On the Ground Perspectives: Q&A with UCL Pro-Vice-Provost Sasha Roseneil

February 2, 2021

The following interview is part of the European Studies Council and Council on Latin American & Iberian Studies collaborative collection titled “On the Ground Perspectives.” This new series features our international academic collaborators and institutional partners, investigating their research and other institutional priorities during the pandemic. The series aims to surface common challenges and showcase best practices for ongoing collaboration during this unusually challenging time. Below is an excerpt from an e-mail conversation between Pro-Vice-Provost Sasha Roseneil and Professor Julia Adams. 

Sasha Roseneil, University College London (UCL)

Sasha Roseneil is Pro-Vice-Provost (Equity and Inclusion) and Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences at UCL. She is Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science in the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL. Her most recent book explores the changing, and unchanging, terrain of personal life in Europe, The Tenacity of the Couple-Norm: intimate citizenship regimes in a changing Europe (co-authored with Isabel Crowhurst, Tone Hellesund, Ana Cristina Santos and Mariya Stoilova), 2020: UCL Press, available open access.

Yale and UCL have a strong partnership and have formed the Yale UCL Collaborative, a faculty-led initiative that promotes exchanges and the development of novel ideas made possible by the complementarity of resources between two great universities. In addition to partnerships in the biomedical sciences and engineering, the Yale UCL Collaborative has also influenced the study of social sciences, humanities, law and architecture at the two universities.

How has UCL responded to COVID-19?

I would say that the UCL community has responded to COVID-19 with alacrity, agility, and enormous energy.

As soon as COVID-19 struck, UCL academics were front and centre of the UK’s response to the disease, seeking first and foremost to save lives, here as well as overseas. UCL engineers, clinicians from University College London Hospital, and industry collaborator Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains developed, in record speed, the UCL Ventura CPAP breathing aid that is helping to keep COVID-19 patients out of intensive care all around the world. The design licence and manufacturing instructions for this continuous positive airway pressure device have been made open access, and over 1,900 teams from 105 countries have downloaded the designs and have been supported with local manufacture. Alongside this, final year UCL medical students were graduated early last spring in order to start working in the National Health Service, and hundreds of UCL academics and researchers with clinical backgrounds have returned to medical practice, working in our partner hospitals on COVID wards, and more recently, administering vaccines. Those of us from non-medical disciplines have, I think, watched in awe and with enormous gratitude, the dedication and unrelenting work of our medical colleagues.

Academics across different fields turned their attention almost immediately to researching ways of tackling the pandemic and have played a prominent role in advancing public understanding of the disease, both by advising world leaders and providing expert commentary. There has rarely been a news bulletin in the UK over the past 10 months that hasn’t featured a UCL medical scientist, virologist, public health expert, epidemiologist, behavioural psychologist, or statistician. UCL academics are members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), and are also key players in ‘Independent SAGE’, a group of scientists who are working independently of government to provide scientific advice to the public and to the government through regular briefings and reports. UCL has been producing a regular podcast, Coronavirus: The Whole Story, which brings together UCL’s leading experts to discuss the management, mitigation and eventual halt of the virus, and how to prepare for a better post-pandemic world.  In my own Faculty, Social and Historical Sciences, researchers in UCL’s Centre for Digital Anthropology are leading a crowd-sourced project collating ethnographic data on how people around the world are experiencing COVID-19 in their daily lives, and geographers have been investigating the spatial dynamics and inequalities of the disease, and its environmental impacts. As of today, UCL academics have 1,127 articles about COVID-19 listed on ScienceOpen.

Alongside the rapid pivot of research agendas, UCL, like every other university in the UK and many around the world, had to move our teaching and organisational work online last March as the virus took hold across the country. We have now experienced three national ‘lockdowns’, the third of which began in early January this year, during which all, or almost all, in-person teaching has had to be suspended. However, we were well prepared for this, as back in the late spring last year, we developed our ‘connected learning’ approach, in which all core teaching would be available online for academic year 2020-21, with face-to-face in-person teaching in addition, where safely possible. We put in place an extensive programme of training and support to prepare everyone who would be teaching for this new environment.

Right at the start of the crisis, we identified three principles to guide us through the pandemic - safety, humanity, and student experience – and we have tried our best as a leadership team and a community to abide by these principles. We have been advised throughout by our own public health and other scientific experts about the safest ways to work, and about how to protect our students and staff on campus, and we have worked closely with student representatives, who played a vital role in key crisis management teams. We have tried to mitigate the highly uneven impacts of the pandemic on different groups at UCL, recognising particularly the problems experienced by students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who often have to study in difficult situations at home, and investing significantly in the provision of laptops, and enhanced student mental health and welfare services. We have also seen the intense, and often highly gendered, pressures placed on staff who are parents and carers by the closure of schools and the need to oversee their children’s home learning, and we have sought to address this through the establishment of an equity and inclusion-based COVID-19 Career Support Scheme, which aims to offset the adverse impacts that the pandemic might have on careers and working lives.  

Alongside the pandemic, Brexit has also presented unprecedented challenges for UK higher education. What are your top priorities at UCL as related to engagement or partnerships with other institutions at this time? How are these challenges affecting UCL researchers’ ability to carry out their own work?

