Developing hallmark pedagogy – Professor Geoff Smith, Vice Chancellor and CEO of Regent’s University

Professor Geoff Smith looks back over his first year at Regent’s University London, a not-for-profit private higher education institution located in the heart of the capital. He reflects on the university’s unique culture, the skills needed to balance the history of the campus with the institution’s challenger status and the implications of COVID-19.

Having started at Regent’s University London in the summer of 2019, can you tell us a bit about your first few months before lockdown?

It was a combination of nearfield priorities and medium range ambitions. Cleaning up the balance sheet was obviously a priority but I’m also using this first year to have us define what’s distinctive about a Regent’s education and to organise ourselves in direct support of that.

On arrival last August, I was determined just to shut up and listen! Partly because it’s the respectful thing to do, partly because it makes business sense. I felt that unless I had a genuine understanding of all that was brilliant about Regent’s, and equally all that was frustrating or sub-optimal, I couldn’t begin to add value.

For the first month or so I just listened, meeting as many people as possible from across the University community – staff, students, alumni, partners. I wanted to really understand the organisational psyche. In month two, I was able to begin to verbalise what I thought our priorities might usefully be. Then, in month three, I could start to mobilise resources in support of these priority projects.

We have a noble mission here at Regent’s: ‘Developing Tomorrow’s Global Leaders’. I want to make sure that we rise to that challenge. The question I’ve posed to the community is ‘How do we design an education that generates global leaders?’. It’s an important question, given the speed and extent of technological, geopolitical and environmental change. How do we educate for uncertainty? I believe that our response to this question will give us a distinctive ‘hallmark pedagogy’, a learning paradigm that speaks more directly to our mission.

Largely as a function of our history, Regent’s currently has a range of pedagogical approaches in play: a US-style liberal arts tradition, a business school, an arts school and professionally-accredited training in psychology and psychotherapy. Plus, huge expertise in languages and culture. But the research tells us that future students – if they’re to be leaders and change-makers, if they’re to make an impact – will need fluency across more than one disciplinary boundary. They’ll need to be more creative, more entrepreneurial and, above all, they will need to understand what it is to be human particularly in an increasingly automated world.

So I want us to consider how our respective traditions and educational paradigms can be brought together, into a single curricular architecture, to underpin a more future-oriented higher education.

To what extent can universities develop medium and long term strategy now that we are beyond the peak of the pandemic? 

In the days and weeks after we left our campus, the focus was on pivoting into online and ensuring the continuity of our students’ education. The other immediate priority has been cash preservation. More recently our attention has turned to planning for a safe return and re-imagining our post-Covid future. Whilst we were beginning to see the first fruits of our priority projects (in that deposits for Autumn 2020 were running some 30% ahead of the same point last year), we now need to accelerate that focus on growing Regent’s top line, potentially in new verticals like STEM, and more Health Sciences. Whilst at the same time ‘right-sizing’ the institution so that we’re much less susceptible to income shocks in the future.

Whilst it has presented myriad challenges, Covid-19 has undoubtedly been a catalyst for change. What do you see as the positive outcomes, if any?   

Obviously it’s changed the conversation around ‘working from home’. It’s also given us the confidence to accelerate our blended learning ambitions. More profoundly perhaps, the pandemic has challenged us to live up to our own mission of ‘Developing Tomorrow’s Global Leaders’ and find our way through the very uncertainty that we educate our students to face. It’s made us think much more deeply about how we design our students’ learning and I’m sure this will have a positive, lasting effect once we’re able to return. It’s also forced us to focus more deeply on what’s at the heart of the value proposition – in our case, a personalised, internationally-networked and well-connected higher education.

How has the relationship between the board and the executive changed during the pandemic?

The Board and Executive have been working in lockstep since the potential of the pandemic became apparent. Regent’s, alongside London Business School, is one of the most internationally diverse universities in the UK and, because of the scale of that risk, we’ve been working non-stop to identify the best way through and out of the crisis. The Executive team has been meeting daily, online, since mid-March, and the Board weekly. It’s the power of partnership that will enable Regent’s to come out of the pandemic stronger.

