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In Conversation with Shitij Kapur, President and Principal of King’s College London

Shitij Kapur King's College London

Editor-in-Chief Marino Unger-Verna interviews Professor Shitij Kapur, the newest President and Principal of King’s College London.

Roar: Your arrival at King’s comes at a time of upset for students and staff alike. The Covid-19 pandemic, alongside related issues such as tuition fee protests and assessment mitigation procedures, have left many feeling unsupported and negative about their university experiences overall.
In a poll conducted earlier this year by Roar, 127 students told us they feel KCL administration is the aspect of King’s most in need of change. In your introductory video to King’s students, you spoke about how you plan to learn from students and staff in order to implement change. What have you learned thus far through these endeavours, and how do you plan to tackle these issues, whether you believe them to be real/actionable or the result of false perceptions?

Shitij Kapur: So first, look: it has been a privilege to have started. It’s also been a privilege to speak to almost 500 staff and students over the last two months. I’ve had nearly 50 meetings in different formats, and of course I’ve also spoken to the formal representatives of the students, the KCLSU.

This isn’t a false perception. The last 18 months have been unprecedented in almost everyone’s life. Even if someone is older, they’ve never really lived through anything like this. So these are really difficult and unprecedented times. I’ve heard from staff as well as students- and I’ve heard from both of them about it. Particularly for students, I think they found the sudden transition to predominantly online education very abrupt. They found there was a certain clunkiness in the procedural dealings with the College. For staff, and with due appreciation for their difficulties, they were used to teaching in a certain way and over a period of two weeks had to overhaul it entirely, so it wasn’t easy for them. Then, in the midst of all of this, I think what the students talked to me a lot about was about the stress and the mental health issues that [have been] brought up. So these aren’t false perceptions at all; they are real.

Some things will probably improve as we go towards a more normal- or at least, the previous mode of functioning, though things will probably never go back to the way they used to be. But at least as we come back to campus and the usual campus supports kick in, some of this will probably get better by itself. But I think what this also highlighted are a few area in particular I’m going to focus on. Given that now, people make much more use of our digital interface, our digital interface has to get much more nibler [sic]. What students told me, and I found myself – because I mocked as a student myself for some time, trying to make my way across the digital estate – is things are there but they are very hard to find; or if they’re there, they’re not organised in a way that’s easy for students. So look, there’s a big effort being put to remedy that. And the one example I would give you, which should give all of us hope, is the new Students Services Online (SSO) is organised in a much more intuitive and seamless fashion than it used to be organised. But SSO is just one interface, there are many other interfaces. So I think that’s an example where we will and we are improving things.

The other thing that students brought up is the issue of mental health. I’m a psychiatrist, I perhaps understand these things a little bit deeper, and look, it is complex. I think we’ve got to be very careful not to see the issues that students say about mental health in any way from a clinical perspective. This is in many ways a normal response to a very abnormal circumstance. So I think we need to support them, and we not only need the specialist services of psychiatrists and psychologists, but we, I think, need something in-between. So that’s why we instituted this new service called Togetherall. Togetherall is somewhere between a specialist psychiatrist/psychologist- it’s a self-help but also mediated peer service. But within it, you can actually rise up to get specialist help if you need [it]. So in some sense you can curate the right kind of help for you in a single portal. So you can actually log onto Togetherall, and King’s has made it available to all our students, and it’s available 24/7. Students are sometimes a little bit worried about accessing a mental health service related to their university because they think, “why’s going to know?” So this is an independent service which we secure and procure, but don’t actually curate for the students, so students can feel absolutely confident about their anonymity; that this does not in any way cross over into their grade, their professors, but yet provides them with a community, in some sense, to address some of these issues.

The last part is the wellbeing and the mental health officers that we’ve actually put in each of the faculties to support this. So look, it’s been a very difficult time. I’m hoping some of this will get better as we come to a near-normal way of functioning, but we also need to improve ourselves, as I’ve said, both at the level of the digital interface and otherwise.

R: You also mentioned that you planned to experience online learning from the perspectives of both students and staff. How has that process been for you, and what aspects of online learning do you think should be improved if King’s maintains some elements in the future?

SK: I think the optimal education experience, regardless of the pandemic, will actually be a blend of online and in-person learning. I don’t think that the answer is, “we used to have all the lectures in-person, put all the lectures online and that’s it, job done.” Absolutely not. I think the future of learning will move the lecture from being the main course of your “dinner”, so to say, to the appetiser. So lectures will always have a place, but if they move online they’ll almost become the appetiser. So you have your appetiser, and you now come to the main course of learning, which will be towards a smaller group at an interactive level.

R: So like a seminar?

SK: So seminar, yes. Now, interestingly enough – we didn’t do this experiment here, we did it in Melbourne – we did a controlled trial and then we asked for the students’ experience. Students like the second model where the lecture was the appetiser, but they also realised it was more work.

R: Out of curiosity, was that during the pandemic?

