Imperial College London: Inside the university that studies | Education

Deep inside Imperial’s South Kensington campus, teams of current and former students use laptops, run businesses and share ideas. There’s a company that uses sailboats to collect data to map weather patterns, another that offers low-cost AI-powered courses, one with an innovative way to weigh chickens, and another that imagines ways to empower retail investors.

This is the university’s corporate laboratory, the crown jewel of an institution that prides itself on combining business and science. It’s a major draw for students, with one in eight using the space to brainstorm their budding business ideas, attend entrepreneurial skills workshops, network with other students, and receive mentorship from experts and former students. He’s so successful at what he does that he has an outstanding 79% survival rate for the startups he launches.

The mix of science and business is what makes Imperial unique, says the university’s new president, Professor Hugh Brady. “Innovation and entrepreneurship are really part of the DNA, they are part of what attracts students. The atmosphere is different: impact, innovation, entrepreneurship oozes from the institution.

Science courses usually include business and finance modules regardless of subject, while business school students are drawn to the scientific strength of the university. A new multidisciplinary undergraduate course in economics, finance and data science, launched this year, is attracting considerable interest.

Imperial has some of the best-resourced entrepreneurship facilities in the country, including the largest mentorship system – based on the MIT model – and the largest prize fund for its main entrepreneurship competition, the Catalyst Challenge. of business.

Also part of this image is the Enterprise Lab and companion Hack Space, where students can access equipment, such as 3D printers, to build prototypes for their ideas.

Still, Imperial has ambitious plans to expand all of this. To achieve this, the university just received an inspired Stanford Founders Pledge from seven former founders to donate a portion of their future earnings to the college to benefit budding entrepreneurs.

Students working on a carbon capture project in the chemical engineering department. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

According to Vice-Rector for Research and Enterprise, Professor Mary Ryan, it matters because it is what students – and the employers who recruit them after graduation – expect from a degree. imperial.

“There is a recognition that [for] our student body in particular, and [for] all students of this generation are hungry to explore entrepreneurship and ways to develop their own ideas while studying,” she says.

She adds that “not only what can we learn, but what can we do with what we learn” is a philosophy that is an integral part of the institution, with work with industry cited in its founding charter, which date of 1887, date of its creation. alongside South Kensington’s world-class museums as part of Prince Albert’s vision for an estate of culture.

This is underpinned by the university’s strength in research, which has come to the fore during the pandemic, as its multidisciplinary Covid response team has shaped how governments around the world have responded to the crisis. .

This has resulted in an increase in applications for the university, with many students citing the team in their applications, says Vice-Rector for Education and Student Experience, Professor Emma McCoy. “We have seen an increase in the number of our requests over the past decade and year on year. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next two years.

Professor Mary Ryan, Vice Provost (Research and Enterprise), pictured in Imperial's Enterprise Lab.
Professor Mary Ryan, Vice Provost (Research and Enterprise), pictured in Imperial’s Enterprise Lab. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

This culture is reflected in a research-intensive curriculum, where students are taught by leaders in their field and are expected to generate their own knowledge. Imperial favors a multidisciplinary approach, including compulsory modules in disciplines outside of their undergraduate degree.

The university has seen a steady rise in the rankings in recent years, rising from 9th place in 2021 to enter the top five for 2023 – something it has only done twice before since the start of the Guardian rankings. Graduate prospects have long been a strength of the university – 94.5% of the most recent cohort have found their way into a higher level profession within 15 months. The university ranks first in the employability guide, thanks to its subject mix, focus on entrepreneurship, and industry placements. McCoy says producing work-ready graduates is a priority, with employers appreciating how they “can get down to work.”

The university’s rise in the rankings was partly supported by improved results from its national student survey. It is the result of a five-year campaign to improve the student experience, which has seen Imperial involve students more closely in shaping their education and learning environment, creating an inclusive university community and the strengthening of its scholarship program.

“It’s always a challenge in a research-intensive business [university] because our courses are particularly stimulating, which also attracts students,” admits McCoy.

Professor Hugh Brady, President of Imperial College London.
Professor Hugh Brady, President of Imperial College London. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Part of its appeal, suggests Brady, is that there is no “direct competitor” to the institution. However, he says elements of his White City campus, which combines high-tech facilities aimed at creating the products and services of the future with community outreach, remind him of Kendall Square in Boston – which adjoins MIT – or the Stanford-Berkeley axis in California.

“When I was in the United States, [in the] In the 1980s and 1990s, the Ivy League almost woke up one day and said “gosh, what happened, there’s this new kid on the block, Stanford”, who has similar characteristics to the Imperial. I think we’re at this transformation [point] where students now come to Imperial because it’s different, because they know they’ll receive a high-quality education steeped in the latest research and discovery, but with an eye for impact and innovation” , he said.

Despite its popularity, Imperial faces an existential threat: the decline in real terms in the value of tuition fees, which are now worth a third less than when they increased in 2012. Brady believes the shortfall for Imperial courses, which are expensive to run, averaging around £4,000, a hole the university is filling through ‘incredibly generous donors’, lucrative industry partnerships and the use of higher fees paid by international students to subsidize courses.

“The funding model does not cover the costs of educating UK students, and this needs to be addressed,” says Brady, adding that he and other university leaders are lobbying the government to prioritize increased state funding or increased tuition fees, or a combination of the two. . “If there is a critical decision for the country over the next two or three years, it is what this funding model is and how to build it so that it is sustainable and aligned with the needs of the Stem economy. .”

A senior medical student using new virtual reality training, simulating real-life situations like cardiac arrest in a hospital setting.
A senior medical student using new virtual reality training, simulating real-life situations like cardiac arrest in a hospital setting. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

This challenge is compounded by the fact that as an international institution, Imperial competes with American universities, which benefit from a longstanding culture of endowments and alumni philanthropy, and with institutions emerging Asian countries, which receive much more state support.

Still, overall, Brady feels that, culturally, Imperial is currently in a strong position. “There is a much broader and deeper appreciation within society of the value of science, engineering and medicine to humanity and the planet,” he says, adding, “you have government economic policy, which absolutely has the stem, innovation, entrepreneurship and digital skills central to that, and you have a talent pool that needs more engineers.

“You can truly say that Imperial has never been more important to the country.”

Brady took the reins in August, and his first plan is to meet with as many staff and students as possible, to understand what they’re proud of and what needs to change – including an ongoing project to reassess the relationship. of Imperial with its colonial history.

“That’s my goal: what will the next 10 to 15 years look like for Imperial? How does it continue to compete with the best universities in the world? How does it establish itself as this essential catalyst for economic growth in the United Kingdom? How does it play its role in the wider global scientific community that is interested in important issues such as climate change? »

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