Moving Forward in Uncertain Times

Imperial has had an excellent year in many respects. We have celebrated accolades and awards, have built new partnerships and have sent off accomplished graduates while welcoming brilliant new students. We are truly a great institution and it is exciting and energising to work here.

Great institutions find ways to adjust to and influence the times. This is exactly what Imperial has done for over a century, maintaining its forward-looking view and becoming a positive force in addressing the challenges of the day.

Today’s times are unsettling. The vote by the UK to exit the EU has created a great deal of uncertainty for the College and for many who work here. As researchers, we are used to dealing with uncertainty. We have well established values, a clear mission, a detailed strategy, and plans and programmes that will guide us through this period. These will all serve us well, but it will not be easy. Difficult issues must be addressed and as a community, we have never shied away from the difficult.

Despite these challenges, our mission to achieve enduring excellence in research and education in science, engineering, medicine and business for the benefit of society remains clear. Our foundations of world class core disciplines and multidisciplinary research toward global challenges will prevail, no matter what the external environment brings.

We will continue to support and encourage excellence in all that we do. We will continue to embrace and celebrate discovery aimed towards the benefit to society. We will continue to ensure that our education is research-led and student-centred. We will continue to provide opportunities for our staff within an environment that is respectful and collaborative. We will continue to broaden and deepen our partnerships and build strong relationships with our alumni and friends.

I would like to use my Autumn Letter to develop some ideas on Brexit, our continual focus on our mission and our efforts to broaden our partnerships.

Addressing Brexit

While the nation works through the exit from the EU, we will continue to think and act internationally. At the same time, we must also find ways to be a resource to the government as it navigates the complexities of the negotiations ahead. In our strategy we talk about how we will inform decision makers to influence policy. There has never been a more important time to provide proactive and pragmatic ideas.

Here I outline some of those ideas around immigration, research collaborations and corporate partnerships. As you read these ideas, please come forward with your own thoughts. For instance, what examples and arguments would you give to support free movement and international collaboration?


Imperial is a European university with global reach. Our extensive international community of students and staff is extremely important to us. We educate the best and brightest from the UK and put considerable energy and effort into outreach to UK schools so that we will have a diverse community of able young students to recruit in the future.

 We are also committed to recruiting the most talented students and staff from outside the UK. This increases diversity and enriches the intellectual climate of the College and is essential to our dynamic education and research environment. Since it is clear that there are going to be restrictions on the free movement of people, we must be pragmatic about what is possible and focus our efforts on immigration policies that help us with our mission to achieve enduring excellence.


There is a tremendous value in student and staff mobility not just for us but for the whole of the UK. The government needs policies that would make the UK a favourable place for talented students and staff after Brexit.

We will produce facts to inform policy makers about the important role that those from other countries who have studied or worked in the UK play as great contributors to our economy or as ambassadors abroad for the UK, drawing upon stories of our many successful international staff, students and alumni


There are many creative ways that the government can use visas to control the UK’s borders without damaging the flow of the best and the brightest into higher education. I have made such a proposal in a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal. The recent announcement by the Home Secretary that “our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent” is reassuring in this respect.

The Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) and Tier 4 (Doctorate Extension) visas are two options available for students to remain in the UK. We provide specific advice, guidance and assistance to help our students take advantage of these options.

The Graduate Entrepreneur visa provides the opportunity for students to stay for a year or two to start a business in the UK. We have put forward twenty students who met the requirements. I believe that this scheme should be expanded and simplified.

We are currently engaged in a pilot scheme with the Home Office that provides one-year Master's students with a streamlined visa application process and a six-month visa beyond completion of their degree. This will be particularly helpful for students working temporarily, or seeking employment.

We will continue to advocate enhancing visa options for students and staff at top universities. We will provide the government with case studies and information that will allow it to extend such opportunities and enhance our ability to recruit talented students.


The UK could implement some strategies for certain categories of visas that would put us in an advantageous position to recruit foreign staff. For instance, the Tier 1 visa, established for leaders and exceptional talent, is underused because the process is bureaucratic, slow, burdensome, and even insulting to the very talented people it is meant to serve. Some applicants hire lawyers to navigate the process. Since it provides no advantage over a Tier 2 visa, most talented individuals do not bother with it.

 We will provide evidence-based suggestions for immigration policies for foreign workers. We will make the case that the Tier 1 process is broken and needs to be changed. A pilot programme would help attract talented people. One feasible pilot would be to create an accreditation process for top universities to streamline visas for their staff.


Multinational corporations are natural partners in advocating visas for talented contributors to the science and technology community.

