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FULL INTERVIEW: VP International Colin Grant on Brexit uncertainty, digital futures and Queen Mary’s global ambitions

Interview highlights and full story:

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

Interview transcript:

Liam Pape: Could you give me a bit of an overview of the things you cover as VP International?

Colin Grant: There are broadly six areas. One is the student experience, so all of our international students, their experience. Another is recruiting the finest talent – student talent – from around the world… Undergrad, postgrad, PhD. A third area is international alumni engagement, by which I mean creating opportunities for support, mentorship, and introductions with our alumni community around the world. Global policy impact. This is where we use our research strength to deliver policy solutions to overseas governments and bodies like the Commonwealth. And then international research collaboration with a focus on world class partners. So yesterday, for example, we had a visit from Kyoto University in Japan – one of the leading universities in the world. International industrial engagement. It could be, for example, engaging with companies with a base in London or the UK. And it is most certainly engaging with UK or other companies overseas where there is a good synergy with our student engagement, research mission or some other form of engagement. So essentially, it’s everything international.

What have you seen to be the main challenges of the job?

Surprisingly few. I think the engagement from the Students’ Union, the student body, and faculty staff here has been beyond my wildest dreams. Superb people all round. Completely engaged. So that has been very gratifying. And there are levels of trust – and you can’t buy trust. So that’s a huge asset and one that needs to be very carefully maintained.

Of course, there have been challenges. Sometimes it feels like we are less than some of our parts; 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. So, we are mindful of that as well.

Other challenges: I think there are the external factors. Without question Brexit… which occupies all of our lives 24/7. All of us do everything we can to 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 institution.

What kind of specific challenges has Brexit brought?

Mostly uncertainty. It is an uncertainty most keenly felt by people. By European staff, either professional services or academics, with families… with children… with school needs… with social care needs. And unfortunately, they’re quite far down the pecking order when it comes to negotiating. I think one of the most difficult meetings I’ve had, not at this university, at Southampton, 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… But things have moved on and I think we are heading towards a softer Brexit – if any.

So, 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. We took a decision as a university, at the time, to cover the application costs for settled status. Now the government has decided belatedly to cover those costs anyway. But we were there. We brought in expertise and we have a Europe network led by Valsamis Mitsilegas, who is the Dean for Europe. So, all of that helps. Beyond that, the recruitment of European students. We are seeing an impact in the UK, but Queen Mary is holding its own, frankly.

We’re engaging with the strategic partners in Europe. I mention Spain. KU Leuven in Belgium is a key partner. (Key partner means: scale, multi-disciplinary, good fit, excellent.) And we’re looking at how to engage with German universities. We have a big base in Paris. A real cluster of brilliant partnerships in Paris, which we need to nurture and leverage.

I’m from Edinburgh which voted in a certain direction. I live in London. I know universities in the UK are inconceivable without being open to the world. The end.

Do you think that Queen Mary does enough to support students who live and study in the satellite campuses like Paris, Nanchang, Beijing, and Malta?

We’ve had a number of conversations with Ahmed and Redwan, who I think have now visited Paris to investigate how well we are supporting students. My sense is that we are, but there is always more we can do to improve. We have a leader for the transnational student experience. Her name is Rosemary Clyne. She’s in biosciences and leads on ensuring we have the finest possible student experience, regardless of where those students are. It’s one global community, whether they’re in Whitechapel or Malta. It’s one community. And I think part of creating that community is engaging with local student associations… a slightly different beast in China. We have set up an international centre in China for teaching and learning, which caught the attention of China Daily. So, I think huge efforts are being made. I’m the last person to be complacent. It’s a complex operation; I think there’s more we can do. We bring in cohorts of students from China – not sure about Malta – into university for the summer, in the hundreds, to engage with the student staff here to get a sense of what this university does. But my starting assumption is that there is always more we can do.

