What do we mean by ‘excellence’?

THe Great Hall, 17 MARCH 2016


We gather this afternoon to celebrate and pay tribute to over 150 of our friends and colleagues who received external honours. The honours range from Fellowship of the Royal Society to entrepreneurship prizes. This year we are especially pleased to see Lord Darzi’s Order of Merit and alumni and colleagues receiving Queen’s Birthday and New Year Honours.

Congratulations to all who were recognised. You inspire us.

Many evenings I walk home via the Sherfield walkway. Watching the dance and musical groups rehearsing in the common rooms lifts my spirits and makes me smile. One rainy, dark and cold evening recently I stopped to watch the Imperial College Ballroom team practicing. Their work epitomises excellence: the sheer looks of determination, the concentration, the focus, the revision and repetition. I was thinking about the many great things I expected to find at Imperial - the scientists, engineers, medics and finance wizards - and I marveled at the unexpected: who would have known we had excellent dancers here as well?

This is what we do at Imperial, we define excellence in new and unexpected ways.

We see excellence in those we celebrate today. We see it every day.

We see it in our staff, our students, and our alumni. We see it in our research and our teaching and in our service to others. And those outside of Imperial see it too.

But what do we really mean by excellence? It is one of those things that defy concise definition. Instead we fall back on a phrase like ‘we know it when we see it’. So how do we know, what do we look for, and how do we strive for, measure and reward excellence?

We know it when we see it may be part of the point. In one sense, excellence is a personal measure that each of us carries in our hearts and minds.

It may be better defined by ourselves than by others; we hold ourselves to high standards and we know what quality is even when it is hard to quantify. We push ourselves to do the very best we can. We know in our hearts when we measure up and we know when we don’t.

Although excellence is internally driven, we also need a way to collectively measure it, nurture it, celebrate it and reward it. This is where the meaning gets more challenging. How do we take all of our personal standards and the individual qualities we value, and put them into an integrated measure?

Peer Review

One of the primary ways we judge excellence is through peer evaluation. We trust our ‘peers’ -  people like ourselves with like-minded definitions of excellence - to provide expert evaluation and judgment of quality. Since we all ‘know it when we see it’ we are sure that others will “know it when they see it”.

We expect our ‘peers’ to have good judgment, good taste, and an ability to collectively define excellence. By and large this works extremely well. Peer review, peer evaluation, recommendations, and letters of support are important ways to judge quality. Academia has thrived on peer evaluation.

Yet, does it always work the way it should? Does it introduce bias or perceptions about people based on their gender or ethnicity? After all, any group of experts brings to the table their own experiences, biases and perspectives.

Does peer review promote the status quo? Can it reward the new, the outlier, and the risk-taker? We need to ensure that the peer-review process will support the non-traditional, the avant-garde, the blue skies ideas that have not been tested.

One way to do this is to continually bring fresh voices to the stable of reviewers. Then, reviewers should be provoked to think about new and different ideas. Framing questions about the novelty of an approach or idea and its value in advancing a field, will help peers to think beyond what was excellent last year.

We must remember too that we are the peers and being an excellent reviewer should be something we all aspire to.

If we as reviewers promote innovative, multidisciplinary and blue-skies research perhaps our example will be followed by others.

Measuring Excellence

Of course, excellence and quality are not purely subjective. There areaspects that can be measured.

We see this in areas outside of academia.

Lehigh University, where I was president for eight years, competes in athletics in the NCAA Division 1. This is the big league in American collegiate sport. Our thoughtful athletic director was an educator and member of our leadership team. As we discussed strategy and measuring success, he pointed out that success or failure in sport was always displayed on a scoreboard. Whilst we academics worry about how to count publications, measure service, define outcomes of a university education, he made it clear that some things were measured by a very tangible outcome: a score.

In business, the quarterly earnings report is a clear metric or scoreboard.

Box office sales are measures of success in the theatre and cinema.

Yet, these quantitative metrics are imperfect. Quarterly earnings can drive corporations to focus on the short term. Critically acclaimed movies and plays can fail at the box office.

Metrics alone are inadequate to capturing excellence.

In our academic world, we grapple with this quite a bit. We publish to tell the world what we have done. We measure publication, to take note of the hard work and its validation from appearing in a revered journal. Then, we commend ourselves for citations – people like our work and build upon it, thus we know that it was important and it led to more work.