SK: It was as the pandemic was starting that we did that. And so, this new model of learning where the lecture is the appetiser is actually a deeper level of engagement. So then the question is, how would you use that seminar time differently? And I think that’s where, after- if the students have actually seen the lecture material, you use the “main course” of learning material, if that’s the right term, for more problem-based teamwork, because that’s the sort of stuff you can actually do better. Because in the end you’ll go out into the real world and get jobs, and in those jobs you’ll not be answering exams, but really doing problem-based team solutions. So I think it better prepares students.

Now, this has to be done in a pedagogically meaningful way. So, you know, it will require developing the lecture content in a slightly different way than it used to be. So just to give you an example, usually when you went to a 60-minute lecture, the lecture started with a little bit of an introduction and continued pretty much without a break, with a few breaks for a question here and a question there, and perhaps five minutes of questions in the end. If it goes into a sort-of online, pre-seminar mode, you don’t do it the same way. You actually break it down into seven-to-ten minute piece of learning, and after each you reinforce that learning with some multiple-choice question tests and things like that. So look, that’s the transition we have to make. It’ll be made over the next few years. It won’t happen overnight but we are in the process of doing that and we’re giving guidance to individual academics as to how to transition that learning. And you’ll start seeing some of that transition that year.

R: I think it’ll be interesting to watch how students react to that. From a personal standpoint I do actually agree with that, I find the mode of online lectures and in-person seminars to be very engaging, as well as freeing up more of my time and making my schedule more flexible. But I also know many King’s students who I think will take the opposite perspective, mainly because many view having online as opposed to in-person lectures as a waste of tuition fees – though we’ll get to that issue later.

SK: You’re absolutely right in pointing out that different students- even keeping the tuition fee issue aside, different students will react to it differently. I found students who say, actually, they’re a little intimidated by the extra attention that a seminar brings, and the obligation to participate actively that the seminar brings. They like the other form of learning because that was their proclivity, they were comfortable with it, and many of them worked just fine under that system. So we’ll have to keep the flexibility; the idea isn’t to make anyone uncomfortable in this.

R: It gives King’s the opportunity to perhaps create a system that’s more flexible rather than one-size-fits-all.
Our aforementioned poll revealed that over 60% of students believed the then-current leadership at King’s did not have an accurate understanding of student needs. How do you plan to address this in the coming months and years?

SK: I worked in three great universities on three continents, and I can tell you that listening to students remains an ongoing quest; and I use the word quest because it is never over. And I’ll tell you why: it’s because every generation of students- their needs, their orientations, their passions keep changing. It isn’t that there comes a time when you just learn what the students want and you fix it: it’s a continuing journey and we’re invested in it.

So if there was dissatisfaction with the previous model, what can we do to address it? And I can tell you the things I’m aware of that are already in play. And they start right from the top. In my selection of the Vice Chancellor, there was a student representative right on the governance and nominations committee. It wasn’t always the case, but this time it was – it was the President of the KCLSU at my selection. The highest governing body of the College is the College Council, and for the very first time there are going to be two student representatives rather than one. The next level is the Academic Board, which is where most of the academic decisions are made. And for the first time, we’ve got three student representatives there. And then of course, as you know, there is a Staff Hundred and a Student Hundred, which is another place we can get this.

But you know, this is still at a very high level, and often the student concerns actually arise with the local things; the way a particular class is organised, the way a schedule is changed, the way marks were given or came late. And that’s then at the level of local interactions, and that starts with the Staff and Student Liaison Committees – and we’re trying to burnish those. I think, across the board, we’ve tried to raise the level- listen to the changing needs of students. I’m hopeful with the attention that I am giving to this, how I have tried to prioritise students in the listening exercise, how we have set up a regular model of meeting with the KCLSU – I hope this will be cascaded throughout the organisation. Because it won’t be sufficient if we’re doing it at the top. It needs to be done at every level.

R: The same poll found that student experience regarding communication between students and their departments, as well as with the broader university was extremely mixed. How do you think communication between both groups could be improved or better facilitated in the coming academic year?

SK: So one challenge in every university is that universities are large. They usually grew up in departments with their own unique cultures. And there’s something very wonderful about that, you know, there’s a unique culture to Digital Humanities which you probably won’t find in Molecular Biology, and I think that needs to be respected. And I don’t think that’s what bothers students; what bothers students is when policies, procedures, and practices around exams and classes and mitigation, etc., are different. So we’re making a concerted effort across King’s to bring it all onto an aligned, standardised plan. So, just to give you an example, until last year the way the Arts and Humanities were administered was under a different Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Health faculties were under a different COO. We’ve tried to bring that together. We’re trying to standardise procedures- student-facing procedures, not the culture of a department, but the procedures, to the degree that we can.

But the next thing is, no matter how much we do that, there will still be unique questions that people will have. And the point is, how can we get back to them in a flexible way? And that’s where we’re upgrading the SSO, which will now go into Version 2 – which gives you a sense that soon there will be Version 3 one day, then Version 4, because I think there is something to learn from the online world outsite.

R: In that sense that it’s always improving and changing.

