Prof. Michael Worton's Exclusive Interview

UCL was founded in 1826 and became the first university to welcome all people- regardless of their class, race, religion or sex – dramatically expanding access to higher education. The university’s teaching, research and community continue to be inspired by this radical tradition. UCL was named University of the Year 2005 by The Times. 

As UCL's Vice-Provost, Professor Michael Worton is responsible for developing and promoting UCL’s international strategy, overseeing Teaching & Learning and Quality Management & Enhancement, and maintaining a watching brief for Arts and Humanities, and Social and Historical Sciences .

By Gigi Jin & Wing Zheng
2 November 2005

Gigi: Overseas students have many different names, such as "fresh off the boat", "rich kids" or "cash cows", as being a fact that they are worth more than £900m a year to British universities in fees alone. Currently one-fifth students at UCL are from overseas, and UCL has the plan to increase overseas students by 3% every year, so it brings in an extra £1–1.5m. Some people therefore argue that greed blinds the eyes of those in the admission at UK universities. Do you agree with it?

Michael: I actually do not agree, with regard to UCL. And I would like to be quite clear on what our strategic aim is. We do want to bring 3% more students from outside of the UK, but we also want to send another 3% of our own UK students to other countries. So it’s about increasing student mobility. The addition income of 1.2-1.3 millions is important, but that is a tiny faction of our budget with the turnover at the moment of 550 million. So it’s not going to make much of a difference to our total income. But the real issue for us is the issue of making our students understand better global citizenship, and building in the notion of motility across countries.

Gigi: As in the UK universities keep the full proceeds of determining fees, overseas students are very much concerned with where exactly is the money being spent on? What are the benefits especially provided for overseas students?

Michael: OK. Can I go back again to the first principles? The difference between the fee paid by a student from outside European Union and a student from the UK of European Union is because there is other funding coming for the UK and EU students, which comes from the taxes paid by their families. So it’s not just a question of the fee from the university’s point of view. We get additional money from the government and from general taxation in order to pay for that. So we are moving increasingly towards the UK students paying higher fees. Next year they will go up to three thousand. So the real issue here is where is the money that comes in total for fees both from international students and from home and EU students going? Actually from the individual student’s point of view, there’s a bit difference. But from UCL’s point of view, there is in fact no difference. The extra income that we will be getting from international students and the extra money that we will be getting from student fees going up to three thousand pounds will be going on a series of issues: improving the quality of our lecture theatres and the seminar spaces; increasing our infrastructures notably in terms of IT infrastructures realizing that increasingly our students want to be moving in a WIFI world rather than a wired laptop or PC; making sure that in our teaching and learning encounters we are using absolute cutting edge technologies; improving the number and quality of our halls of residence for students; and also investing much more in transition programs for students. So that when students come, this is for both international students and for many of our UK students, programs which will help them to adopt quickly into life in university. In the case of overseas students, we recognize that while they want a UK experience, in part of coming here, she or he wants to experience the full British education. But they have issues about adaptation to, if it’s their first time, meal, dietary conditions, culture, politics, transport, and so on. So we now are going to put in place a program of welcome which we call a transitional program, which we are looking at issues around culture, transition moving from one culture to another. Issues around coming to terms up with the big city for students from overseas come from small villages. So we are actually investing people and ideas in how we can make the integration a lot better.

Gigi: Home office has increased visa extension fees significantly during the past 2 years. Does it raise challenges for UCL to recruit overseas students?

Michael: We have lobbied very hard against the visa increases. We think it is outrageous; we think it is inappropriate; and we think it sends all of the wrong messages about how the UK wants to welcome international students. It’s not for their money that we want them; it’s for their cultural specificities; the fact that they have things to bring out and we have things to give them. So we continue to lobby the government to remove these visa fees. Post-911 in the US, there was a closing down of the US in terms of students going there. The last thing we want to see is that Britain becomes like that closing-down. So we think it was a very wrong decision and we’ll do all we can to reverse it.

