President's Address 2021: Universities at a Crossroads
President's Address 2021
The annual President’s Address celebrates the staff, students and alumni who have received external recognition for their work.
This year we are recognising the external achievements of over 160 members of the Imperial community. These achievements include featuring in the 2021 New Year’s Honours and the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours lists, being elected Fellows of the Royal Society, receiving Fellowships from several high-profile bodies and winning a range of awards and grants.
View our full list of awardees in the slideshow and in the special President's Address Booklet 2021.
Universities at a Crossroads
Some years ago, in a crowded steamy hot pot restaurant in Shanghai, I watched the young people around us take pictures of their meal and receive gratifying pings as friends “liked” what they saw. I reflected on the practice of giving thanks before a meal. Perhaps now, for some, God is in the Cloud awaiting our adoring photos of what we eat!
I found myself amused by this idea until I realised that if I went on a run without my phone to “log” my workout, I felt it didn’t count. Clearly my coach in the Cloud needed to see evidence of my movement for it to be real. Maybe I too was reliant on approbation from a phone.
During the past year we have been blessed, and cursed, by spending vast amounts of time online, working, connecting, documenting. Our screen time has increased dramatically. We know this from those unwelcome reports of the hours we have stared at our computers, phones and tablets.
We’ve connected with friends and colleagues far and wide. We’ve zoomed, FaceTimed, and reached into homes of family members we long to see, friends we have wanted to get back in touch with, colleagues who are hard to see in person at any time but are easy to find pinned to their computer.
Our reliance on technology has been growing for years, but it has accelerated during the pandemic. Things will never be the same again.
It has been a profoundly sad, exhausting and trying year. Our hearts go out to those who have suffered the tragic effects of the pandemic. Both physically and mentally, Covid-19 has taken its toll on all of us.
Yet amidst the loss and sadness there are also things that lifted our spirits and for which we are thankful. The incredible efforts of people across the country and throughout the world inspire our gratitude. The response to the pandemic by the scientific community, including our own, alongside the tireless efforts by the NHS deserve repeated recognition.
It has been an unprecedented year with tremendous innovation. So many of you helped others to find new ways to learn, new ways to teach, new ways to pursue research, new ways to care for our students, and new ways to keep the university running. And it is running well. You have written more papers and more proposals than in years past. You have gotten a lot done. You’ve worked from home and at the front lines.
We can be proud of the accomplishments we made in the face of daunting challenges.
Today, as is our tradition, we celebrate the external accolades earned by our colleagues. There is much to celebrate despite the many hardships of the past year.
Universities are at a crossroads.
The history of universities is long and rich. Most were founded to “create a community of scholars” who could share their insights and discoveries, and to “create an educated workforce or society”.
In recent times these founding principles have been influenced by two accelerating driving forces: enhanced technological capability and vastly easier international mobility.
New technologies affect just about everything we do today, and they have enhanced scientific discovery. Just a few decades ago, we could not have imagined our ability to sequence mutations in a virus with such speed, to see the Higgs-Boson, to visualise single molecules, or to drive around on the surface of Mars.... Science has been hugely accelerated by new computing, imaging, and sequencing abilities. And the acceleration continues with the further expansion of data storage, and computational power.
The dramatic increase in international mobility has been the other dominant driving force influencing universities.
The marketplace of ideas and learning creates opportunities for people from around the world. The value-added of English language education has propelled the US and the UK to the forefront of global higher education. Students from around the world aspire to study here.
This has been an extraordinary period of rapid change for universities like ours and there are many competitive challenges ahead. Here are three:
- We have educated the next generation of scholars who are able to teach in new or expanded universities in their home countries, in English if desired.
- Technology can bring learning to where you are; the need to spend the time in a residential university may become less compelling than in the past.
- We are in a period of competing national interests that favours nationalism over globalism.
We know that we cannot simply return to the way we were before.
I firmly believe that there will still be a strong need for the very best education with the top scholars in the world. We can prevail if we can change.
Universities are at a crossroads and only by remaining open to new people, new technological innovations and new ideas will we succeed.
What is our opportunity at Imperial?
We have a lot going for us at Imperial and we can build upon our strengths:
We have top talent in science, engineering, medicine and business
We know how to work together across these disciplines
We pursue world leading discovery research
We collaborate better than most
We have exercised our use of technology in education
We have people in our community eager to think broadly
We have opportunities in our estate and our spaces to do things differently
We must build upon these strengths by having audacious goals and facing the realities of our strengths and weaknesses… what the organizational guru Jim Collins calls facing the brutal facts.