Just an illustration of Rosemary’s work: the Global Leaders Summit, which was not restricted to international students, but open to all students. This was an initiative which I developed as part of the new strategy to nurture leadership skills and teambuilding amongst our student body. We had many multi-ethnic, very diverse groups working on a wide range of projects in the local community… Beekeeping; maintenance of the Jewish cemetery in the middle of campus. So, a whole range of really diverse things.

What is the global engagement strategy and what does it include?

The six dimensions I gave you at the beginning, that is the global engagement strategy in a nutshell. So, it is part of the university strategy for 2030. A really big push to globalise the university so we remain a very strong powerhouse in London, but also all of our other sites. And I think Queen Mary has a very good track record in Malta, Paris, and our China operations. We have that appetite to do more. So, expect more exciting things as part of Strategy 2030. That is the alignment between the global engagement and the university strategy.

In broad terms, what are you working on at the moment?

One thing I’d highlight is the digital learning environment, and obviously that becomes a global play very quickly. So digital is important to us.

I think 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, just to ensure we maintain that diversity which is core to our identity.

What is the best way to appeal to students who live in these areas?

I think three things. One is the presence of our alumni in the country. We need to do more to create the right support for our alumni to engage with prospective students – and other people… industry and policy makers.

[Second:] Outreach by the brilliant international recruitment team, led by Lee Wildman in the Global Engagement office. So that’s face-to-face outreach, and I include in that face-to-face outreach visiting academics who might be giving a guest lecture, say, in Nairobi. So, let’s make sure they have an opportunity to engage with the next generation of future global leaders.

The next is social media. And this varies from country to country. Africa, obviously a huge continent, is very savvy when it comes to social media. China is a slightly different set of vehicles: WeChat is very popular there and Weibo. So, it’s a multichannel approach.

But I can’t stress enough the importance of engaging alumni, so 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.

What do you mean by Digital Learning Environment?

We have a large number of very different online offerings at the moment at the university. I think we recognise that space is a constraint in the university. I think we recognise the world has gone very digital very quickly. What are the digital tools we can use to create the 24/7, 365 days a year campus, which is not just bricks and mortar? So, it’s the right kind of responsive technology. Video capture is slightly older hap these days but video capture; the flipped classroom.

What is the flipped classroom?

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 too 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. When I was doing teaching, it wasn’t really part of the DNA, but is certainly is now. So really harnessing technology, making sure there is really good circulation between digital students – because they are our students – and campus students. So online and campus: What are the circulations we can create to make that one coherent whole – so we can be more than all of our parts; not less.

What are some of those things?

So, for example, 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 the classes in their own time. It allows for greater flexibility in the curriculum and allows for them to juggle with all of the commitments we all have – and today more than ever before for the student body: work, family, care, all of these things.

Have you got any feedback from lecturers on the flipped classroom because sometimes they can be a bit resistant to change? Similarly, with students, many aren’t on campus for more than eight hours a week so look for more opportunities for contact time?

My portfolio is not education and I don’t teach here, so I haven’t heard anything specific. However, I can imagine for people of my generation the lecture is really that nerve-jangling performance. Did I feel that adrenaline rush every single lecture for 20 years? You bet I did. All the time. Because it mattered and the performance was all. So initially, at least, engaging with that flipped classroom might be a challenge. But the richness of the dialogue. In the old style, one wouldn’t really know what is being captured until exam time. But in the flipped classroom, it enables that intensity of interaction. I miss the teaching, by the way.

And finally, what are your long-term plans for Queen Mary?

Very ambitious for Queen Mary. Strategy 2030 sets the course very clearly. I think, in future years, 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. I think there is more we can do in the international space, in China, in India, in other parts of the world, and really have a big impact because our values translate so well to lots of other territories. It makes it a little easier to engage with, for example, South African universities, which may slightly be a little uneasy about UK universities. But for a university like ours, with our diverse profile and location, it is different. So, ambition in terms of scale, size, excellence, and I think the key word would be ‘impact’. Impact on student lives, employability, society, research. That’s all. It’s very small and very simple.


Image – Queen Mary University of London

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