SK: It has to listen and improve. So what is coming in SSO V2 is, just as you would when you interact with the world’s leading digital companies, there are more opportunities for live web chat and more opportunities for a virtual assistant. There are more AI and machine-learning things which can customise our response. There is a human element to it which happens at the level of the department, but there is also this informational element that I think will improve the experience. But it will be an ongoing quest.

R: Speaking of ongoing quests: At the outset of the pandemic, King’s was affected directly by Black Lives Matter protests across the country, leading to the eventual boarding-up of Guy’s Campus’ state of Sir Thomas Guy. Since then, other King’s administrators have expressed views as to how this case should be treated. What is your view of the Sir Thomas Guy situation in particular, and of the role King’s has to play in the ongoing discussion on race and equality more broadly?

SK: Let me start with the second question, because I think that’s the broader question. I think all societies have a great past, and then they also have hidden element to it – and we’re no different in that regard. So I think the first obligation is to be honest about it, is to sort-of bring out the facts of the matter. And I think before we think of other people and their statues, we have to look at King’s itself. And while this started before I came here, it’s very much in keeping with my general leanings in this direction that King’s is trying to explore its own past with respect to issues of colonialism, because in the 19th century King’s was the place where we were training some of the civil service leaders for the Empire. From another point of view, they were colonial leaders. Similarly, there were elements on implicit and often explicit racism that were rife in our society 150 years ago. It wouldn’t be surprising that King’s was party to that too.

So we’re trying to explore to what degree the contributions of people from Black and minority ethnic communities were under-recognised, underplayed at King’s. Having said that, here I sit in front of you today as a member of the Black and minority ethnic community as the Vice Chancellor of King’s, so things have changed. But I think the first obligation of the university is to, in a scholarly fashion, explore its own past and understand that. So that’s the one thing. The second obligation is for us to be a part of progressive ways to address this inequities. And I think the two big ways that a university does that is first by welcoming to broadest array of students to the university. And I’m very proud of the fact that if you actually look across the Russell Group universities, we’re amongst the top two universities in the percent of students that come from Black and minority ethnic communities.

So I think in some ways King’s must be a more welcoming place, that more students of Black and minority ethnic communities choose us to be their home, and I’m proud of that. But it’s not just that they’re here. We have to, then, actually commit to their success. And I think there, the results are a bit mixed. We still have an achievement gap that we need to work on, and that we’re working- particularly some segments of the black and minority community.

So that’s one part of it. The other is the representation of black and minority ethnic communities in staff. And you know, people might look at me and think, “well, they’ve got a Vice Chancellor”, but that’s not the answer. The answer isn’t a person, the answer is more systemic and deeper representation.

R: It’s a culture.

SK: It’s a culture. And I think that work needs to be done. And now, finally, coming to the issue of statues. Statues are very complex matters because at one level they’re an artistic expression; at another level they make a statement about the culture and values of a society. So when it comes to the particular issues of the Guy’s statue that you’re talking about, to be clear, that is not a statue that belong to King’s College London. That is a statue that technically – well not technically, really – belongs to the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation. And there has been a bit of a confusion [surrounding that]. But that does not relieve us of any responsibility in this regard; I’m just pointing out, just so we are clear, it doesn’t even belong to the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, it belongs to the charitable foundation which owns the statue. So our obligation in this regard was to work very closely with them to communicate the sentiments of our staff and students and see if we could come to a better outcome.

Now, as you will know, last week the charity that owns the statue has announced their decision, and essentially what they’re recommending is a relocation to a place of lesser prominence. And look, we’ve contributed towards that, because the scholarly research that went into this decision was done by historians at King’s. So, in keeping with – what I’ve said, the place of the university is to help find the facts. The decision as to precisely what to do with it was that of the charity. Now, I don’t want to second-guess their decision, but I do want to introduce something, and this is more a personal view about these things. I’m inspired by- as I’ve said, statues are first a work of art, they’re an expression- I’m inspired by what, in Germany, where people have had to deal with some horrific pasts- artistic expressions, in some sense in response to facism, in response to the extermination of Jews- and there’s a particular artist I’m inspired by, his name is Jochen Gerz. He created what he calls these “counter-monuments”. So his idea was not to erase history, but in some sense to provide a counter to history. 

Now this is different to putting a plaque with an explanation. That’s a very cognitive response to what is an artistic- and that’s important, because it puts it in a cognitive domain- but I’m actually inspired by these sorts of artistic, monumental answers, in some sense you might say, to aspects of history that we don’t like. So rather than erase them, you almost set up a dialogue, and artistic dialogue between the present and the past. And the most recent wonderful example – I would recommend people go look it up – is a little statue called Fearless Girl. She’s standing there facing the bull on Wall Street. You know, there’s that iconic bull on Wall Street that’s supposed to stand for, sort-of, power and money. And here you have a beautiful little girl of a statue staring it in the eye.

So I hope that we can get to that kind of a place where we can have a more complex dialogue about these very complex and important issues – and I think that’s the place of the university.

R: So you think that kind of dialogue, artistic expression, would potentially be a good way to shift the Sir Thomas Guy discussion?

