A world of difference

University College London has an ambitious agenda to ensure that its students are capable of helping those in need across the globe. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

The institution that educated Mahatma Gandhi and Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, is about to turn itself into what it calls a "global university". In the run-up to top-up fees and in the globalised world in which we now live, University College London is planning to transform itself into a university that reaches out to solve the world's problems. As the public reaction to the Asian tsunami disaster has shown, the British people empathise with the suffering of others. UCL is about to make this into a mainstream university activity. You could argue that all universities help solve international problems, some with more justification than others. But UCL is doing so in a more self-conscious way by changing its curriculum, sending more home students abroad and setting up research projects in Africa to find cures for diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.

The institution that educated Mahatma Gandhi and Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, is about to turn itself into what it calls a "global university". In the run-up to top-up fees and in the globalised world in which we now live, University College London is planning to transform itself into a university that reaches out to solve the world's problems. As the public reaction to the Asian tsunami disaster has shown, the British people empathise with the suffering of others. UCL is about to make this into a mainstream university activity. You could argue that all universities help solve international problems, some with more justification than others. But UCL is doing so in a more self-conscious way by changing its curriculum, sending more home students abroad and setting up research projects in Africa to find cures for diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.

"We must start working in Africa," says Professor Michael Worton, UCL's vice provost. "We can't leave it purely to the Treasury officials in the UK or the US." The college intends to provide a new kind of education and to make sure that all its students are learning what it means to be a global citizen.

"We want to prepare them for mobility," says Worton. "We expect them to change careers two or three times in their lives. We expect our students to be moving between countries and between cultures."

UCL is London University's biggest college, a university within a university, with an impressive reputation across the subjects - in medicine, chemistry, geography, law, anthropology, economics, English literature and modern languages. As one of Britain's top universities, it attracts students from all over the world. At the moment one-fifth are high-fee-paying overseas students: the plan is to increase that by 3 per cent a year, bringing in an extra £1-£1.5m. At the same time UCL is planning more scholarships and to send more of its home students overseas.

It wants to educate the leaders of tomorrow, whether of small charities or as future prime ministers - and to instill in them notions of entrepreneurialism and innovation, says Worton. Academics will be given help in how to internationalise the curriculum. All departments will have to give students an international dimension to their studies.

At the same time the college is planning a big research initiative in international health and development drawing on its expertise in the biomedical sciences. Much of it will take place in Africa, but UCL also wants a presence in India and China. It already works in Africa, in Tanzania, in particular, and this will be expanded. Its International Health and Medical Education Centre, set up four years ago under Professor John Yudkin, has pioneered the teaching of international health to medical students who can take a Bsc in the subject. The course links up with UCL's Centre for International Child Health and its Centre for Infectious Diseases and International Health and covers a big range of subjects from essential drugs to asylum seekers, and from global trade to gender studies. Cultural historians and analysts will be taking part, asking questions such as "Why would a Somali man rather commit suicide that admit he has TB?"

Moreover, there will be experts in the built environment from the Bartlett Institute including people like Babar Mumtaz, of the Development Planning Unit, who has been engaged in the rebuilding of Kabul. The object is to get the college's departments working together. "I do think that UCL is better than most universities at interdisciplinarity," says Worton. "But we still have a fair way to go."

The aim is to tap young people's idealism. Today's students may be less interested in party politics than previous generations but they are concerned about the planet. "A lot of young people have wonderful aspirations," says Worton. "They have a real desire to make a difference."

The college's motivation is also largely altruistic. "We are saying we will invest in this because we want to make a difference," he says. "As a highly privileged university in the West we have global responsibilities, not just UK ones." But it is not purely altruistic because, of course, UCL will make money out of more overseas students. And you could argue that by positioning itself as the ultimate global university it is doing something very savvy. The moment for change is right, it thinks.

A draft of UCL's international strategy says: "As a result of a combination of globalisation, the development of new technologies and, in the UK, the shift from an elite to a mass higher education system, higher education is undergoing what amounts to a revolution. It is important for UCL to recognise the magnitude of what is happening and to embrace the opportunity to change itself radically."

The big question is how to transform the curriculum when staff hail mainly from the UK and lack substantial first-hand experience of other countries. UCL intends to increase the number of overseas staff and to develop a postdoctorate scheme which would take bright UCL graduates from developing countries, bring them up to speed in Western research and send them home. That way, the college would benefit from the input of able young minds from abroad while contributing to international research. Indeed, UCL is moving towards a bigger emphasis on postgraduates by creating a few strategic partnerships with the best universities in the world such as Tokyo and Osaka in Japan.

And it is toying with the idea of a flagship graduate programme to teach international leadership and public policy. The idea is for an MBA in environmental law and economics. All of which would happen next year. Critics will argue that much of the plan is hot air. It will be for UCL to prove them wrong.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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