We will work with our business partners and corporate collaborators to advocate innovative schemes that would help attract and retain talent in scientific and technological research.

Research Collaborations


 The UK is economically strong in no small part because it is a scientific superpower. The EPSRC Research Performance and Economic Impact Report 2014/15 found that £750m investments in new research grants created £16bn in cost savings, helped to create 50,000 jobs and contributed £4bn to the economy. We play an important part in this with an income from research grants and contracts of £466m in 2014/15, of which £42m came from the European Commission and £57m from industry. The government has said it recognises the importance of supporting this success and it is vital that they do so. Once again we need to provide pragmatic suggestions


If we are unable to negotiate a political solution to Brexit that allows us to fully participate in European Union funding, we need to evaluate what elements of funding and collaboration are the most important to us. Both the funds and the collaborations are important. We prefer to have a means to continue to compete for funding in proposals with our European partners, such as a “pay-as-you-go” approach. Closely tied to this collaborative funding is the academic mobility and connectivity that such programmes provide. Thus, visas and immigration will be critical to effectively supporting these collaborations.

We will show how continuing our participation in EU-funded programmes benefits the UK through impact statements illustrating the value of these international collaborations.

We will propose that mobility be directly connected to this research funding with a visa scheme for both the UK and the EU wherein any participant in an EU funding scheme automatically has a visa to move between the EU and UK.


European Research Council (ERC) grants and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowships are an important element of mobility among talented academics. We benefit from the visibility and prestige of these fellowships more than from the money they represent. We would not want to simply have replacement funding in the UK.

We will show, with data and case studies, the value of bringing ERC and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship supported researchers in from Europe and how much they add to the UK. Again, visas should be attached to these grants.


Our European collaborations are important to us. Therefore, we are establishing a European Partners Fund for seed funds and travel grants for Imperial academics to use to initiate and pursue collaborations with European colleagues.

We will initially provide up to £100k per year for Imperial academics to develop collaborations in Europe which lead to new science and to applications for external funding. After several years of funding we will assess the anchor European institutions for Imperial and pursue bilateral partnerships and joint funding as appropriate. This fund will be administered by the Vice-Provost (Research).

Corporate Partnerships

We are more focused on corporate partners than most other UK universities. As the government reinforces its focus on industrial strategy, we are well positioned to add the higher education point of view to this discussion.

We have already been engaged in advising government and this year, for the first time, we used some of our Higher Education Innovation Funding to support the development of white papers by our Global Institutes in areas such as energy, security, manufacturing, and climate change. These aim to inform and influence the government and industry in key policy and investment areas.


We know the importance of university-industry partnerships and will advocate mobility and collaboration by connecting to the government’s renewed focus on industrial strategy.

 We will make the case for the importance of a favourable business environment for small and large global corporations to be in the UK.


Our corporate partners include important multinationals. They can be helpful as advocates for the policies we seek and provide an important perspective for developing new approaches to working in the post-Brexit environment.

We will collaborate with our corporate partners to contribute to and help drive the industrial strategy for the government.

Maintaining Focus on Our Mission

One of the things that most worries me about the outcome of the EU Referendum is the amount of intellectual energy that everyone is expending on this topic at the cost of other more forward-looking and positive things. In these uncertain times there is more pressure than ever on all of us, and the certainty and clarity of our strategy becomes ever more important.

It is vital that we actively foster a sense of community where everyone is supported to deliver on their potential, and where staff and students can rely on their peers and their institution to support them. As part of our strategy we are working towards accreditation by Investors in People, as an excellent support framework for our staff. We are proud of initiatives such as our new Staff Supporters Scheme, our award winning working families and carers support and the training of more than 200 mental health first aiders across the College. I am also delighted that we have successfully renewed our institutional Athena SWAN silver award, as this promotes the kind of inclusive and welcoming environment to which we aspire.

In my March 2016 Address, I highlighted the importance of excellence in our teaching and research. I said that I would be dedicating £1m per year to reward excellence while promoting courageous and innovative ideas in research and teaching. Here I outline our plans for the Imperial Excellence Funds.

Enhancing the Student Experience Excellence Fund for Learning and Teaching Innovation

Imperial has many great teachers and an outstanding research-led curriculum with tremendous depth and excellence. The growing success of our student entrepreneurs says a lot about our pedagogy. It is clear, however, that we are not excellent in all measures of the student experience. This year’s National Student Survey results, published in August, constitute a five percentage point drop in overall satisfaction compared to the College’s results last year. The free text comments show that some of our students feel unseen and unheard.