SK: And I’m not saying that is a recommendation for that particular statue, but I’m suggesting- the current dialogue is, amongst those who want to bring the current statue down, “not this particular one”, or between those who say, “no, no, leave it in place but include a plaque which factually explains [its history]”, and I’m saying [you can have the best of both worlds], in some sense. In addition to that, is to acknowledge that the issue is never settled. We’re thinking about it this way today, but I wouldn’t be surprised if fifty years from now, someone comes and looks at our current way of society- so this is almost, to me, a dialogue over time. So long as it causes people to reflect on the injustices of the past, and so long as it leads to positive change now, I think it’s what one should seek.

R: The continuity of productive dialogue has also been a recently newsworthy topic. The government’s Higher Education Freedom of Speech bill is due to come into practice soon, and has been pitched as a countermeasure to the ‘chilling effect of censorship on campuses’. King’s has recently had high-profile run-ins with issues relating to free speech, including the time students were denied entry into Bush House while the Queen was visiting as a result of their political views. Do you feel such a bill is necessary, and what is your broader view on the matter, particularly as regards our university?

SK: So first, look, I wasn’t here when that incident that you referred to happened, but clearly there were some lapses, and I’m pleased that King’s undertook to inquire into it with the students; and I think lessons have been learned, and I hope we won’t repeat those mistakes of the past in the future. As to whether I think that bill was needed, I’m not so sure, actually. Because when I look at the entirety of speakers who are invited to universities and the number that actually got cancelled, it was a very small minority. But it would be fair to say – and this is based on the evidence in some of the research that has been done by the King’s Policy Institute, looking at cultural attitudes, that for good or for bad, it has led to the impression in some eyes that universities are not places where ideas are being as freely exchanged as they used to be before. As I said, I don’t think it’s factually true, but I will concede this as a perception amongst a reasonable amount of people in wider society. So in some sense, whether we like it or not, the bill will come.

So, what do I think is the response of the university to something like that? Clearly, if the bill comes, we will conform with it. But I think there has to be a more positive response, and I’m very heartened that our students have taken […] in what used to the Student Charter and now is called the Community Charter- in many ways underlining that the university has to be a place for discussing complex issues. And it says in the Charter that often, such a debate may be a source of distress. And, in some ways, that is the broadening of the mind that a university is all about. However, I should point out there is a difference in my mind between a thoughtful and contentious debate in a university and the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. And I think it differs in three way. If you go to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, you can also, over there, say anything you want, but if you actually see what happens there, there is someone standing, shouting there view; there are other people shouting against that person. This person is not addressing their concerns, the others are not addressing their concerns, and it’s a spectacle to watch, but it hardly advances reflection on either side.

To me, a thoughtful debate at a university has to have three elements which distinguish it. First, it has to be based on some scholarly research and rational argument. So, I don’t think a debate would be that someone stands up and says, “I just like something, and this is the way it should be”. So I think there has to be a scholarly- which means you’ve looked into the facts and there is a rational and logical way of reasoning; not that people will agree with your rational and logical- or even your facts, but at least that’s number one.

The second element of any thoughtful debate in a university is some level of self reflection on the person who’s proposing the argument. So if you look at good scholarly papers, they have a section on their own limitations, which is very different from marketing and lobbying where you’re just trying to push your point of view, and you’re trying to hide everything that’s wrong with it. So I think the second point in a thoughtful discussion at a university is that people need to be self-reflective.

And the third is their obligation to engage with their critics and try to answer; not to convince the other party, because that’s not the point. So I think that’s the nature of debate we have to have. Now, the challenge at the university is this: we often use the phrase “the university is a community”. It is; it’s actually a community of communities. Among staff, as well as student, there are people who have several identities, not just one, and they cluster together. People may have political views, they may have environmental views; so we just have to acknowledge that we are a very complex place. So if we are to have this debate, people will have different views. The place of the university is, within the boundary of the law, to allow this discussion to continue in a scholarly way. So look, that’s what we will continue to try and do at King’s. These things are often easier said than done, particularly when they come down to some of the complex issues where factions on-campus differ.

R: And the King’s community, in terms of universities, is quite large at over 30,000 people. But in terms of a community of thought, it’s rather small, as the amount of crossover can be extensive.

SK: That’s right. And that’s why it’s a community of communities. And it’s hard to count and give it a precise number, because it’s flexible.

R: I find it quite interesting listening to your “three tenets of thoughtful debate”, because it sounds very much like the three central tenets of journalism: engaging with facts, acknowledging your community/readership, and addressing your own shortcomings.

SK: Something that is not possible in a 140-character Tweet. And I think that’s- probably, something has changed in the last ten years. It is, both in journalism and in universities, both places of thoughtful discussion, is that this third force called social media has been introduced, which can sometimes numerically overwhelm these debates done in this way. And I think that will be our challenge.

R: Students have also clamoured to receive full or partial tuition fee refunds since the pandemic began, based largely on the lack of in-person reaching which took place last year. As with the Guy’s statue situation, we have seen administrators at King’s express an unwillingness to campaign for this measure at a higher government level. What is your view on the issue of tuition refunds, either fully or partially?