Gigi: An analysis by Guardian this year revealed that students choosing to study at new universities increased by up to a third of the 2004 total and new universities will grow faster this year than their Russell group colleagues. In a speech to the IPPR ThinkTank and Universities UK joint conference last year, Tony Blair mentioned that new universities are as good as their traditional counterparts in a host of ways - including many of their entrepreneurial vocational degree courses, so as to attract more international students. For example, the second biggest recruiter of overseas students last year is the University of Middlesex. So how does UCL cope with this increasing challenge?

Michael: Our main commitment is to excellence- the excellence of our research, the excellence of our teaching, the excellence of our students. And we’ll not compromise on that. We have had no diminishing of the number of students coming let us say from China, or from Hong Kong. We’re always looking for the very best students. We will not compromise therefore on standards. We also believe that the kind of education we offer is radically different from that offered from Middlesex. We have people who are absolutely at the cutting edge of their field in every discipline- Nobel Prize winners, people who won the biggest prize in Economics, Archeology, and so on, across the board. And we attract particular kinds of students who are rather real high filers. It is very good, I think, that the new universities are attracting more students. It is good for them in terms of the kind of social mix they’re getting in the universities; it’s good for them financially. But that will not change just what we want to do. We want to train, educate the students who are most likely go on to be leaders; to become leaders in government, in industries, in commerce, in families and whatever, but they will be leaders. We have our very different missions.

Gigi: I realise that the new National Student Survey result has been published last month. So how is the feedback received by UCL?

Michael: We had good feedback. Our English department, for instance, was the very best in the country. That’s very good to hear. The one area in which reservations, not many but slight reservations, were expressed by our student body was in the feedback given to them in terms of a continuous assessment, the course what they are doing so on. I was delighted to see this because that is something I identify as an issue for us 18 months ago. And I’ve already started work on how we can improve the student feedback, giving more feedback to our students. So in fact it was a very good result for us, because it showed us that the areas that we have seemed something that we can work on. It’s exactly what our students feel. And the analysis has given me, as a person responsible for teaching and learning here, an extra lever to get my colleagues to be more involved in giving longer and more detailed feedback. So I was pleased.

Gigi: In the UK, there are several university league tables such as The Guardian University League Table and The Times Good University Guide, which rank universities by a whole bunch of statistics such as teaching quality, research, spending per student and more. These rankings always have a huge impact on international students’ choices. As I realise that some of the indicators used by the league tables fit more into British education system and not applicable to overseas students, such as Graduate Destinations and Entry Standards/Qualifications, do you think these league tables are the appropriate ones to rely on for international students?

Michael: Hah hah hah! It’s a very good question. We in universities always look at these league tables and say what’s their methodology; how were they run. You’ve just raised a question of methodology. We always say that the methodology is flawed; but we like the results if we do well. The Shanghai Jiaotong University, for instance, was the first one to do a series of annual survey on universities. And we did very well in that. I mean generally what happens is that UCL is one of the top four universities outside of the USA. What we look for is more than anything else, is where we fair with our competitors. But you put your fingers on absolutely the real issues; Most of our students, including our UK students, will work overseas at some point in their careers. We want them to work overseas. We don’t want them to train and work just in the UK economy. So there is no way really of testing that. I think the thing that we regard as essential for us is how we do in terms of objective data that we can look at like research excellence, teaching excellence, and the student feedback. I think the important thing about the student feedback is that’s from all students, not just UK students. So we look at all of these and we compile a league table of league tables. And as long as we’re at the top, we’re OK. But, for instance, we are working very closely with the University of Beijing, creating UCL Beijing Centre of Archeology. Beijing this year is doing very well in the Time’s higher educational league table. But there are other universities in China, for instance, which are not very highly placed there. The problem is that the league tables tend to be very western centric; either Americana-centric or Euro-centric. In fact, what’s interesting about UCL is that we are increasingly making strategic partnerships with universities in China, in India, in Malaysia and so on, more even than with American universities or with European universities.

