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Brexit uncertainty “avoidable and painful” says QMUL’s VP International

Appointed in April 2018, Colin Grant spoke to The Print on his fifty-first week as Vice President International at Queen Mary.

Before joining Queen Mary, Grant previously worked in a variety of international roles at other universities, including Vice President (International) at the University of Southampton, and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Internationalisation) at the University of Bath. He is a long-standing member of the UUK International Strategic Advisory Board and Chair of the Russell Group International Forum. Perhaps most interestingly though, he is fluent in French, German and Portuguese, and is currently learning Chinese.

Editor-at-Large of The Print, Liam Pape, interviewed him in his office overlooking the Queen Mary clocktower one morning in April. They spoke about Brexit concerns, Queen Mary’s global status, and the future of higher education.


It is no surprise that Brexit is a challenge on the radar of the VP International of a university whose student make-up is almost ten per cent EU nationals.

Grant says that in terms of the recruitment of European students, the UK is seeing an impact. However, Queen Mary is holding its own since the vote to leave in June 2016.

A real cluster of brilliant partnerships in Paris which we need to nurture and leverage

Staff have also been affected by the vote to leave. Initially, Queen Mary stepped in to cover the £65 settled status fee the government was charging to EU nationals who wished to keep living and working in the UK. Due to nationwide backlash, the government later reversed this policy.

Brexit uncertainty appears to be the primary challenge. At his previous role at the University of Southampton, Grant said: “One of the most difficult meetings I’ve had, in the early days of Brexit post-referendum, was when I gave a briefing to the trade unions. And the fact that I couldn’t give them certainty on any of the key issues advertised.”

“There are uncertainties which affect real people with real lives and not just direct employees or students, but also their families. And that’s avoidable and painful,” says Grant. He clarifies that things have moved on since then and he predicts the UK is heading for a softer Brexit, if any.

universities in the UK are inconceivable without being open to the world

One thing the VP International is certain about is the importance of relationships with other institutions in Europe. Queen Mary has key partnerships in Spain, France, and Belgium at the moment – and Grant is hoping Germany will soon be added to this list. Key partners are defined by places with excellent multi-disciplinary institutions, which are deemed a good fit for Queen Mary, and have the potential for scale. Grant uses Paris as an example of a city where Queen Mary has a “cluster of brilliant partnerships … which we need to nurture and leverage”.

Grant seems positive about the future though. He says: “All we can do is mitigate risk. And I think Russell Group, Universities UK, individuals like myself and Colin Bailey, and others have worked hard to engage with European partners and make sure we remain a proud European initiation.”

He is confident Brexit will not hinder Queen Mary’s global goals in any way, adding: “I know universities in the UK are inconceivable without being open to the world. The end”.

Is Queen Mary doing enough to support students studying abroad? 

Approximately 4,000 Queen Mary students are based in satellite campuses; places such as Malta, Paris, and Nanchang. QMSU President, Ahmed Mahbub, and QMSU VP Education, Redwan Shahid, visited the University of London Institute in Paris recently to investigate how well Queen Mary is supporting students out there.

Grant senses that there is support for these students, but takes the attitude that there is always more that can be done: “I’m the last person to be complacent, it’s a complex operation. I think there’s more we can do”.

Dr Rosemary Clyne leads on ensuring students have the finest possible experience, regardless of where they are. “It’s one global community, whether they’re in Whitechapel or Malta. It’s one community,” Grant declares.

QMUL President Colin Bailey at the launch ceremony of the International Centre for Teaching and Learning in China

In summer 2018, Queen Mary launched an International Teaching and Learning Centre in China in partnership with Northwestern Polytechnical University – one of China’s top universities. Students studying there are invited to the Mile End campus over the summer to engage with students and staff here, as well as finding out more broadly what the university does.

In March, Clyne led a Future Global Leaders Summit for all students. The program aims to enable students to work together to build the skills, mindset, and cultural agility needed to be a future global leader.

Grant says: “This was an initiative which I developed as part of the new strategy to nurture leadership skills and team building amongst our student body. We had many multi-ethnic, very diverse groups working on a wide range of projects in the local community, from beekeeping to maintaining the Jewish cemetery in the middle of campus.”

In the future, there may be discussions around setting up and engaging with Student Associations so satellite campus students are more visibly represented in the university.

Why the future of Queen Mary is global…

QMSU VP Education Redwan Shahid and QMSU President Ahmed Mahbub speak at the Strategy 2030 launch in early May at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Strategy 2030 (Queen Mary’s vision for the next ten years) has, at its core, a mission to globalise the university so it remains a very strong powerhouse in London and also all of its other sites.