SK: So, look, I think the first thing that has to be acknowledged – as I did from the start by listening to students – this has been a very difficult year. And in many ways, the learning experience has been different; the social experience has been very different, and much curtailed – often not because of what the university wanted to do, but because of what happened in our lives and society, and universities were forced to do. As a university, our first commitment is to your learning experience, and I have to say that while I acknowledge it was different, the outcome in the end was pretty much as good as it used to be. And on what basis do I say that:

So first, as you will know, we do extensive module evaluations [at the end of each year], and we have longitudinal data from pre-pandemic until now to how the module interactions are being evaluated; so that’s where most of the teaching has happened. And that gives us comfort and satisfaction that that has stayed pretty much the same, and if anything even slightly improved. Now, this is not to say that that was an easy experience for students. It was clearly a different experience. But the learning objectives have been met. That’s one measure, that’s the student side of it. The next thing that we monitor is the sort-of grade profile, which is after assessment. And we are satisfied that the grade profile has not dramatically changed, which is different from the A-Levels, if you know- but it hasn’t changed. The third thing where we get comfort is a lot of our students take part in vocational, externally-accredited exams, which is sort of external validation on whether the right amount of teaching [has been conducted]. And again, we are satisfied that the pass rates on all of these exams are the same as they have been historically.

So, at some level, we feel that the university has delivered on its obligation. Having said that, it would be fair to say that the sports facilities were not open in the same way, the libraries were not fully open in the same way, the cafeterias were not open in the same way. But the university did endeavour to keep open whatever it could, with a lot of extra and different expense in itself. So we had to change our cleaning practices, we had to deliver free testing of all sorts and kinds.

R: I believe the university actually ran at a deficit compared to previous years?

SK: Yes, and had it not been for the furlough scheme, where the government funds, in some sense, picked up what was not coming in- because the university lost a lot of income that it usually gets from its residences, because unlike some private providers who insisted that even if the students hadn’t used it because they had to self-isolate, or if students had to leave mid-semester, King’s only charged students for the part of the residences that they used and refunded the funds. As a result, you had a deficit on that account. So look, I fully acknowledged that it hasn’t been the experience people would have liked, particularly on the social and the other amenities, but it was not for a lack of trying on the university’s part. And that is why, this year, we have put in every effort to try and bring back as much of that broader campus experience as students would have wanted.

R: We spoke just a minute ago about how you feel a debate should be held on campus – using the facts, making sure to engage with your debate “opponents”, so to speak, regardless of whether they agree. You’ve quoted the facts to me, which you’ve seen, given the data. How do you feel is the best way to justify those facts that you know to be true, with, for example, the numerous student advocacy groups which have been and are continuing to be created; not even specifically for this coming year, but in many cases still trying to advocate for the issues faced last year?

SK: Members of our Students’ Union have also raised those concerns with us, and we do speak with them. I think, there, it’s not an issue of facts; it’s perhaps an issue of perspective. So, the things that I have told you about academic outcomes, etc., are factually true. And I think the other party would have to concede that. But they would say, “well this is just a part of the equation – we’re talking about the other part of the equation.” And there it then comes out on the issue of how you weigh and balance these things. So, look, I’ve given you the university perspective on this, and I’m sure there’s a different perspective from the students. But I can tell you what I’m focused on. Because in some sense, what happened over the last year was in many ways beyond the control of the universities. There were restrictions, we could not bring people on campus. When the restrictions lifted, and they did, our focus was getting our clinical placements- those where laboratory work had to be done, then opening our libraries, and then making spaces available where people could- and we tried to do that. We were just not allowed at that time to open our libraries fully, or open our sports facilities fully. But moving, now, forward – at least as of this point in time, it should be possible for us to make all the available amenities available, and we’re absolutely trying to do exactly that.

R: While we’re on the subject of facilities on campus, a growing sentiment has arisen amongst BA students, particularly in the Humanities, that the College has an institutional preference towards STEM students. This has largely been the result of the latter group’s increased access to campus spaces during the pandemic (as required by their programmes), as well as the fact that these programmes’ rankings have bucked the trend and increased rather than decreased overall. On the flipside, however, many medical students have expressed frustration that their timetables are often incredibly delayed or don’t arrive at all, particularly those currently on or scheduled to be put on placement. What is your view on these issues, and how do you feel both groups could be better supported?

SK: So, I must say that I would take exception to a claim that there is an institutional bias. I would acknowledge that the practice in bringing people back was driven by a pedagogical need. We had only so many people we could bring back to campus, and it stood to reason that those whose instructions necessitates on-hand lab work would probably be given that opportunity first. Now, it is true that more of that lab work happens in the STEM disciplines than, perhaps, in the Arts and Humanities. But more, not exclusively, because as I understand our Music students – Music and Education students – who needed access to performance spaces were prioritised in the same way as lab students. Now, numerically, they’re a smaller part of the Arts and Humanities- I don’t think there was a bias, but I do appreciate what students might have seen and why they might be concerned.