Gigi: So what are the suggestions you offer to overseas students when they come to choose universities?

Michael: I think they should look for a university where they will get a very very good learning experience. But it’s going to be not only high quality teachers with good research records, but there’s also a focus on learning, because one very important thing about UCL is that we train people to think and to challenge ideas. And this is an obviously cultural change for some people from some cultures where there is more respect for traditional positions. We encourage people to challenge traditional positions. And I will say look at the kind of alumni that they have created. Not just what jobs people are going to, but what kind of people have they turned out. This is why we are doing a lot of work at the moment with my colleagues in the development and communication office on making more of the kind of people that we have. If you go back to history we have the first Prime Minister of modern Japan Hirobumi Ito came to UCL and studied. The current minister of Japan Mr. Junichiro Koizumi studied here. Mohandas Gandhi, who was one of the major founders of India, studied here. The current Director General of Confederation of British Industry studied here. We have many people in senior positions in government, in business, in commerce worldwide. These are the kind of that we look at. And we are also very good at producing musicians, pop musicians, and comedians as well. It is the whole range. So I think look at the kind of people who have been going to the university, rather than just looking at, you know, what’s the employment rate in the UK.

Gigi: Some people argue that for choosing undergraduate courses, it’s better to use TQA (Teaching Quality Assessment) while RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) fits more into postgraduate courses. Do you agree with it?

Michael: No. Heh Heh Heh! Traditionally, I, for a long time, have been arguing very strongly that there need to be some universities in which research is directly fed into the teaching. There’s a difference between a teacher, who has read all over the books and can talk about what other people discovered, and the teachers, such as the teachers at the UCL, who are writing the books themselves, who’ve done the primary research, who’re doing the real research, who’re publishing the primary findings, and then communication directly with their students. The good thing about our students is that they are getting the research before they’re even been published. When I give lectures in my own field, for instance, I am discussing my ideas with my students before they even become public. So the students have this benefit of being ahead of the game. Now, especially in the technology field, that’s a great advantage to have. Another point I’ll make is while we’re committed to research-led-teaching, we’re also very committed to research-led-learning. So that all our students at the undergraduate level will do some research themselves, either on their own or in a team, in a big project, or a dissertation, whatever. There is a place for looking just at the teaching records, often TQA or so on. I would say that that is only part of the story. It’s worth, if you’re ambitious, if you’re really ambitious, you want to go beyond just being taught by people who are giving you second hand materials, giving it in very good ways but it’s second hand. We’re giving you first hand materials.

Gigi: Chinese students have become the largest overseas group in UK universities. However, there are always some complaints raised by them regarding the way education is delivered here. Since the teaching method in China is more assessment-based and assignment-based, some Chinese students feel not very comfortable about independent study and seminar where they have to show the ability to study on their own initiative, to do substantial research or reading in an area not covered in the regular course offerings, or to actively participate during meetings and argue with a group of people. So what do you think of universities can do in order to help them deal with this difference in education system?

Michael: Again, an important point. That is exactly what we’re trying to do with our transitions program. So it’s in the first term of the first year, for instance, there will be lots of discussion about independent learning, about speaking in seminars, and so on. We also are now creating coursed in cultural difference in the academic field with our language centre. So we’re trying to give as much support to the students as possible. But it’s not just a student issue; it’s also a teacher issue. The teachers need to be aware of the important of cultural difference. And you speak of the Chinese students’ approach to assessments to be less keen on attacking a teacher’s position; on the other hand, we can have students coming from USA who very often like to be in your face straight away. And we need to train them a little bit also in saying “well, you don’t want to be shouting everybody else down all the time”. So various cultures have various issues to deal with. And a lot of that is about you’re helping the students, supporting students in the early months of their studies here, and also making sure that our teachers and our administer colleagues are trained in this. Because what we want, above all these, is we don’t want to be involved in social engineering and make people change their religion, their own families and cultures and whatever, but we want them to understand what being in a British university and British environment mean. Have been chosen to be here is about learning to embrace difference.