In some ways, these are two sides of the same coin. If our metrics are based primarily on our publications and our publications are peer-reviewed, then it is not surprising when the metrics match the peer opinion – excellence is measured by what others think of our work.

I think the debate about peer review versus metrics should be turned toward a balanced combination of peer review and metrics.

Internal measures

Whilst the world around us is ranking us, developing league tables and rating our institutional performance, we need to understand how we perform internally against our own standards.

Our ways of measuring ourselves can and should recognise the power inherent in bringing the diversity of individual strengths and qualities together in collective excellence. All institutions struggle with how to best measure excellence. We are no different in this regard. Yet I believe that we are making important progress.

The team led by Professor Stephen Richardson, with input from the community, has paved the way for us to better define and recognise quality for the academic staff at the College. The primary conclusion in their report is that metrics should be used with care.

Metrics should be used with care

Beginning at the start of the next academic year we will implement a new approach for individual evaluation that combines metrics with peer review. It will be based on a ‘profile’ rather than aimed at specific metrics. In their report, they acknowledge that one size does not fit all and they recognise ‘that each individual is not expected to contribute at an equal level to every single one of the many dimensions of such a profile’.

Each department will develop profiles of its academic staff to be agreed by the Deans by the end of June. There will be open discussions, a well-understood process and transparency across department.

Operational Excellence

Excellence must extend to all parts of Imperial. When we talk about “operational excellence” we mean that everyone takes pride in his or her work and finds fulfilment contributing to our mission.

Many have heard the oft repeated the story of President Kennedy visiting NASA and asking a janitor what he was doing and getting the reply: “Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” Whether or not the exchange really happened, its sentiment is important. We all work together as a unified team on our common mission: ‘to achieve enduring excellence in research and education in science, engineering, medicine and business for the benefit of society’.

We each strive to do the best we can, and, through our work together we benefit society. Our roles are vast and varied, from crafting precise equipment in the machine shop to serving us food in the common room; from animal care to making a cappuccino just the way we like it. We value one another’s contributions and we strive for excellence.

Just like our ballroom dancers, concentrating, focusing and practicing, so many across campus, mostly behind the scenes, work tirelessly to ensure that our finances are carefully checked, our student records are accurate, our shuttles are on time, our workspaces are neat and clean.

In many ways, excellence is an attitude. An attitude manifest in dedication and hard work. We value this attitude and the talents and commitment of our community.

External measures – informing decision makers and influencing policy

There are real and important measures around us. The government will continue to try to quantify our value, through the Research Excellence Framework, REF, the newly proposed Teaching Excellence Framework, TEF, and the National Student Survey, NSS.

While we may not always appreciate these measures, I think that it is important for us to learn from these evaluations. We must also voice our concerns when we think that a proposed framework will inhibit or discourage excellence rather than support and reward it.


Our excellence was evident in the last REF. We saw great improvements. We scored well on impact, the highest of any major university in the UK, and we accumulated the most combined 3* and 4* scores. Indeed, well-deserved celebrations broke out around College.

Later, we received the news that our funding had actually diminished. One reason for this was ‘grade inflation’; apparently many institutions performed better, or at least received higher grades. Improving is good news; grade inflation is bad news as it undermines the ability to recognise and support excellence.

Perhaps the UK is becoming a bit like Garrison Keilor’s, Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average…

The net result is that we performed better than ever, and we receive less research support. Clearly this is not a way to reward excellence.

There is much more to the REF than the numbers. It has become a national framework, an opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished, and, this time, it was a chance to describe the impact of our work. We are aware of the need to inform our community, our supporters and the public about the value our work brings to society.

Our compelling impact case studies make fascinating reading. One just has to pull out some cases at random to be inspired.

For instance, our work contributed to:

  • Changing the immunisation strategy underpinning polio eradication;
  • Creating a solid oxide fuel cell for efficient home heat and power;
  • Developing laser scanning to detect and prevent forgeries; modelling tax incentives for retirement savings;
  • Modelling turbulence and facilitating design of efficient and quieter aircraft wings.

I could go on and on – there are 135 of them. We have an opportunity to communicate to government through a review of the REF led by Lord Stern. There is an emphasis in the Stern review on reducing the administrative burden and, as I just said, there is an inevitable balance to be sought between metrics and peer review.