Now, if people were thinking things were all hunky dory for the Medics, absolutely not. This was a very difficult year for arranging placements for the following reason: in the hospitals, there was all sorts of changes going on.

R: Chaos?

SK: (Laughs) I don’t know if I’d use the word “chaos”, but pretty close to that. The hospitals did a great job, but what was happening was wards were being opened and closed as staff were getting isolation requirements. So nurses had to be moved. And as you can imagine, at that point in time the first priority became patient care and the safety of patients – and that had knock on effects because the staff were either not available to teach, or the wards were not available to teach on placements. So I think the last year was particularly difficult, unpredictable for student placements. But I would actually go even further: even before that, student placements were a complex issue because they don’t happen within King’s. We have to negotiate with our NHS partners. And it’s, as you can imagine, we have in our various courses close to 3,000-4,000 students who need student placements. These placements happen at close to over 100 non-King’s locations.

But I think the big improvement that we can all look forward to is that we are now moving towards an electronic placement support system. So up till now, a lot of this was being done on a mixture of Excels and spreadsheets, and being put together- and we’re moving now towards an electronic placement support system. This should make the interaction with the information, the accessibility of the information, and hopefully the seamlessness of the placements, much better. And that’s coming in this academic term. So I’m hoping the medical students will see that. But I think for our Arts and Humanities students- I’m hoping most of you will be able to access all the facilities on campus; libraries, computer rooms, performance rooms that you’re used to.

R: What would your message be to students in terms of getting vaccinated before the start of term, and how do you feel about King’s current provisions for students entering the UK from red-list countries who will have to quarantine on arrival, regardless of vaccination status?

SK: The first is to all students who will be in the UK: please get vaccinated; double vaccinated. It’s good for your health, I think there is absolutely clear evidence that it’s safe, and the balance of risk and benefit is clearly on the benefit side. So I hope that all our students will be double vaccinated; unless you have specific health conditions, in which case it’s a particular exemption.

Secondly, we’ve tried to get the balance between safety and usability [on campus]. So we would recommend that you wear masks – I see that you are, and here’s my mask – it’s hard to do it while we’re speaking, but we’re spaced [in lieu of mask-wearing]. So some simple common sense precautions; because we could be sitting on those two adjoining chairs, but we’ve just sort-of kept a little bit of distance. This hasn’t hurt anyone in any way, I think it’s even maybe made the place a little bit safer. But, look, tomorrow we might want to go out and have a drink, in which case we’d be close to each other and that would also be fine. So I think we’ve got to apply judgement and common sense. But what we will do is recommend that we wear the masks.

Secondly, there are still some signage and one-ways that have been done to reduce crowding. We would request that students actually look into that. We’re very much looking into the ventilation of the rooms and will be mindful of all of that. So I think those are all the recommendations, and I hope that students will participate in those, because none of those in some sense infringe on anyone’s rights. And the last thing would be courtesy. There has been a lot of debate on, “why haven’t we made masks mandatory?” And I think because we think, at the moment, the balance of evidence and what we see around ourselves in the largely community indicates that if we, as a community, recommend it – we trust people to do the right thing, but also to be respectful of each other’s space – I think that’s the right way to go. I believe that the fewer things we mandate in a liberal society, the better off we are, and the more we actually appeal, in some sense, to the better angels of your nature. 

Now to the matter of students who are coming in from other countries. If you’re coming in from a green country, then it’s straightforward. If you’re coming in from the amber countries, you’re required to quarantine in-residence. If you have to quarantine, you’ll be provided support by the Residence Welfare Team, who are particularly trained in supporting people who have to isolate for 8-10 days. Then there is a provision in many of those that people can release early through a test-to-release scheme; and therein, King’s is now offering the certified tests that should allow you to do the test-to-release. And if in your particular instance you can’t access the King’s test for whatever reason, though your residence should help you do that, we would also make a payment of £100 towards getting that test. But we’ve actually build the capacity within King’s to do the PCR test that is needed in the case of the amber. Now, if you’re coming in from a red country, unfortunately, the government doesn’t allow us to provide the services, but it provides these mandatory quarantine facilities; in which case you will, by law, be required to go to one of those facilities. But our Residence Welfare Team will be in touch with you if you inform us of your arrival, and we’ll try to support you remotely during that period, but also try and put you in touch with your educational activities should they have started.

The last part of it is, “what if you’re double vaccinated abroad, you’ve done everything, and you get exposed to someone?” Now, if you’re double-vaccinated in the UK and get exposed to someone, you don’t have to isolate. At the moment, unfortunately, if you’re double-vaccinated abroad, even if it’s with the same vaccine, the rules of our land say that you will still be treated as though you have not been vaccinated. Now, as a group of universities, we’ve taken this up with the government and tried to point out that this seems a bit unfair. We’ve tried to understand their logic, because it’s the same vaccine. And again, this is not the formal, official response, but the understanding is there isn’t, as yet, a formalised, standardised, international system of assurance that people are vaccinated. So for example, when it comes to things like yellow fever that have been around for a very long time, there is a clean WHO-supported vaccine passport system; whereas for Covid, at the moment, there isn’t a universal system. So it’s very hard to be assured that someone who’s claiming vaccination- the paperwork, in some sense, is unreliable, unlike in the UK where it gets into the NHS app. So, look, I’m sorry that this is an external imposition upon our international students, particularly those coming in from the red countries or if you get pinged and have to isolate. And we’ll work with you very closely to help you through that.

