University as Community

My love of European culture started when I was a postdoc in France. The whole laboratory gathered for coffee every morning and tea every afternoon to share adventures, mishaps, quotidian observations and trivia. We went to lunch together and discussed politics and sport, gossiped about other labs and speculated about the future. We were all busy, even overburdened, but made the time to be together and to listen to one other. We were a community.

A decade later, by the mid 1990s, on another visit to the same lab, I was saddened to find the culture changing. Some colleagues drank their coffee at their desk, others ate a quick sandwich while working. It was getting more like the American scene I was taking a break from. The time together as a community was shrinking.

A community is an important connection among people sharing values, customs or other features of their identity. We all identify with several communities and we function well in relationships with like-minded people or groups who share our beliefs or values. We see this in academia; we often identify strongly with colleagues in our academic discipline. That we at Imperial collaborate so well across disciplinary boundaries speaks to the strength of the bond between us.

Now, I must say, it is sometimes even worse, as people sit together over a meal with their focus on their phone. We have so much to distract us that our attention to one another sometimes suffers. Taking time to talk to one another brings new ideas, new friends and shared experiences. I have found this to be true in my “coffee and croissant” mornings with early career staff and I am certain many of you relish the opportunity to step back and converse with others.

I like an analogy I recently heard in France comparing café culture and encyclopaedias. For both, “you enter with a purpose and then lose yourself to other things”. We have all enjoyed the opportunity to “lose ourselves” in unexpected conversations. Now, perhaps too often, the café is just a place to get a takeaway coffee (or to sit with our laptop and work alone) and the encyclopaedia is supplanted by the internet search.

Communities are about people and about places. Over the next few years I’m going to invest in both. A strong community will help get us through these uncertain times and provide lasting benefits for our future.   

Brexit, Political Uncertainty and Our Community

As we look across the College, we have much to be thankful for and much to celebrate. We are a global institution and we enjoy our international community every day. We have had an exceptional year in many respects. Our colleagues continue to receive accolades from around the world. Supportive philanthropists are taking notice and are enthusiastic about being part of such a great institution on an exciting trajectory. Their support and involvement are helping us to recruit new Chairs, refurbish laboratories, and build the new home of the School of Public Health in White City.

When we turn our gaze to the outside world, the outlook is more mixed, the future less certain. These are times when our community is especially important, when we need to come together to support one another and to understand and address problems that affect us in various ways.

It is hard to believe that this is my fourth Autumn Letter with the spectre of the EU Referendum hanging over us. The uncertainty we are facing is, unfortunately, symptomatic of the complexity of the political world and the divisions in society here and in many countries. 

We have had some successes. Some of the immigration reforms we have advocated have come to pass: reintroduction of the two year post-study work visa for international students as early as next year; a new startup visa; removing PhD level roles from visa caps; and making it easier for researchers to apply for indefinite leave to remain. We are working with our partners to make sure our vision for a new fast track visa for science is launched later this year.

We have continued to advocate for the UK to remain in a research union with Europe. We are supporting and building our bilateral collaborations in Europe and are building additional partnerships across the world. It was great that so many of our colleagues continue to win funding from Horizon 2020. Seven Imperial academics won prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants in the latest wave announced in September. Imperial was one of the top recipients in Europe of these greatly sought-after grants – demonstrating our continuing research excellence and standing among the world’s very best institutions. We are helping the UK government see the value in investment in international collaborations and have successfully participated in the first round of Research England’s International Investment Initiative (I3) programme supporting new Data 4.0 clusters in Europe and Asia.

There is still much uncertainty and plenty to worry about. While there is much media attention to the spectre of a no-deal exit on 31 October, many people in our community have been working continuously to prepare us for the potential disruptions that may come along with a departure from Europe. Our website Imperial and the European Union is kept up to date to provide a resource for our community. Here are some of the guarantees that we know are in place if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. 

  • Between the date of Brexit and December 2020 EU citizens will be free to live, work and study in the UK as they do now. A new immigration system is planned from January 2021. Applications for the EU Settlement Scheme will be accepted until the end of 2020 and we will continue to support staff and students through the process.
  • EU students starting an undergraduate or postgraduate course in 2019-20 and 2020-21 will still be eligible for home fee status and for financial support for the full duration of their course.
  • The UK government will guarantee funding for all successful competitive UK bids to Horizon 2020 that are submitted before the UK leaves the EU, and for collaborative Horizon 2020 projects thereafter.