Can you outline the key opportunities and challenges you feel Regent’s has encountered as an alternative Higher Education provider?

Obviously, we’re subject to the same regulator and the same designated quality body. We’re a member of UUK and work closely with our competitors in advancing the common cause. So although we’re private and not-for-profit, we operate under the same conditions as ‘public’ universities.

What really makes Regent’s different from other universities, public or private, is its location and its cosmopolitanism. I’m five months in now and still can’t get over this combination of being in the epicentre of one of the world’s favourite capital cities whilst also being in the midst of twelve acres of bucolic Royal Regent’s Park! Our students get all the benefits of an ivy-clad, nurturing and safe campus environment whilst also having London as their classroom. Incredible!

The other extraordinary thing about Regent’s is the makeup of its student population – 80 per cent of our students are international, with around 140 different nationalities on campus. Walking across the quad, you can really hear it! I can’t imagine a more multi-lingual university anywhere – let alone in a setting like this.

So I don’t really feel there’s that much difference in how we’re governed or reviewed, how we operate or compete compared to the rest of the sector. The real difference is in our extraordinary cosmopolitanism and incredible location. There’s nowhere quite like it.

“I want us to consider how our respective traditions and educational paradigms can be brought together, into a single curricular architecture.”

As a private university, do you think there is a different relationship between the leadership team at Regent’s and its students to that seen in the majority of institutions in the UK?

The dynamic on campus is pretty intimate given our scale, and I think that students at Regent’s appreciate having ready and easy access to senior colleagues. I certainly make a point, wherever I can, to speak to students and find out how things are going, what we could do better, what needs attention. Our scale means that having those conversations isn’t difficult. But I think that all universities are needing to work harder to demonstrate value for money, in terms that really speak to our student body. Having a generous staff-student ratio certainly helps us provide that personalised, tailored experience that we know our students value.

Regent’s was awarded university status in 2013. Do you think that being a relatively new institution presents the university with advantages over its peers? Are there disadvantages?

It’s interesting in that Regent’s has the look of an incumbent but, I’d like to think, the heart of a challenger! I’d certainly like to encourage staff to enjoy that counterpoint a little more. We have the look of an eastern seaboard Ivy League school whilst we’re devising a genuinely forward-looking, higher education.

We have a really proud history, going back to our roots as Bedford College – the first women-only higher education institution in the UK. Yet, as you say, we only attained University Title in 2013. So I’d like us to have the best of both worlds – the self-assurance that comes with heritage, and the chutzpah of a start-up! To be a tad less respectful, perhaps, of the orthodoxy and relish that challenger image a little more.

Does the university’s location in central London present significant challenges or opportunities for it as an institution? Has this impacted on your vision for the future of Regent’s?

So far, I’ve only seen positives. The location has presented a huge contrast for me, of course, coming from Falmouth where at the heart of the narrative was our appeal to ‘come to the edge’, away from the noise of the centre, to find your creative voice. I believed wholeheartedly in that proposition, and it worked. You could absolutely see students finding their creative selves at the edge of the UK before taking their chances in the centre. But now, having come from the edge to the very centre, I’ve realised what benefits we have almost on tap!

We are awash with opportunities here. The ease of access I’ve had to CEOs of some great, multi-national companies and world-beating British brands here is almost embarrassing! We really can make London our classroom.

A good example would be the partnership we have with Harrods on our MA in Luxury Brand Management. Our students get behind-the-scenes access, opportunities to meet regularly with senior staff, talks from the MD himself, paid internships and so on. And this year alone, we’ve got senior figures from Prada, Tiffany & Co, Ferrari, Manolo Blahnik, Fortnum & Mason and speaking with our students. So they not only get easy access to great teachers, they also get to engage with the movers and shakers of the industries they aspire to join.

What can leaders in Higher Education do to ensure that their institutions stay competitive? Do you think the skills needed here are changing?