But the last thing is vaccination on campus. You should find out of SSO, put in “vaccination”, it will link you to vaccination on campus. We are offering vaccination on many of our campuses for our students, and I hope those who have not as yet accessed it will.

R: And it’s been good to see quarantine packets put together for students.

SK: That’s how an open society works, and I think we should have come out with it earlier, but we were preparing it, we were getting all the elements of it; and our quarantine package, then, not only has the social and pastoral support, it has the testing support. But for those with special hardship, we’ve actually enhanced the amount of funds in our Hardship Fund, and also made it easier to apply in SSO.

R: KCL’s overall ranking, both globally and nationally, has fallen drastically over the past several years, from 16th internationally in 2015 to 31st in the most recent QS report. What plan or timetable do you have in place to address this?

SK: You know, rankings are an interesting sort of Olympics. It’s like everyone is running but your judges have different stopwatches, everyone’s stopwatch clocks it differently. So, just as you’ve told me what has happened in the QS rankings where King’s has come down, in an equivalent ranking, the Times Higher Education Ranking, King’s was 77 when it started, and now we’re 35th – so in some sense perhaps we’re converging across the rankings. But, you know, rankings are great for reputation, they’re great things to have feathers in your cap; and if we are looking for such a feather, I think the one that I’m most proud of is of the impact rankings. And there, King’s is in the top 10.

But look, I don’t want to speak about the numbers – you asked me what I plan to do about it. I think, in the end, it would be very unfortunate if people chose universities because, “oh, this is 35, but I want to go to 34”. Just as we speak to students, we say that grades are important, but grade don’t define you; marks certainly don’t define you. By the same way, I would say ranks are important and give us a sense of what is happening, but shouldn’t define us. So what should define us? I think all of these top universities provide very good education. Why you should come to King’s, and why I hope a lot of you have come to King’s and will come to King’s, is that there is something distinctive about its ethos and its culture. So over the next many years, rather than gaining a ranking, I want to work on the distinctiveness of the King’s experience. So what should that be?

And now, we’re sitting in a very interesting spot; we’re actually sitting where King’s started. This is the first building that was built in 1835 or something like that- even though King’s was founded a bit earlier, the building was erected later. And in the 1830s, the big debate that was going on in circles about education was, “is it knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Or is it knowledge for a purpose larger than knowledge itself?” And King’s was founded on the idea of knowledge with purpose. So it wasn’t just about providing you knowledge to get a job, though of course, clearly we want all of you to get very good jobs. The point was, there is a purpose beyond the material outcome, or the transactional outcome, of knowledge. Now, I have to be very honest: in those days, when they were thinking about purpose, they really were thinking about God, King and Country. But I think it would be shallow if we said- no, I think the ethos was, “is there something beyond the individual?”

And I think 200 years on, we’ve perhaps moved on from the sole preoccupations of God, King and Country… I think when I speak with undergraduates who are coming in, and our postgraduates, the things that they’re passionate about are the environment, issues of equality, and in many ways the changes that Covid are bringing about. So it seems to me these are the three main preoccupations of purpose. To me, in many ways, King’s should be the place for students who want a world-class education, but are in some sense motivated by a sense of purpose.

Now, universities can’t provide you your purpose. That’s for you to find out. What universities can do, as so many students have beautifully demonstrated, is provide you a crucible in which you find your purpose, in which you refine your purpose. And look, people like yourself, who edit student newspapers, are doing that; this is not a part of your undergraduate degree, and there are hundreds of examples of people in student societies – and even people who are not in societies do this. So to me, the distinctive aspect of King’s should be a knowledge with purpose. So then the question is, “how do we make it real on the ground?” As you know, we have co-created with students the idea of a “King’s First Year”. It’s a credit-bearing course which will, in some sense, prepare you to make change in the community. So it tells you about how social change happens, how you can become an agent of change, and how you can address the issues you are passionate about in a social sphere. So we’d like almost every King’s student to devote some of their time gaining that perspective in the start.

R: And these are goals that aren’t necessarily measurable or quantifiable.

SK: They aren’t, but they’re very important. They’re like fragrance: it’s often hard to give it a number, but it changes almost everything else you do. So we would like this to be a structured interruption of learning. So this isn’t something you only need to do on your free time, no, this is a part of your education. So I think that’ll make King’s distinctive in one way at the entry, that it will amplify and support our students’ sense of passion and purpose. Then I think what we need to do is to make our students’ interactions with the King’s- you know, signing up for courses, getting your marks, choosing your modules, much more seamless. It’s the difference between online banking and the old bank- your generation has probably never gone and stood in line at banks, but I think we need to make that transition to that absolutely seamless student experience; which will be a transformation of almost all our digital interactions.

