Higher education is changing – and at a dizzying speed. Universities now operate on a global canvas, and reputations are made (and lost) on a worldwide scale. Around the world, measures of quality – however imperfect, flawed and downright misleading they may be – drive student preferences, funders’ decision-making and government strategies. At the same time, local impact remains equally important: all universities exist in communities, but as those communities become more diverse and demanding, the pressures on universities intensify. It’s easy to despair at the pace and scale of these challenges, but adapting to change can be bracing too. New challenges bring new possibilities and new horizons. It’s against this background that after a good deal of thought and careful planning we have decided to merge the IOE and UCL, creating academic opportunities for both partners. The merger will take effect from 2 December.
About the IOE
The IOE was established at the beginning of the 20th century. Initially set up to train teachers for the rapidly developing schools of London, it was from the very beginning international in outlook. Over the next hundred years it expanded its role and remit enormously, so that at the beginning of the 21st century it is one of the UK’s leading centres not simply for education, core though that is to its mission, but for social science more generally. In 2014 it was ranked first in the world for education in the QS rankings, and was shortlisted for the Times Higher University of the Year Award. Our history has been one of bold growth. The merger with UCL now offers a rich prize: the opportunity, at a time of ever-greater interdisciplinarity, to build strong links across the full range of higher education disciplines. It provides opportunities, at a time when universities are, rightly, looking hard at the relationships with their communities to reach more deeply into London and London schools. It provides opportunities, at a time when universities need to internationalise more rapidly than ever to extend global reach. Above all, the merger will mean that the IOE can deliver more comprehensively on its mission to transform lives through education. Of course, all change involves some losses as well as gains, but the merger with UCL – which some of our near neighbours have called a ‘no-brainer’ – is the next step in the IOE’s evolution.
UCL, as one of the world’s leading ‘comprehensive’ multi-faculty universities, enjoys an extraordinarily high level and concentration of academic excellence. UCL excels at research and at creating and delivering cross-disciplinary education at all levels. For some time we have felt that the long-term future of UCL would be well served by extending our disciplinary expertise to include education and a greater breadth within the social sciences by a close partnership, and now merger, with the IOE. We strongly believe that the world’s greatest problems, reflected in our Grand Challenges approach, will most likely be best solved by teams of researchers from many different disciplines working together. Within every potential solution to the grand challenges that the world is facing, there is the need to understand and shape human behaviours, which can of course only be achieved through a combination of education and a deep understanding, both qualitative and quantitative, of the social factors at play. The merger of UCL and the IOE now gives us a much-enhanced intellectual capacity to make great inroads into tackling such global problems even more effectively.
Focusing on the student experience
UCL will also enjoy the outstanding pedagogic expertise that the IOE will bring to the merger and that will help to underpin our ambitions in research-based education, the Connected Curriculum project and in all aspects of both blended and distance e-learning. Through these and other mechanisms there will be a strong focus on the quality of the student experience and a very tight relationship and integration of the research that we do and the education that our students receive. We envisage an inspirational student experience that will allow all to reach, or exceed, their expectations. As a combined force UCL and the IOE can be more effective in widening participation, making our merged institution more accessible to students from lower income families. We intend to do that using the wide network of collaborations with secondary education, particularly within London, that exist across both organisations.
There are several factors that we consider essential to make this merger one of the most successful that has ever occurred in UK higher education. The first is that UCL and IOE share similar values, with the principle of social justice, openness and a tendency to opt for the critical and radical approach, underpinning both organisations. The second is that it is a merger of two institutions that share similar levels of global ambition and that hold academic excellence, and the organisational autonomy necessary to create it, in very high esteem. The final factor is that we fully recognise that as we merge, the hard work is only just beginning. We have thought through the first two years of activity post-merger and already have a clear plan of what we wish to build together in both undergraduate and postgraduate education and in research. We have also planned to extend our now combined Grand Challenges programme to put greater emphasis on ‘global education’.
Finally, we recognise that the merger will only deliver outcomes at the pace and scale that we envisage if we fully support our staff and students through this period of change. No doubt there will be a few bumps along the way, but we are confident that we can learn from each other and adapt within the merged institution to create an environment that is highly creative, wonderfully productive, and enhances the academic reputation and profile of the merged UCL and IOE. We are confident that our collective community will embrace this change, engage actively, and ultimately contribute to making this merger an outstanding success.
Professor Chris Husbands is Director of the Institute of Education and Professor Michael Arthur is President & Provost, UCL