With only a year left until Sir Roy Anderson takes over as Rector of Imperial College, Live! and stoic tv invited students, staff and alumni to put their questions to the incumbent, Sir Richard Sykes. Shortly after the Centenary Ball in June John Anderson put these and other questions to Sir Richard, before opening questioning to the small audience watching the interview.
Questions extended across a broad spectrum of topics, from the students union, to higher education funding, through to research and on to the colours of new buildings.
You can watch the interview using the video player below. If the video is not working, a transcript of the programme can be found below.
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JA: With a new Rector due to be announced in the coming months, the man who has presided over some of the most radical changes in the colleges 100 year history is coming to the end of his term. Sir Richard Sykes has overseen an attempted UCL merger, tuition fee increases and rounds of rebranding and restructuring. All of these have been controversial and yet Imperial has grown in strength and prestige and is now ranked in the highest echelons of the academic world. In his final period in office, we invite you to "Ask the Rector".
JA: Hello and welcome to "Ask the Rector", your chance to put questions directly to the Rector of Imperial College, Sir Richard Sykes, who joins me here now. Following a very successful Centenary Ball, I understand.
RS: It was excellent, I think the students did a wonderful job. It was very successful. I think certainly the most successful since I've been here. And it was also successful because it made money.
JA: Some controversial comments from Trevor Philips, I understand?
RS: Well, I'm not sure they were so controversial. I think he was asked to talk about his times as a student and I think that must have featured high in his memory at that time. A little controverisal but I think not enough to create newspapers out of.
JA: We have some questions from the students and staff at Imperial College, who have been sending them in to us via the Live! message board and anonymous tip-off form as well. We'll go straight over to those.
Questions sent in by staff, students and alumni
JA: You caused a lot of controversy when you first arrived, with fees and the UCL merger. Would you have handled these or anything else differently knowing what you do now?
RS: Well fees first of all I think are a logical issue. You've got to try and charge full economic cost for what you do. That doesn't mean to say the student has to pay that full economic cost, but somebody has to pay it. So its quite right and proper - and I still take the same view today - that if we are offering a superior education, then it has to be paid for by somebody; otherwise it is a loss-making exercise and loss-making exercises get into financial difficulties.
As far as the UCL merger is concerned, I think it was very logical at the time, if you could put those two institutions together, get all the synergies one could get out of a merger and create what would have been one of the first-class institutions in the world; but knowing what I know now I just think its almost impossible to merge universities.
JA:Do you think in general?
RS: I think in general, certainly. Unless they're contiguous and they've been one in the past, but they were divided for some unknown reason like Manchester and UMIST. But to take two big institutions like Imperial and UCL and believe that you can get everybody to support a merger, I think its impossible.
JA: And touching on controversial events that have happened your seven year history here, events such as the dress code which has had international publicity: do you think communication with staff and students is important for major decisions at Imperial.
RS: Oh absolutely, and I think that was discussed quite thoroughly. Maybe what happened, the communications of those discussions maybe could have been better. But I think the whole tenor of the debate was quite correct, I think the outcome was correct, I think everything we wished to do was the right thing to do, I think the message just got out of control. So people misconstrued, whether they did it purposefully, or just because they believed that, then that's why it caused so much controversy. But I think what we achieved is exactly right.
JA: Is it sustainable to keep students in grade II listed Victorian buildings? Do you think your successor will be able to keep Imperial as a residential university?
RS: Oh I think it is critical important to keep imperial as a residential university. I think undergraduates, not the quantity but the quality of undergraduates is critically important for a place like Imperial. And therefore the more of those students we can accomodate on this campus the better. That's why we've put money into rebuilding Southside, why we'll put the money into rebuilding Eastside, so we can get almost 1,000 students in this area of the campus. Because I do believe it is critically important to have influx of young, smart, bright people who challenge the system constantly coming through Imperial College.
JA: Do you think we'll see a move out of the Victorial terraces into more Southside-style...
RS: Well obviously that's what we want to do, we want to make up to date accomodation so people come in and think "this is really pleasant". That's what you want from the student experience, the whole thing needs to be attractive.
JA: Do you believe students should be able to run their students union as they see fit? What do you think of the Union's restructuring process, with the introduction of the trustee board?