In our response we need to clearly articulate our values. We need to consider how the REF measures excellence and whether it incentivises world-leading work, collaboration, risk taking and blue skies research.

In our input to the Stern Review we will advocate for:

  • Transparent methodology
  • Flexibility in defining impact and assessing outputs for different disciplines
  • Inclusion of metrics for collaboration in the Environment template
  • A better methodology for assessing multi-disciplinary research
  • And, we will propose approaches to reduce the incentive for grade inflation in the REF

I invite your thoughts as we will institutionally, and you can individually, submit input by next week.

We also measure our student experience.


We recently commented on the Green Paper about the TEF. Our primary stance was that we cannot separate research and teaching and we should not oversimplify measurement of the outcomes of an education. We proposed that government run a pilot where we could define a richer set of outcome measures reflecting how the knowledge and experiences of our students prepare them for the world and their lives and careers in it.

While government did not take us up on this offer, we stand by our commitment to excellence in innovative research-led teaching. We are fully committed to enhancing our student’s education.


The National Student Survey provides a measure of how we are doing in the area of student satisfaction.

We are far from excellent. We have taken the feedback seriously and have changed our approach to improving the student experience. Working with our student community is at the heart of these changes. They know excellent teaching when they see it.

Our dialog with students is resulting in new structures and policies. One area of focus is improving our feedback to students. Providing timely and informative feedback to students is a critical element of an excellent education.

We also know that we need to focus more on students’ mental well-being. It is of paramount importance to their lives and success and we are committed to improving the support we give to students.

Our new Vice-Provost (Education), Professor Simone Buitendijk will make these top priorities in her mission when she arrives on 1st August.

Our roles at all levels as mentors, colleagues and community members are critical to creating an excellent environment for students and staff alike.

Enabling excellence through investment – taking risks, being courageous

I will do all that I can to ensure that Imperial builds upon its excellent foundations, rewards its excellent people, and enables an excellent learning and working environment. It’s said that when you believe strongly in something you should invest in it. So I am pleased to announce some additional investment in teaching and research from the earnings from President’s endowment shares.

I will be dedicating one million pounds per year to reward excellence while promoting courageous and innovative ideas in research and teaching. These funds may support blue skies research. And they may support educational initiatives that will help our students, in the words of our new Vice Provost, to “fulfil their dreams and potential”.

I was inspired the other day by the Imperial College Symphony Orchestra’s superb concert at Cadogan Hall. In addition to a marvelous performance of Petrushka, one of the hardest orchestral pieces imaginable, there was a beautiful piece with our Choir and a captivating Horn Concerto by Glière. Our soloist, Dr. Mark Almond, took time out of his work as a clinical fellow at the National Heart & Lung Institute to enthrall us with his music. During the concerto, the orchestra took time out as Mark performed a cadenza, a solo virtuoso piece tucked away in the first movement.

I was thinking about how, if spent well, these research and teaching grants could serve as ‘cadenzas’ for our community to take time out of the main piece and display a bit of risky and perhaps virtuosic creativity.

Celebrating excellence – sharing the wonder

Celebrating excellence is important to promote excellence. We can and should do more.

  • Let’s take a proactive approach to garnering external awards and honours for our colleagues.
  • Let’s use this celebration as an annual opportunity to come together to congratulate those recognised by others and be inspired by their accomplishments.
  • Let’s have a summer garden party to celebrate internal accolades, the ways we support our mission through excellence in teaching, operations, research, service, volunteer work and collegiality. It will be fun.
  • Let’s enhance communications to share our excellence with our alumni, our friends and others.

Committing ourselves to excellence

What do we mean by excellence? We know it when we see it, and we see it all around.

We thrive in an excellent institution with excellent people. It is inspiring to work shoulder to shoulder with such talented and dedicated people.

It is paramount that we continue to commit ourselves to excellence.

  • We are committed to excellence in our evaluations. We will develop profiles that combine peer review and metrics. These will be transparent and consistent across college.
  • We are committed to each doing our best to support our mission every day.
  • We are committed to informing others and influencing external measures, so that they reward excellence, collaboration and innovation.
  • We are committed to sharing our excellence with others through tangible results and inspiring stories.
  • We are committed to investing in excellence.

It is a privilege to be the president of this great university. Together we will define and demonstrate excellence in ways that no other university can.

Thank you.