More detailed advice on travel, research and immigration arrangements is available to our community.

Our Brexit Advisory Group has been developing contingency plans for potential disruptions of the movement of goods and people following Brexit. We would like to hear your concerns. If you think of things that we are not considering, or you have any ideas to mitigate disruptions please let us know at

The political uncertainty we are in poses the near-term possibility of an election. This brings out a number of ideas about higher education and research presented as potential parts of manifestos. We are proactively modelling the impacts of potential new policies on our mission. We take every opportunity to share our perspective with policymakers across the political spectrum. It is crucial that we have a voice in these important debates and discussions.

The Imperial Community and Its Places

Communities share histories and Imperial has a rich history woven from the joining of three institutions with distinct histories, cultures and traditions: the Royal College of Science, the Royal School of Mines and the City & Guilds College. Our Faculty and School of Medicine also blend great institutions, each with an important heritage and a strong sense of community: St Mary’s, Charing Cross, and Westminster Medical Schools, the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and the National Heart and Lung Institute. 

The recent celebration of the tercentenary of Westminster Hospital, founded in 1719, and its development of the Westminster Medical School in 1734, is but one example of how we honour and value the heritage of these institutions. Westminster Hospital moved five times in its 300 years. The buildings and spaces changed. It was the incredible people who worked in those different places who carried the Westminster values and traditions forward across the centuries and constantly renewed the Westminster sense of community.

We have the opportunity to improve our medical education and research by selling the St. Mary’s Medical School building and investing the funds in state-of-the-art research, teaching and community facilities. These facilities will help advance the vision for the Faculty of Medicine to attract the world’s brightest academics and teach the world’s most able students in modern, advanced technical and physical environments. We will enhance the medical student experience through these spaces, and the way they are used for study and recreation – and of course new pedagogy.

We are also working with our students to explore the idea of a new ‘house system’ in the School of Medicine. Closer to the size of, and named for, the three historic medical schools, this should help foster a greater sense of community and connection with our shared legacy.

It is hard to give up a beloved building. We recognise that places are important to our community and to our heritage. We will ensure that we work with our community to enhance and preserve our heritage as we seize this opportunity.

Places for us to come together are important and this has guided our Estates Strategy and campus masterplan.

I am launching a project to improve, increase and enhance our common spaces so that we have places to enjoy one another’s fellowship. Some of these common spaces are embedded in departments, and I’m calling upon our colleagues to open their doors to friends and colleagues from across disciplines, job categories and work places. A small amount of effort to reach across boundaries can reap great benefits bringing us together.

I am starting a new President’s Community Fund that the Estates Strategy Group will manage along the same lines as the President’s Funds for Frontier Research and Learning and Teaching Innovation. We will seek ideas for the most important places to invest these funds coming largely from philanthropy. We have recently invested some of these donations in spaces determined by student priorities articulated by our Imperial College Union. The majority of this support funds the President’s Scholars.

Please send your ideas and thoughts on how to enhance our sense of community, I would love to hear them.

Our Community as a Strength

Our community is much broader than our disciplinary colleagues, or our collaborators. One of the great benefits of working at such an outstanding institution like Imperial is opportunity to mix and come together across generations, job categories and backgrounds. I heard a lovely example of this community in action the other night when an alumnus from St. Mary’s spoke about playing badminton with facilities staff where he gained an appreciation for the difficulty in keeping old poorly designed buildings functioning. Surely, love of badminton, music, gardening, cooking, rugby, or any number of things will draw us to identify as a group and to come together with people from a broad range of backgrounds.

We enjoy weekly features of a whole assortment of our Imperial community on the screen in the main entrance and our Imperial People website. We gain from learning about the wonderful people and all that they do across the College.

In our busy preoccupied days, we need to regain this ability to take the time to come together and learn from one another. Many complex and serious issues pull us apart. We are here for each other and, as a thriving community, we can find the best way to navigate an uncertain future.

Professor Alice P. Gast
Imperial College London

9 October 2019