I am very supportive of that. I think it gives the Union much more responsibility. I think having a great body of people who are responsible at the end of the day for agreeing or overturning decisions is not the way to run an operation like the union. So to have a trustee board that can actually make those decisions and guide the union forward I think is a very good step.
JA: Do you think the independence of the union will suffer at all?
RS: No, I think the independence of the union is not in threat. I don't think it ever has been at Imperial College. I think there's always been a strong relationship between the Union, between the College and I think they've always worked well together. This issue of independence I think is irrelevant, both need each other, both have the same objectives at the end of the day. And so I think its wrong to talk about independence. You don't talk about independence when you want capital funding, when you want this, when you want that, so I think its wrong. I think that relationship is a very important one.
JA: Do you think though that union would be the students first port of call if there were a problem?
RS: Of course it should, because the union should be representing the students, that's what its for. For all aspects, for the educational part of it, for the recreational part of it, for evertything. The student union is representing the student and I think it does it extremely well here. But of course there are other ports of call as well, there have to be. That's why we have to support each other, because the interests of the students are at your heart and at our heart.
JA: What do you think of the old vehicles in the College and what is your memory of the London to Brighton run you took part in?
RS: I think its great to have these old vehicles. I know its a problem to have them in central London, first of all the accomodation and of course the congestion charging, but I just think its great to have them. And I think Jezebel and Bo' and the way the students look after them and take responsbility for them, you know. And going to Brighton was one of the highlights of my life, particularly in Bo'. I remember going down hill at what must have been 50 miles an hour, but it felt like 150 miles an hour and I wasn't sure the whole thing was going to stop.
JA: Do you think students now just regurgitate learnt answers in exams rather than having to think for themselves? Has university turned into a memory test?
RS: I would hope not. And I certainly would hope that hasn't happened at Imperial College. Because I would pride myself that people come here for a true education, which means because most of the time we deal with practical subjects, because science is a practical subject, that that application of the theory, all that lab work, all that work on the practicability is critically important. The theory behind it is important to back it up, but the priority should be the application. And hopefully that's what we give the students. So it's almost impossible to regurgitate that from somewhere else, you've got to learn that skill.
JA: Would you say that's a factor in Imperial's success, that it puts the practical nature of science first?
RS: Absolutely, and that's true of medicine, its true of engineering, its true of chemistry, its true of physics, its true of biology; you have to have that practical application.
JA: Do you feel that the influx of international students, many of whom fail to integrate in the social aspects of the university has affected the fragile sense of community at Imperial. Should more be done to bring them into the social sphere of the student body?
RS: Yeah, I think that is an important question. Imperial has always been a cosmopolitan university, I think from the very beginning. Over the last few years though we have seen an influx of more and more international students and of course more and more students coming from mainland China. There's two reasons for that, I think one after 2001 in the United States a lot of these students started to come into Europe, particularly into the UK. Also of course the development of China over that period and the recognition that education is so critically important for the future.
I remember when I arrived here in 2001, we had 60 mainland Chinese students at Imperial College. Today we have something like 1,700. That changes the dynamics of the place. And you're quite right, its critically important for when people come here - it doesn't matter where they come from, anywhere in the world - the critically important thing is about integration. Because that's the great thing about university education: not just all the things you learn and all the skills you acquire, but also that relationship you have with your peers. And I think that if we start having cliques around the university, I think that destroys the whole the whole atmosphere and development of university life, so it's something that we have to deal with.
JA: You say there's been a huge growth in international students, do you think the facilities to cope with international students have improved?
RS: Well, no, and I suspect that's something that we have to address, because we're now talking about something like 30% of the undergraduate body are international students and therefore somehow we've got to recognise that and make sure we've got the processes in place to make sure that those students are integrated into student life and the university as a whole.
JA: And are the number of international students going to carry on increasing?
RS: Well, its a good question. The number of students won't increase, because we've capped the number of undergraduate places at Imperial: so the issue is of quality and not quantity. Now, you know to get into Imperial College you've got to be bloody smart and you need a good grounding in mathematics. That's why we've seen this increase in international students; one, because they're extremely well educated, they have a good grounding in the science subjects and at home we see the exact opposite. There are fewer and fewer applications from home students to do mathematics, to do physics, to do engineering. So its that balance between people applying from home as opposed to those applying from overseas.