Here are four brutal facts and audacious goals and investments to help us face them:
1. Our talented community lacks diversity.
Like other universities, we are missing contributions from large segments of the population. We must diversify our community, at all levels, from students to Council members. We must be more ethnically diverse, gender balanced, and internationally diverse. Increasing diversity will strengthen and enrich our community. It will make us more competitive.
We must start with our students. I am proud of our work to improve opportunities for students who have the intellectual ability but lack the economic capacity, confidence, or support systems they need to attend university. The Wohl Reach Out Lab, the Invention Rooms, maths homework clubs, edX Courses for Maths and Further Maths A-levels and our new maths school will all help students succeed in their path to, and through, university. Yet we need to do more within our university as well.
I am announcing a £10M challenge fund to ignite support for scholarships and fellowships over the next five years.
Half of this, £5M, will support prestigious scholarships and fellowships for talented underrepresented students.
This will include black students, other underrepresented students and students whose socioeconomic backgrounds are barriers to university attendance.
We know that by providing this support, supplemented by philanthropic donations, we can improve our recruitment and retention of students we historically have not attracted.
Many of our friends and alumni are eager to help. I invite them to use this moment to join with us to make a difference. We have seen the power of their support. One example is the generous donation from the Olanrewaju brothers to support scholarships for black undergraduate students of exceptional academic merit in Engineering and a gift to begin establishing a new endowed scholarship.
The other £5M of the challenge fund will provide matching funds to support scholarships and fellowships for international students. We have many generous alumni and friends around the world who wish to help students from their home country to attend Imperial. Often, they can support part of the cost of an international fellowship or scholarship. This matching funding will allow us to accept these donations and support talented students from around the world.
We already have wonderful examples of generous donors making a difference around the world. Scholarships from the Amjad & Suha Bseisu Foundation provide pivotal support to students from the Levant and Malaysia, and the Lee Family has supported vital scholarships for students across the College.
We are also privileged to be among the universities hosting the Beacon Scholarship, a leadership development programme that nurtures 'change-makers' among young, gifted students with leadership potential from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.
The government clearly has a role to play. Our newly awarded British Council Scholarships for Women in STEM, are bringing women from South America into some of our MRes and MSc programmes, and we welcome many outstanding Chevening and Commonwealth scholars every year.
We are grateful for this support and we call upon the government to expand such efforts to help us diversify our community.
2. Technology has changed education; we need to change too.
I may have found my best French teacher ever. It’s a machine-learning algorithm that sees where my weaknesses and strengths are and dishes up new lessons every day. I loved my French teachers at Princeton, but now I’m learning a lot from a machine.
While we have reaped some of the benefits of the data revolution in our research, we are just beginning to realise its effects on our teaching. The pandemic, and our rapid move to remote, online and “multi-mode” education have given us a taste of our ability to enrich the educational experience for our students.
We must seize the opportunity to build upon what we have done by integrating the innovations we have made with the best of our traditional modes of education. We must remain alert to opportunities for further innovation. The best and brightest students will not accept an education fashioned around dull lectures in a crowded auditorium.
Education is a two-way street; students learn from scholars and from one another while scholars learn from their students. We need to recapture this spirit while also seizing the opportunities that technology brings.
I was struck by conversations I have had with colleagues teaching the “conversion masters” for AI and Machine Learning. They talk about how students come from all backgrounds - chemists from pharma, finance wizards from the City, engineers, even a barrister. They come in wanting to learn how to use AI and Machine learning in their field. They have the problems and want to learn how to solve them. The teachers and students learn from one another. It is an exhilarating course because new ideas, and new areas of research and innovation emerge from the classroom discussions.
There is much that will be changing in who we teach and how we teach. Events on a virtual platform have broadened our audience. We can share inaugural lectures, invited speeches, panels and everything with a wide variety of people.
It will no longer be enough to focus on educating young scholars aged 18-22. Learning should be a lifetime activity and we have an important role in that. It is incumbent on us to teach our students how to learn, and to instil in them a love of learning.
Now is the time to begin thinking clearly about our role in the education of people at all ages, on our campuses and throughout the world. This means defining our role in providing educational opportunities to adults, young people, and the broader public. There is more to do. The increased complexity of the societal issues we face makes an educated citizenry more important than ever.