Wing: Has there been any significant improvement on this?

Michael: We have only just started on this transitions program this year. We have certainly found that since we started training our admissions tutors and our teachers in culture difference that they’ve become more aware of things that they haven’t actually thought of. So we’re beginning to see. It’s a gradual process. I wouldn’t say we’ve solved all the problems yet. But I think we are on the way to it. Another way that we are doing it is by having country based, culture based focus groups and events; like, we don’t want people to become ghettos but we now have a program whereby we’re bringing in many ambassadors on a regular basis. We have had, for instance, his excellence the ambassador from Republic of China with his wife also a former ambassador. Just last week, we had the ambassador from Brazil, before that we had the ambassador from Mexico. And when we have this, and I had a meeting with the ambassadors, then we have an event with the students who come together. And very often, the Chinese students very often know each other. But sometimes we have countries where they don’t. When we had the Mexicans ambassador, we had about 30 Mexican students, and they all thought they were the only Mexican at UCL. It’s good for them to get to go. They were speaking their own language and they had the chance to get to know each other. We also have things in like, the next two or three week’s time, we are celebrating for Thanks Giving Day for the American. We’ll be celebrating with a big party, The Chinese New Year. There are celebrations of Diwali for the Indian students; meat for our Muslim students. So that we try to recognise this and have events which are country based and which allow people to be together there as if on home territory. Some of us are there and we are there to listen. So they tell us what we do wrong. And it’s important for us to hear such things we haven’t quite got right yet.

Gigi: In June this year, a crew from Chinese national TV has come to feature UCL in a major Chinese TV series ‘World Universities’ which is expected to be broadcast early next year. So there is more and more communication and cooperation take place between China and UCL now. As part of your responsibilities is developing and promoting international strategy, what do you think of UCL’s strategy for relations with China?

Michael: Yes. We’re very very keen on developing our relations with China. I’ve mentioned, for instance, the Beijing UCL Centre for Chinese Archeology. Now here we have something that China has got a fabulous archaeological past, but it doesn’t have archeologists who are efficiently skilled, at the moment, in all new techniques. So what we have is we will bring some of them over here to train them here; we also have some of our people going over to Beijing, working work archeologists in the field there. We’re looking at working in the new technologies with several universities in China. But our view is that we don’t, for instance, want to create a UCL in China. Our view is that this would be inappropriate; it would be impertinent. We think we are good, in fact we think we are very very good, but it’s different in each country. So what we envision is strategic alliances, in which we are partners. So that, for instance, if we’re working with the university in China, any website, any course materials will not be only in English. It’ll be, let’s say, in Mandarin as well. We’ll be recognising that the teaching would be shared between UCL and Chinese colleagues. We also would like to see more movement from our UK students going to China. So we’re hoping to encourage especially in fields like medicine, where is of our students going abroad to work in internship during their medical studies. In research terms to have post doctoral fellows in China coming to study in our environment here with our many hospitals and our people going to work in hospitals in China. So we would like to see more movement in both directions and also establishing more strategic partnerships.

Gigi: Chinese students are as attracted by the opportunity to gain work experience in the UK as the prospect of gaining a British degree. But they find it difficult to find a job in this country. What's your opinion on the fact that work permit restricts non-EU students from getting a job here which results in the loss of talent graduates?