Reflecting on my first five months or so, my sense is that it’s really important to have clarity of purpose. The Regent’s mission was already established but how we organise our portfolio, our curricular framework, our organisational design in support of it – all of this needs to be absolutely aligned to that purpose.

I think we need to make sure our courses stay market-aligned, to be generally more data-savvy, to inhabit the same mission and values that we espouse for our students. I want Regent’s leadership to be creative, emotionally intelligent, to have fluency across boundaries, to be entrepreneurial and tech-savvy.

I also want Regent’s to be a more data-rich organisation so that our conversations are better-informed and our decision-making more robust. The data won’t give us the answers but it does give us the basis for insightful, adult, joined-up conversations. We have the collective nous in our British universities to solve the most slippery of organisational problems, but I think we don’t always have the confidence to riddle them ourselves, too quickly bringing in consultants with little knowledge of the culture, the psyche, of the place.

“I want Regent’s leadership to be creative, emotionally intelligent, to have fluency across boundaries, to be entrepreneurial and tech-savvy”

Prior to coming to Regent’s you were Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Falmouth University. During your time in this role, you debuted the university’s Falmouth Flexible’ online brand. Can you tell us a little about the decision to invest in digital learning?

I came across a statistic that said that the average distance a UK student will travel to university from their home address is around 91 miles. When you’re on the western tip of Cornwall, that’s quite an alarming stat! We wanted to be a first-mover in putting specialist, creative education online and to get used to packaging up what we knew was great content into new forms to reach new audiences.

We knew there was a huge, untapped demand out there for access to high-quality, authentic, creative education from individuals for whom leaving their jobs, countries, families was not an option. By the time I left, we’d enrolled almost 1,000 postgraduate students on half a dozen fully-online postgraduate courses. And the fee was higher than the on-campus equivalent! We also soon realised that there were elements of the online experience that could be usefully applied to the traditional, on-campus experience, such as 24/7 online support.

We’re contemplating setting out on a similar journey at Regent’s though, given our extraordinary location, I imagine that our flexible learning will always be a blend of on-line and on-campus, in varying degrees of intensity.

At Falmouth, you were also instrumental in developing a number of high-value, national and international partnerships. Do you think universities in the UK need to think more commercially to continue to succeed on a global stage?

I do. I think of Regent’s as a social enterprise. We have a noble mission, that motivates us, that we believe in; but, in order to advance it, we need to be unapologetically commercial.

We’re really driving income growth, for example, in our excellent conferencing business and our English Language Centre in order that we can sustain this incredible institution long into the future.

Finally, are you ambitious to embrace international opportunities in the future for Regent’s? Can you tell us a little about your vision here?

Well, already we couldn’t be more international in scope or character. But I would like us to strategise our many partnerships, to focus this portfolio on our most productive and complementary partners. Beyond that, I believe there are also some high-value, mutual partnerships out there still waiting to be discovered. Some exciting conversations are already underway, so come back in a year and ask me how we got on!

Geoff Smith Biography

Previously Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Falmouth University, Professor Smith has also held leadership or teaching positions at the universities of Bath Spa, Huddersfield and Manchester. He has also been an institutional reviewer for the QAA and its equivalents in Asia and the Middle East.

Professor Smith graduated in Music from the University of Nottingham before completing an MPhil at the University of Oxford and a PhD in Composition at the University of Huddersfield. He became the youngest composer to be signed to Sony Classical in the history of the label before embarking on his academic career. He was awarded professorial title, aged 38, for ‘outstanding qualities of academic leadership’ and completed an MBA in Higher Education Management at the Institute of Education, UCL.

At Falmouth, he was instrumental in expanding the university’s academic portfolio, and in developing a number of high-value, national and international partnerships. He led the development of the university’s online brand, Falmouth Flexible, and authored its 2030 Portfolio Strategy to underpin the development of a contemporary pedagogy fit for the 4th Industrial Revolution.

He joined Regent’s University London in 2019 to help sustain and grow its reputation as a distinctive provider of future, global leaders.