You’re right that the combination of the pandemic and Brexit has changed our operating context significantly. Both have been very challenging, but they have also underlined in positive ways just how important our international partnerships are to us at UCL. Our tagline, ‘London’s Global University’, has never been more meaningful. We know that, more than ever, we need to keep initiating, reinforcing and supporting close collaborations across national boundaries.  No one university, however large and dynamic, can tackle the most pressing global problems alone, and these two forces that have swept down upon us have meant that we are re-doubling our focus on transnational engagement. Indeed, the almost overnight normalizing of what we used to call ‘video-conferencing’, as we all transferred our meetings, and lives, online, has opened up our understanding of what it is possible to achieve without international air travel and the associated carbon costs. We have realized that we really can stay closely connected whilst geographically distant.

It feels particularly appropriate for me to be responding to your questions about COVID because it was just before the pandemic hit that I met you in New Haven, as part of a UCL delegation visiting Yale back in March 2020. We knew then that something big was coming, and we had already stopped shaking hands (and the drugstores everywhere on that trip were sold out of hand sanitiser), but we really had no idea that the world would be turned upside down to the extent that it has been. We talked then, I remember, about enhancing the connections between our parts of UCL and Yale, about the strengths of the social sciences, history and European Studies at each institution, and I had the pleasure of meeting with that year’s cohort of the Yale-UCL Collaborative Scheme, which has enabled transformative study experiences for dozens of PhD students. Just a few weeks later, Yale was one of the first partners that UCL consulted with, as the crisis took off, to share valuable knowledge about our institutional responses, about how to adapt our teaching, and care for our students, and identifying touchpoints on research on the virus itself.

The UK and US have each experienced complex and fast changing national and geopolitical landscapes in recent years (to say the least), and it is beholden on universities to ensure that our researchers are able to think and work across borders. During the time since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the UCL European Institute has played a vital role in curating UCL’s research and contributing to public debate about Brexit and the future of the UK’s relationship with Europe, and in ensuring that UCL was as well prepared as possible institutionally for Brexit. Despite the UK leaving the EU, UCL continues to work closely with numerous European universities, and we remain committed to sending our students to Europe and to receiving European students, despite the UK’s withdrawal from the Erasmus+ student exchange programme. UCL has a large number of European staff, and we will continue to recruit the best academics from Europe, and all over the world, and to engage in international research collaborations.

One positive piece of news, right up against the final Brexit deadline at the end of the transition period, was that the UK will be part of Horizon Europe, the 100 billion euro European research and innovation programme that will run from 2021 to 2027. This is particularly important to the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences at UCL as we have been the most successful grouping in Europe in securing highly prestigious European Research Council grants in social sciences and humanities. Indeed, I rather dread to think how disappointed my colleagues would have been had Brexit meant that we could no longer access this stream of funding.

I should also mention that we have many academic staff who hail from the US at UCL, and that we have particular strengths in the study of US politics in two departments in the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences: the Department of Political Science/ School of Public Policy, and the Institute of the Americas. Last summer, we launched the new UCL Centre on US Politics (CUSP), and its members have provided insightful analysis of US politics over the tumultuous final months of the Trump presidency, quickly becoming trusted commentators across a wide range of media in the UK and internationally.

So, research on non-pandemic topics very much continues to develop and thrive, notwithstanding the enormous energy that the current crisis is demanding of everyone in their working and personal lives. Research on environmental degradation, sustainability and climate change remains one of the most important priorities across UCL, and indeed it is an important area of collaboration between UCL and Yale. We recently established a university-wide Climate Hub to showcase research on climate change, and from the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences, we launched the UCL Anthropocene Initiative – a ‘virtual school’ that assembles projects, people, courses and events from across the social sciences, arts, humanities, life, environmental and health sciences to address the problems that the Anthropocene poses for our collective future. And, as part of our ‘Positive Climate Campaign’, UCL pledged to become a net zero carbon institution by 2030, an ambitious commitment that earned us the highest score in the University Carbon League Table.

Finally, I will point to an amazing global event organized by UCL that was probably only imaginable in the context of the technological affordances adopted during the pandemic. In October 2020, UCL Grand Challenges and the UCL Global Engagement Office hosted a two week virtual conference, Beyond Boundaries, exploring the role of universities in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Speakers and participants from across the world shared ideas and innovative approaches to the SDGs, identifying gaps in knowledge, discussing effective solutions and creating research agendas for the future.

Any final thoughts?

COVID-19 has affected almost every aspect of life at UCL. It has been an extraordinarily difficult time for students and staff – sometimes frightening, often disorientating, lonely, overwhelming. People are tired and desperately want it all to be over. Learning and working remotely isn’t the same as being together in-person; we have to acknowledge what is missing, and what has been lost during the pandemic. But, speaking personally, I have been profoundly inspired and moved by my colleagues and by our students, whose resilience, adaptability, and good humour, as individuals and collectively, have been tremendous. Over the past 10 months, I have repeatedly returned to the Gramscian aphorism: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. With the vaccines now being rolled out and renewed public understanding of the vital importance of the work of universities, I really do believe that we can contribute to building back better.