We can and must do better. Under the leadership of Professor Simone Buitendijk, the College’s new Vice-Provost (Education), we are working with the Imperial College Union and across the College staff and student communities to define a new, modern strategy in education. We will develop and introduce, in collaboration with other top universities, novel, evidence-based ways of teaching, fit for a leading STEM-institution such as ours that can truly inspire students and staff.

We will support, recognise and reward those who can lead the way in these innovations. I have therefore dedicated £500k per year from the income from President’s Endowment Units to create the new Excellence Fund for Learning and Teaching Innovation.

Half of this investment will be open to proposals from the community to support educational initiatives that challenge our students to fulfil their potential. Grant winners will form a new community of excellent and innovative teachers who will play a key role in promoting good practice and helping the College to deliver a world-class educational experience for all of our students. Successful innovations will be considered for replication in other parts of College. The other half will be used by the Vice-Provost (Education) to develop online learning projects to stimulate and support our innovative education initiatives.

Excellence Fund for Frontier Research

In my 2015 Autumn Letter I wrote about the importance of pursuing blue skies, curiosity-driven, fundamental research. I argued that we needed to find ways to sustain the risky, to support the fundamental, and to ensure that truly novel ideas can be pursued.

The Excellence Fund for Frontier Research will also have £500k per year from the income from the President’s Endowment Units. These funds will be used, as described in our strategy “to support ideas which are potential breakthrough programmes that put us in a leadership position, even if these ideas have not yet received outside funding”. They will be distributed by Professor Nick Jennings, Vice-Provost (Research).

You can find out how to apply for a share of these excellence funds for education and research. I hope as many of you as possible will participate with inspiring proposals.

Broadening and Deepening Our Collaborations

We need strong partners to achieve enduring excellence in research and education for the benefit of society. As stated in our strategy, we continue to strengthen collaboration with business, academia, and non-profit, healthcare and government institutions across the globe.

The completion of the Francis Crick Institute is a major milestone and will strengthen our collaborative relationships and capabilities in the biosciences. We have formalised our relationship with one of our closest collaborators through the Cancer Research Centre of Excellence with the Institute of Cancer Research. We have also enhanced our ability to translate medical research to the patient by expanding the membership of our Academic Health Science Centre to include the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and the Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust.

Two new corporate partnerships show the value that we can create alongside our industrial collaborators. The first is a collaboration with Thomson Reuters, the legal and financial market experts, to address supply chain risk, financial risk management, real-time data analysis and other issues including the impact of regulation. The second is aresearch partnership with Nestlé Research that will explore how the microbiome influences our physical and mental health.

This is only the beginning. The new I-Hub is now open at White City and is leasing premium office and laboratory space for corporations, incubators and university partners. As the White City Campus continues to evolve, its laboratories, offices and facilities will attract a range of potential new partners.

Over the coming months and years, we will actively seek additional excellent corporate and academic partners as we focus on challenging and important societal issues.

We are building strong relationships with our alumni and friends. Their successes inspire and sustain us and their ideas, support and encouragement support our mission and drive us forward. Supported by our Alumni Relations team, our global alumni groups have grown in size and strength and they organise events all year round. Since last Autumn I have spoken at 23 of these events across the world, and have been struck by how much our alumni and friends value opportunities to reconnect with their peers and our academic staff. We are grateful for the strong support of our academic staff who share their passion for their work with our alumni and friends. We look forward to expanding opportunities for alumni and friends to learn about Imperial’s excellent research and education.

We have enhanced our communications with our global community through e-newsletters, targeted event invitations and our social media platforms including LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. In 2016 we have a record number of over 4,500 alumni philanthropically supporting the College alongside another 3,000 friends who are donors. We are privileged to have such a proud and supportive community who help us achieve excellence.

Our community partners are also important to us. We have been broadening opportunities to engage our neighbours. The refurbishment of Stadium House in White City, to open next spring, will create a multi-use building incorporating space for community engagement, entrepreneurship and exciting new schools outreach activities.


Imperial has faced uncertain times before, and in each instance has remained true to its values and mission and become stronger and more resilient. We are, and will remain, a truly global, great university. As the government begins the process of creating a new relationship between the UK and Europe, we intend to be an active participant in decision-making concerning immigration, research funding and industrial strategy. We will do this without diverting our attention from our plans for ensuring a bright future for the College and the many talented people from all over the world who work and study here.

We face these current uncertain times with optimism because of our vision, our strong programmes and strategy, the talent of our people, and our shared and abiding commitment to excellence.


Professor Alice P. Gast
18 October 2016