Michael: Well again, we do not agree with the government’s policies on this. In fact we’ve been lobbying very hard on this. I think it is important to recognize why this is the case. The UK government, as one of the European governments, has a concern to support above all else its taxpayers. That is the rationale behind this. However, there has been some movement in Scotland, which has a devolved power now. There is now the possibility for overseas students to have work after they’re graduated. Now we’re arguing very hard that it is inappropriate that one jurisdiction of The United Kingdom can do this and not the others, especially as the English economy is, let’s be actually honest, far far bigger and stronger than the Scottish economy. So we are working very hard to put in pressure government to open that up. But we do think it is also important for Chinese students to be able to do some small part time work during their studies. We don’t want them to do too much paid work, because they’ve got to study. I mean that’s the main purpose of being here. It’s useful for them to earn a little bit of money but also, perhaps more importantly than the money, they’ve just experienced all the work environments. Now one thing that we can do at the moment in terms of work which gets around the work permit issue is to find them internships- placements within work organisations where they’re doing the work. The only thing that happens there is that they’re not being paid. So that gets around the legalities of work permits.

Gigi: Does UCL has any support services specifically set-up for overseas students regarding their future career prospects?

Michael: We don’t have a separate structure, because we’ll see that as ghettoizing. What we do have is a large and increasingly dynamic career service that encourages people to network. One of the words “network” became a dirty word. When I was a student it was a dirty word. Now I’ll say it’s one of the most important words anybody can have in their vocabulary. It’s about networking. Next week, for instance, we have a big scale for work when we bring in people from outside. We have them in the creative industry, we have them in financial services, we have them in industries and so on. As we have people that expert in the field who know about recruitment. I always speak, if you like, the relations between studies and employability. They’ll speak about their own companies. Students can speak with each other. Network will also bring in many other people who don’t speak, who don’t give presentations but who’re there. And it’s good training for students in networking. And I must say that the Chinese students who have enormous respect for their elders, for instance, are all also very good networkers. They do it very well.

Gigi: Are there any Chinese who graduated from UCL have distinct achievements or performance in the UK or elsewhere in the world?

Michael: You mean individuals? We have many people for instance, the Chief Justice of Hong Kong, the most senior judges in Hong Kong, studied at UCL. We’ve got many people who’ve gone back into major positions in universities, in fields of archeology, in medicine. Not all of them have gone back to China. Some of them have gone on to America to major careers in medicine. And one of the thing is that in fact we are in process of doing is putting together a little lift about our relation with China, which will actually highlight some of them. Some of the people have become enormously powerful in China, such as the senior judges of Hong Kong, but also those who’ve gone on to success in other ways, setting up small companies, which at beginning are not worth billions of dollars at the moment but with one day may well be.

Gigi: UCL is with an impressive reputation across a number of subjects, such as medicine, chemistry, geography, law, anthropology, economics, English literature and modern languages, which attracts many students every year. So what are the popular courses undertaken by Chinese students at UCL?

Michael: Lots of Chinese students want to do law. Eventually we’ve got very big international law here. But at the moment we are also in the process, again with Beijing, of looking at creating two chairs- one based in Beijing and one based in UCL. We will both fund them, so that there are big corporations between them. A lot of lawyers, both at the master’s level, especially mainly at the master’s level, some of them at PhD, are in mathematic, many of them in biochemistry, quite a lot now in archeology, so it is quite a large range. One of the things that we are very interested in is the whole field of law. The new chairman of our council Lord woolf four weeks ago, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and he just stepped down, and as soon as he stepped down, on the next day he became chairman of UCL’s council. He’s last public visit abroad was to the Republic of China, when he was speaking about the rule of law. And he’s last public speech in the UK was on the rule of law in China. And so we are doing lots of work with our Chinese colleagues on law, both in big cities, but also looking at the rule of law, the problems of the rule of law in the villages, and the rule of communities. And I think it’s gonna be one of the biggest issues for China over the next 5 to 10 years.

Wing: Which subjects of graduates tend to be more successful?