Universities easily get mired in pedagogical treacle unable to agree to change any course, setting up committees, launching reviews to ratify the status quo.
One thing that the pandemic taught us is that when we have to, we can change. We can and must seize the opportunity to be different.
3. We will need to use space differently.
Technology is an increasingly important asset in education. Does that mean that the residential education with top scholars is outdated? I don’t think so. I believe that the time and distance between our newest scientific discoveries and what we teach our students has shrunk. We are a community of scholars eager to share the latest ideas. Where and how we do that will matter.
In 2019 I announced the £5M Community Fund to enable us, over five years, to enhance our estate for the benefit of student and staff collaboration. Little did we know how much our needs would change! As we find new ways of working, we focus on how to make the most of our precious time together while using technology to enable us to be efficient and effective. We will use spaces differently.
I think that we have a lot to bring to this dialog across sectors. After all, we have experience with the “flipped classroom” where lectures and other materials are available online and the valuable face-to-face time is used for discussion, practical learning and delving deeply into topics best imparted person-to-person. As we adopt new modes of working post-pandemic, I think we should address the “flipped workplace”. Which things do we do best together, in person, and how can we use our spaces to help us do those? Which things we can do remotely, saving commuting time, energy, and stress? And which things should no longer be done.
These are important questions we need the entire community to consider and help answer. These require collaborative discussion within and across departments, optimisation of scheduling, and sharing and effective use of space. I hope that the Community Fund will help, in a small way, make some spaces on campus conducive to changes we will need to make.
4. We collaborate more freely in research than in teaching.
In my 2019 Address I said: “Collaboration is important not only across disciplines, but also across cultures. It brings new insights, leads to new approaches and to new discoveries.”
The pandemic has shown us how we can collaborate even more effectively than ever. This is very true of research and we only need look at some of the great accomplishments of the past year.
The rapid pivot to COVID-19 research brought out the best in local and international collaboration. A critically important collaboration, ISARIC4C (Coronavirus Clinical Characterisation Consortium) brought scientists from around the UK together to immediately link clinical data from across the NHS to answer urgent questions.
Similarly, a group of Imperial academics from Life Sciences, Medicine and Bioengineering are building upon years of collaboration to develop the Digital Diagnostics for Africa Network. This network brings together diverse scientists with diagnostic manufacturing companies and organisations working in African countries. Collaborating with academics from the University of Ghana, the network is putting new disease control tools and strategies into practice.
The Department of Materials has recently begun a collaboration with the Max Planck Institute in Dusseldorf, with a £10M grant to develop a world-first microscopy suite aimed at unravelling questions about the atomic nature of materials. This project includes joint appointment of staff between our institutions focused on materials for the energy transition.
Such international collaboration can benefit education as well. Universities often collaborate more freely in research projects while rigidly guarding their pedagogy. If we open our minds to it, we can collaborate just as fluidly in education as we do in research.
This year we celebrated the tenth anniversary of our landmark collaboration with NTU to create LKCMedicine. We have built a world-leading modern technology-based medical education and talented doctors are coming from the programme.
We are also working with international partners to find new and innovative ways to teach. In one example, a group of Dyson School of Design Engineering students and TU Munich students use Augmented Reality headsets and Gravity Sketch software to remotely collaborate on design-engineering-innovation projects.
Our School of Public Health developed an online module with the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences Cameroon as part of their MSc in Mathematical Sciences.
The partnership with AIMS attracts students with new ideas, who challenge assumptions and inject life into mathematics. Imperial academics collaborate with partners there on how to model challenges that African countries are facing.
These collaborations, and many more, make it clear that our advocacy for international mobility is more important than ever. The free flow of people and ideas is critical to fulfilling our mission of research, education and innovation in the benefit of society. We must not let rising geopolitical challenges and seeds of separatism harm these important relationships.
We have just been through a shattering experience with unprecedented loss of life, deep psychological trauma and uncertainty looming ahead. We are all exhausted from work, worry, lack of rest and lack of human interaction. These are very challenging and stressful times.
They are also exciting times. Huge changes were thrust upon us and these experiences can serve as a catalyst for meaningful long-term change.
Universities are at a crossroads.
As we define our audacious goals and face our brutal facts;
as we diversify our community,
as we sustain our collaborations,
as we continue to innovate our education, and
as we explore new ways of working,
I know that we will be leaders defining the way forward.
Professor Alice P. Gast