JA: Isn't there a financial incentive as well?
RS: But there shouldn't be, and to be very honest I don't think that has played a role at all. I think its all about needs blind: where are the people who are going to benefit from Imperial College education? Then if you can benefit, then fine. It must be there in people's minds, but they're never going to - I hope - not take quality as a number one issue in accepting a student into the college.
JA: What are your views on so many Imperial students going to finance rather than science? Does research need to pay more to attract the best students?
RS: Another issue which I think is very important and I suspect that we could do more here than we do. Because I do think, you are quite right, that the bright students come through a lot of them they take their degree, they get targeted by the financial institutions in the City, close to the City, they know we produce good analytical type graduates and so they come after them and offer them nice packages and salaries.
I think what we should do more of is saying to the really good students that we think should go on and do higher education in terms of a PhD is try to convince them of the value of going on and doing that extra research work, because you know today the chances are that most of the students are going to live until they're 90/95 years of age. There is no need to rush out into the world and start working, the more education you can get the better the foundation you can get for the next 70 years the better off you are going to be. So I think we should make sure that these students understand that. That its so much easier to come through your undergraduate course, go on to a post graduate course. Take it straight through. Because you?re prepared, you?re ready to go on, you get all those skills, you do the research. There is no question that there are some of those people that stay in research, you can then go into the city ? you?ll be much more valuable in the City at that stage ? and you?ve prepared yourself for the life ahead. So I think we need to do more selling to students about what their choices should be when they graduate.
JA: Do you think you'll find yourself in a position in the future to take issues such as improving graduate and PostDoc pay and training to a national level?
RS: I could well because they are things that I strongly believe in. I think if we want to keep the best people, if we want people to stay in training, if we want people to stay in education you've got to be incentivised to do it. Therefore we should have the wherewithall to offer those scholarships, to offer decent salaries to those people. Otherwise, if you're going to be offered £50,000 a year in the City to go and work, as opposed to being offered £14,000 a year to do a PhD its almost a no-brainer. I think somehow we've got to re-balance that, otherwise I think we're going to lose a lot of potentially smart people out of the university system. And that is not good at the end of the day for the country.
JA: What do you see as the way forward for research in the UK? Should more universities have people from business at the helm?
RS: I think one has to look at the university sector in the UK as a very diverse situation. I think we mustn't try to create something that is standard across the piece. We've got local institutions trhat should be dealing with local problems and dealing with local businesses, educating local people, probably more skills based than learning based, we've got national universities, we've got international universities that operate on a global stage. We've got universities which are very research based which means they've got a lot of translational research going on, which means that they're going to have spin-out companies, they're going to have licensing deals, there's going to be a big commercial arm to that university. So in a funny sort of way, universities at the top end today are becoming quite diverse in their activities. At one end you've got the learning and research part of it and at the other end you've got the commercial part of it.
We almost need a system like you have in the United States, where you have a Provost that takes responsiblitiy for the academic side and you have a President who takes responsiblity for the commercialisation side. And its almost dividing itself like that now in certain of the top universities.
JA: And do you think that Imperial is turning into one of those universities?
RS: I think in time the way Imperial is run will have to change, because I do think today Imperial is very - and always as been. You have to remember history of Imperial College , it was set up not just to do the educational side and the knowledge side, but also the commercial side. That's the whole reason it was set up, to work with industry, to work with commerce. So if there's one university in the UK that's absolutely unique in that respect it's Imperial College.
You need to be down at this end doing blue skies research, teaching the knowledge base, but also translating that knowledge base into products which are critically important for the economy of the country.
JA: Do you think during your time here - you are originally a business leader - you've helped encourage that business aspect of Imperial?
RS: Absolutely, I think we've put it now on a very firm footing. We have Innovations which is a listed company of which the College still own 59%. That of course is very valuable to the College in terms of an endowment. We have something like 65 spin-out companies, we have a lot of licensing deals, we have a company that deals with professional services, Impact, another company. I think where we can take advantage of that activity we should. But we should remember , at the end of the day we're a university, our number one priority is to discover things, is to do the work that leads us to the next stage which is that translation. You cannot translate things until you've discovered them. We mustn't always think that we concentrate on this bit, we actually concentrate on the whole value chain, right from the idea, right from the inception, developing that idea, all the way through to where it could be an actual product in the marketplace. That is critically important.