Queen Mary has aligned Strategy 2030 with their global engagement strategy, which embodies the work Colin Grant does as VP International. Grant states the areas of this strategy are broadly:

  • Student experience
  • Recruiting student talent
  • International alumni engagement
  • Global policy impact (using Queen Mary research to deliver policy solutions to overseas governments and bodies like the Commonwealth)
  • International research collaboration
  • International industrial engagement

At the moment, Grant says he is working on international student recruitment: “There is more we can do to recruit world class students from some major economies like India, China – as ever – but also some territories which are slightly less visible. So sub-Saharan Africa for example, to ensure we maintain that diversity which is core to our identity.”

He sees Queen Mary appealing to students in these areas primarily through face-to-face outreach by visiting academics. For example, if an academic is giving a guest lecture in Nairobi, the Queen Mary’s Global Engagement office wants to ensure they are also taking part in other forms of engagement while they are there.

Grant also sees the potential of alumni: “I can’t stress enough the importance of engaging people who have been to Queen Mary, who have lived Queen Mary, who go back home and have an amazing story to tell. And they are not an app, but a real person you can fire questions at. We have a huge global family; I think 160,000 alumni worldwide. Let’s make them feel welcome and make prospective students feel welcome.”

Why the future of Queen Mary is digital…

Grant says digital learning environments will play a huge role in the future. Partly due to the physical space constraints at Queen Mary, there are a number of different online offerings at the moment. Video capture via Q-Review is relatively popular, however a future is being envisioned where digital is not only a useful resource, but is core.

Grant says: “In my day, the lecture would be the lecture and students would mostly be on the receiving end of the lecture, and then there would be a seminar to pick up key questions. These days, through technology, there is a digital learning environment so we can frontload the lecture, so it is available before the lecture space. So the hour, for example, is set aside for the Q&A. It seems remarkably simple but it’s actually reasonably new territory. Queen Mary is doing really well with ‘the flipped classroom’.”

He adds: “One can envisage for a campus program that has online variants and options that won’t require students to attend another on-campus seminar or lecture, so they will be able to access classes in their own time. It allows for greater flexibility in the curriculum and for students to juggle seminars and lectures with all of the commitments.”

However, more reliance on digital learning environments and ‘flipped classrooms’ might create more problems than solutions. Already the bane of many liberal arts students is the low amount of contact time they have with the university – most with somewhere between six to nine hours per week. The Print put to Grant in the interview that some students actively seek more teaching time with the university.

Ex-Number 10 special adviser and Times columnist Clare Foges claimed recently that the very structure of university courses and halls are the roots of student unhappiness. She wrote:

Too much unstructured time can be a curse to the mentally fragile, yet for many this is a hallmark of university life. Subjects such as education, history and philosophy offer an average of seven or eight hours in seminars and lectures a week. The remainder of the time may be earmarked for independent learning, but in reality can allow angst, loneliness and boredom to fester. 

With universities pouring a collective £50 million a year into the crisis of student wellbeing, and the demand for mental health services among students rising forty-five percent in the past five years, will more ‘unstructured time’ simply increase this problem?

Furthermore, if Queen Mary – and other universities – pivot to digital, can they still expect students to take out student loans of £9,250 per year? Suddenly the offering of free, remote learning by institutions like the Open University will look a lot more appealing.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, what do lecturers think of this? Many are known to treat their lectures as sacred public performances and may be hesitant to swap their audience for a webcam. Others have raised concerns about ownership of the video content. Will it be licensed by lecturers or owned by the university, and what impact might this have on job security?

Grant says his portfolio is not education and he does not teach here. (Since this interview, The Print has reached out to Queen Mary’s Vice President Teaching and Learning, Professor Stephanie Marshall, to discuss these issues further.)

The challenge now

“Sometimes it feels like we are less than some of our parts”, Grant admits. “And I’m not really referring to the fact we are five campuses, but working in a more coherent way. For example, research partnerships. In Spain, we have a very large number of research partnerships. We need to be a bit more focused to get the impact and the scale. I say research partnerships; I should be clearer that it means PhD mobility.”

Apart from this, Grant reckons there are surprisingly few challenges: “I think the engagement from the Students’ Union, the student body, and faculty staff here has been beyond my wildest dreams”.

Despite Grant celebrating his one-year anniversary at Queen Mary the week after our interview, he already has big ambitions for the university. “I’d like colleagues to reference Queen Mary, wherever they are, as one of London’s big three – or big four – because we are. We just need to make a little bit more noise about it.”

The full transcript of the interview with QMUL’s VP International Colin Grant can be read here:


Images: University of Southampton (header), The Pie, Queen Mary University of London.

One Comment

  1. Morris Schaffer Morris Schaffer 13th May 2019

    We don’t want a softer Brexit. We want to stop Brexit and REMAIN.

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