But with that has to be the flexibility of the curriculum. I think the world we’re facing is going to be very complex, and the simple distinction between Arts and Humanities and Sciences- I think people in Arts and Humanities will need Data Sciences as much as people who are in Data Sciences will need to understand Behaviour and Psychology. So I think we need to open up the curriculum to student choice. But the last thing is that, when you’re leaving, we want to give you that special extra aid so you can then succeed in what you want to do. You want to work in the private sector and become a leading banker? By all means, we should support you to do that. You want to open a little NGO that makes change in a social sphere? We should support you. 

So the great thing that happened during the pandemic – a lot of other things were tough – was the evolution of King’s Edge. And what I’m told is that there was much more participation in these last year programmes, for lack of a better word, during the pandemic than there had been before. So I’m hoping there will be a King’s First Year. I’m hoping that we will use the data to enhance your interaction with the systems of King’s, help you make better academic choices, but help you find your trajectory. And finally, when you’re leaving towards the end, that we will equip you with the skills as a King’s Edge. So, that is my hope and aspiration. It won’t happen overnight, but I hope to be able to deliver some of there for our students in the next year, and then more and more in the years that come.

R: Moving on to some of my final questions: If you had to set one or two long-term goals for the future of your administration (say, in 10 years’ time), what would they be?
In the same vein, what would you say to new students coming to King’s who are worried about their futures, given the uncertainty which has pervaded the “university experience” this year?

SK: The goals for my administration – (laughs) “administration” is a very American political term – I think the goal for our team, for our university, I would hope… And look, this is something I would need to have ratified by all of you, so over the next few months, it’s one thing for me to say what I have just said about King’s First Year, you know, a data-informed experience while you’re here that allowed us to bespoke the experience, and King’s Edge when you leave… these are things I have just said here. But I think we need an entirely university buy-in; that this becomes true for everyone’s experience. And then it has to be co-created by students, because it’s not as if there’s a formula somewhere out there. So that would be the goal: to first get a wide adoption of these ideas, to evolve these ideas with the feedback we receive, and then to deliver them together.

As for [advice to] the students, I would point out three things. First, that we’re absolutely delighted to have you on campus. We’ve got a great campus for things that will be in our control; we couldn’t use it the way we or students would have liked it. If all goes well, this campus should be open for all of us to try and partake in all its amenities. So I’d welcome all the students to that. Having said that, I realise that some of our students won’t be able to join us, particularly some of our international students who won’t be able to join us for Welcome Week – not for their lack of trying, but due to the complexities of international travel or quarantine. I think to serve them, we will try and do as many things in a blended fashion to make sure we’re also serving them.

And the last word of caution, which I don’t want students to worry about but which I worry about, and which my team worries about, that at this point in time the public health situation looks okay… but we need to remind ourselves that, last August, it also looked quite okay. So, look. Every modeling comes with some uncertainty, but the tough models do contain a possibility that as the childrens’ schools open, and if the children are not vaccinated, it may lead to a spike. It may be a short-lived spike – a few months, not a year – and nobody needs to change anything as of yet, other than getting vaccinated and wearing face masks. But we, at the university level, are preparing so that should that happen, how do we continue to protect, as we always have, the educational experience first, and then wrap around it as many of the social experiences as we can. We hope it never happens, but if it does we’re prepared for it.

R: And if you could give one single piece of advice to students at King’s, whether they’re new or have been here for years, whether it’s academic advice or informal advice, what would it be?

SK: I’ll share with you at least what was my psychological experience – and I don’t know how many students have that, but perhaps what I’ve learnt might be useful. When I walk by the King’s campus and you see these beautiful portraits of our great alumni… Bishop Tutu, Florence Nightingale… it’s a bit daunting. So, you know, you’ve just come out of your high school, you were perhaps the debate champion at your high school, or a cycling champion, and you got very good grades. And you suddenly come into a world where people are changing continents and people are changing professions, and you look around and say, “wow, you know, how will I ever measure up to these people?” I certainly had that. I felt it was all daunting, and I said, “will I ever amount to anything?” Because it seems so distant, it seems so big. It seems so vast, and you seem so small. It’s a high school you know, and now you’re in a university of thirty thousand people, most of whom you really never will get to know. So both at that very in-front-of-your-eyes and at a very conceptual level, it’s a very daunting experience. And what’s the way out of it? I think you can’t be thinking about these things. So what should you be thinking about?

There’s a very good Australian comedian called Tim Minchin. He’s also a singer-songwriter. And he said that the way out of these broader existential questions is a passionate pursuit of your micro-ambitions of the present. So he said you cannot worry what will happen thirty years from now and how you will become or will not become Bishop Tutu – (laughs) well, most of us won’t, but perhaps we’ll at least, some of us will do some good. But he says the past is a passionate commitment to your micro-ambitions. The next society you want to join, the next step… So don’t worry about the peak of the mountain, worry about the next step. And when you look down the mountain as I do now, thirty years later, it somehow works out in a way that you cannot predict. So don’t worry about predictions. A passionate pursuit.

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