Michael: It depends what you mean by success- money? power? happiness? Our students generally earn well above average earning within the first year of graduation. It’s difficult to make comparison. For instance, lawyers, once got a practice qualification, will go straight into a job; but might not achieve enormous salaries until they become judges. But they will be living very comfortably. Those who go into setting up new companies are more likely to take high risk, and those of work can earn a lot of money. So this will come out to new technologies, computer sciences, electronic engineering; those areas there. But not everybody’s successful in a new company. We’re trying to build up entrepreneurships increasingly across the broad. The students who do medicines, almost invariably they follow up traditional path of medicine, they earn well above the average. They work long hours for the first 5 years of their career, and they will always be earning a lot of money. But they won’t become millionaires. So it’s a question of what you want out of life. Yesterday, for instance, I had lunch with a former student, actually an Indian student, not a former Chinese student. He just wanted to come back and see the place. As soon as he walked in his face lit up. He was happy he’d been here. He was very genuine. And his story has been one of starting with nothing. He came to England with half a crown, so that’s what about 20 pence. And he now is a millionaire; he has happy family; he runs companies around the world; and he said it’s was all because at UCL, I learned what it is important just to be myself. So he has made money, he’s likely actually very soon to sell his companies and retire and spend his life from now on with his family in charity work. He’s happy. I think if our students are happy, and they are earning comfortably, that’s fine. If they’re leaders as well, I’ll be even happier.

Gigi: As more Chinese students choose to continue their studies in the Doctoral program, they are very interested in having more information on how and from whom can they apply for funding to support their PHD research at UCL?

Michael: We just at the moment are putting the final touch to a scholarship strategy in that one of our main aims is to try to find more ways of funding students from outside the EU to come and study. Some of these will be by providing money ourselves for scholarship, and others will be working in partnerships with overseas government, partnerships with overseas companies, partnerships with individuals, our alumni, and so on overseas. Our Hong Kong alumni, for instance, are enormously supportive of UCL. They have put a lot of money into scholarship to bring Hong Kong Chinese students over here. We have a smaller alumni base in Mainland China. Mainland China doesn’t have the same culture of alumni-giving at the moment, but we’re working on that. And we also have a lot of British companies who have invested in China, and we’re working with them. If I can be slightly provocative, one of my greatest worries about overseas student scholarships is that it is not just about China speaking, it is about worldwide. One of the real issues is that very often the scholarships go to people who either are themselves wealthy influential families or families with influence. And our biggest challenge is how to refine and identify the really bright students in China, or in Africa, or India, in families who have no connections. Although we haven’t worked out how to, that’s what we want to do. That’s really important to us.

Gigi: Regarding to your experiences and what we have discussed earlier, what suggestions would you give to Chinese students who study or plan to study at UK universities?

Michael: First of all, realize that it’s gonna be one of the biggest adventures in your life. It’s going to be wonderful. It will also at the start be difficult; very little things. I studied French, I spent a year in France, I spoke French, but I can remember arriving in the town where I was going to be a teacher. Arrived there they didn’t know where I was going to live. They sort of say “come back tomorrow”, “oh! come back next week”. So I went to find a hotel, and I phoned home, and with my little tear thinking “what am I gonna do?” And a week later, I was as happier as I could be. Those first days can be difficult. Turn people and tell them, it’s important that we have a big support network here. It is important to tell someone, we will always give time to students when they want to talk. I’ll also say be very ambitious, go for the very best, the very very best for you. Don’t go just by the league tables. League tables are important, but do your research, see “is this is where I am going to get the best course for me?”, “If I know what my life’s goals are?”, “What’s the best course for me?”. Choose in function of the course, the quality of the institution, the quality of the support. Also look at “would I be happy in a big city, or would I rather be in a campus university in a small town or whatever?”. These are important decisions. Do the research, but be ambitious, and then once you’re here, actually give everything to it, and really go out and enjoy the life. It’s a great thing to study abroad- wonderful!

Gigi: Thank you very much, Mr. Worton. It is a pleasant talk with you!