Becoming London’s top modern university

We interviewed LSBU’s Vice-Chancellor Prof David Phoenix, as he unveils his plans to take South Bank all the way to the top

London South Bank University (LSBU) has been around in various guises for 125 years. It was originally created and championed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prince of Wales with the view to create an institution in the south of London that had the support of the local community and the local industry by providing access to skills and education for people in the area. LSBU currently has more than 18,000 students drawn from more than 130 countries, and has invested over £60m during the past five years in modern teaching facilities. Here, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor David Phoenix OBE, discusses the challenges the HE sector faces today, and LSBU’s plans for future growth.

Strategically thinking 

“We’ve gone through a range of changes from when I stood here two years ago,” begins Prof Phoenix. “As any new Vice-Chancellor, you come in and you see what you think can be done, where the strengths are and what you can build on,” he explains. Phoenix joined LSBU in 2014 and soon became heavily involved in launching its 2015–2020 corporate strategy, which sets out how it will achieve its vision of becoming London’s top modern university by 2020.

The strategy builds on the strengths of LSBU by focusing on its ability to enhance student success and deliver real world impact through academic activity and links to business and the professions. The strategy has three main strands; student success, real world impact and access to opportunity.

Student success focuses on bringing to life a new learning pathway. It’s about moving away from a focus on knowledge to a focus on the application of that knowledge. “We’ve invested very heavily with IBM and we now have one of the most advanced visual learning environments in Europe supported by a range of virtual communication tools and data analytics to provide an advanced environment for staff and students,” Phoenix says.

“The next phase is looking at all of the courses we deliver to make sure we’ve got sufficient contact through workshops, laboratory experiments, seminar groups etc, to really make sure that students are focusing on the application of that knowledge.”

Around 50% of LSBU’s students are from black and ethnic minority groups – one of the highest percentages in the country – and around 60% are from working class backgrounds. “It’s important that we find ways to enrich the experience of those students outside of the module to really help them build that social capital that can help them then with job applications for their future career,” said Phoenix. 

Part of the pathway is focused around confidence building, volunteering, and extra-curricular activities that can help students build that confidence in themselves. “The pathway is quite simple in many ways, it reflects the fact that it’s not just what you know, it’s not just how well you apply it, it’s having the confidence to go out into the world and apply it.”

LSBU has undergone a major restructure in recent years, reforming the university campus into a seven-school structure to create academic entities that were big enough to survive changes and volatility but small enough to have more meaningful engagement with stakeholders. “And it’s working,” says Phoenix. “We’ve seen rapid growth in knowledge transfer partnerships, and we’ve seen rapid engagement with industry.”

LSBU’s Keyworth Building

Building aspiration

As well as highlighting the University’s vision for the next five years, Phoenix is also keen to talk about engaging with different demographics. “UCAS figures have shown that we’ve had a problem with engaging with white, working class males for some time. One of the shorthand phrases that people use is around the need to build aspiration – and we do need to build aspiration, but actually with a lot of the harder-to-reach groups it’s about engagement because these potential students need to understand what universities are offering, and it’s not actually just about a course or knowledge. The course itself has to be something you enjoy but it’s also about the environment which that course is taught and delivered, whether that fits your aspirations.

“Every university provides knowledge, but it’s the networks, the contacts, the extra experiences that you can have at university that help prepare you for future life. It’s vital that we as universities highlight these benefits to all potential students.”

Sharing the load 

Phoenix is a great believer in wider engagement, and thinks that making the connection between university and prospective student is a shared responsibility.  “We invest quite a lot in outreach and there have been a lot of schemes where we work closely with colleges, schools and networks. We’re also finding a lot more parents are coming to events to find out more about what the University has to offer. We want to make sure that there aren’t any perceived barriers at the point of entry.”

Phoenix then explains his belief that the introduction of the loan system was a very positive move, because it meant there was a way to fund the sector whilst also making sure that people could access funding at the point of entry. “Personally I think we’re reaching a point where it’s worth reflecting on whether we’ve got the balance right, in terms of whether all the funding, all the loans, should be going across to students, whether that balance between the state and the individual is right because we do need to find ways to get additional income into universities, but the fact there is a loan there, irrespective of the debate that’s needed between the balance of the state and the individual, means that the finance shouldn’t be a barrier between people going to university.”

One of the many open days at LSBU

Running a business

The V-C admits that due to the number of major changes that have occurred across UK HE in recent years, LSBU has had to think smart to remain successful. “Universities are very special places because of what they do. Some of my colleagues don’t like using this phrase, but we are businesses. I need my finance and my estates and other areas to work very efficiently and effectively as a business. 

“For a number of years we’ve been showing efficiencies and saving significant sums. But there is more we can do with industry to further diversify the income streams. We will be further supporting the apprenticeship programmes that are coming through, for example. You’ve got a spectrum of universities across the country from all kinds of institutions that are engaged with the apprenticeship programmes.”

A privileged position 

So after two years at the helm of LSBU, I asked Phoenix, is V-C life what you expected? “It’s been incredibly enjoyable and it is a very privileged position. There are restrictions, as there are with leadership of any organisation. You have challenges and frustrations to deal with but when you meet with the students and you see some of the things that they and the staff are achieving it’s fantastic to be in a position where you can try and create an environment where they can flourish. One of the challenges for Vice-Chancellors is being clear on what their vision is for their institution and chasing funding that adds to that vision rather than chasing funding just because it’s available. I feel that this is a great institution and a great location, being in the heart of London, the only campus-based institution in zone 1. I honestly believe that there is so much that this University will achieve over the next few years.”


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