JA: So you don't think the academic side has been impacted by the commercialisation?
RS: I think its only been impacted in the sense of a culture, but that culture has always been here. Rolls Royce put its vibration centre here 30 years ago. Because the best engineering on in vibration happened to be at Imperial College. So, the engineers were working with Rolls Royce scientists for the last 30 years and thats true of many other businesses. So there's nothing unique about this. I think all I've done is come along and tried to put some structure behind it.
JA: Universities are places of learning - what are the most important things you learnt from your time at Imperial?
RS: Patience. It's very different from running a business, because in a business you can run around telling people to do things and they do them, usually. In a university you've got to persuade people to do things, you've got to get them on your side, youv'e to persuade people its the right thing to do, why they should do it and take them along with you. And I think that's good management style to be able to do that. In a funny way it would be better to run a university before you went on to run a business: perhaps you'd be a better manager.
JA: Do you have any advice for your successor?
RS: I shall have lots of advice for my successor, but of course I will stay here until next year at this time, so August 2008, so there's still lots of time left to do lots of other things.
JA: Any indications of those things?
RS: I think just progressing the way we're going. This year is a very important year, its the RAE so we've got to prepare for that, which is the Research Assessment Exercise which will certainly impact on our funding for the years to come. We're developing the Academic Health Sciences Centre which could be a big issue for Imperial, there are lots of big events going on out there: the European Institute of Technology, the Technology Institute in the UK. There are some big things that are happening and we want Imperial to be at the forefront of many of those.
Questions from the floor
AB: What do think has been your greatest achievement?
RS: It changes in the way you look at things doesn't it. I think obviously the buildings and developing the campus infrastructure is important, but its only important in that respect. There are other important things like developing the academic side and building the faculties. But I think the whole thing comes back to creating a proper professional environment in which people can do their work and enjoy it.
AB: What do you think about university league tables?
RS: Unfortunately they're something of the time, so we've got accept that they exist. Now they'll never be perfect by definition, because you can never get all the metrics right, but however many tables you have, if you always come in the top three you know you're doing something right. I think these tables are important because students look at them: when we ask students why they come to Imperial College, many times they will say "we looked at the league tables". So they are important, international league tables are also important, governments like international league tables. So you can criticise them and you can criticise the metrics that people use, and we criticise them even though we might be in the top because sometimes they miss things out. But they're here, they're here to say, so I think we should always strive to be up there at the top, because I think it is good to see Imperial up there.
KP: How has Imperial been affected by the Bologna process?
RS: I think this has just about run its course. Most of the departments at Imperial now, for our four year degrees, for our one year MSc degrees and for our PhDs are going to be Bologna compatible. I think we've come to the end of that one.
JA: So everything already fits?
Most of it is now, I think under control. Just a few areas that we need to get that right. We will be putting in our prospectus where these courses are Bologna compatible.
AB: We've got a blue building and now a pink building, what colour is next?
RS: Well I certainly wouldn't impose any colour, because I would leave it up to the engineers to decide, I think they're going to have to live in it, they should decide - as they did with the pink building, but I think it was only one engineer that decided the pink building - but I think Imperial blue is a nice colour, its a soothing colour, its a warm colour, I think it fits in well. But of course remember this buildnig is going to be down Exhibition Road and the planners will have a very, very big say in what the colours are. I mean this is an area of outstanding natural beauty in terms of being in the middle of a city, it's a preservation area, so therefore the colours - other than inside the campus which we can control - the out-facing side of the university is going to be very different.
JA: Will we be looking at any changes to the buildings inside the university at all?
RS: Of course, but the big plan first of all is to do Exhibition Road, to bring Aero and Mech Eng into close proximity to each other, come around the corner of College Road here with Civils to create shared facilities in terms of lecture theatres, small rooms for seminars and then eventually redevelop where the Roderic Hill building is now when Aero have moved out and build a new Molecular Sciences building with Chemical Engineering and then back it into Physics. So there are long term plans that stretch until 2020.