international student recruitment and to address the cumbersome nature of some of our processes and systems and the complexity of our educational portfolio. We will need to do this in a systematic way by streamlining systems, reducing costs, maximising income and embracing new ways of working.

This is the stuff of the 2019 Integrated Planning Exercise (IPE) and will be discussed fully with staff and students as more information becomes available in the coming weeks. A considered approach to change will consolidate progress made in recent years and provide a stable financial platform for the post-2020 strategy.

* Please note this article was written on 11 March.

Sir Alan Langlands


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