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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 October, 2004, 23:40 GMT 00:40 UK
Looking inside the university
Dr Henrik Ehrsson
Dr Ehrsson has a stock of artificial limbs at the ready
University College London wants to raise 300m over the next 10 years. But what does a modern university actually do for its money? News Online's Justin Parkinson went along to see. Pictures by Emma Lynch.

Dr Henrik Ehrsson gets out his paintbrush and strokes it slowly across a rubber hand.

On the other side of the screen, he does the same to the hidden right hand of his patient.

The con is on.

Eventually the patient begins to feel that the rubber hand, the only one visible, is his own. He is fooled by a simple trick. What he sees and what he feels become as one.

But Dr Ehrsson is not a fairground illusionist or a hypnotist; he is an expert on the human brain.

'Phantom limbs'

The findings of his research could be life-changing for people who have lost arms and legs and still suffer pain from "phantom limbs", missing in real life but still alive in the mind.

The hope is that, one day, doctors could teach the unconscious to deal with this unpleasant condition.

19,000 students
4,500 academics
3,500 support staff

Or maybe those who lose a limb could be taught to feel as if the replacement is natural, even controlling its movements with their own brain.

"Our research is about self-awareness, how we feel about the body as part of ourselves," Dr Ehrsson said.

The simple brush strokes belie a complex interweaving of psychology, neurology and philosophy. It is research of the type going on, often unlauded, across the UK.

Dr Ehrsson is one of 4,500 academics working at University College London (UCL).

Alexandra Walsh
Once you get to university, you have got to sort yourself out
Alexandra Walsh

The public face of higher education is of young people taking degrees, learning more about the world and then leaving to make their fortune.

In the UCL main building, this year's student intake is visiting the freshers' fair.

Looking like a Babylonian market place, its colourful stalls offer activities from human-powered flight to Japanese cultural studies to bongo drum-playing.

Alexandra Walsh, a full-time student union officer, has helped organise the event.


"While you're here, you develop socially, personally and academically," she said.

"The reason you come here is to get a degree. The trick is learning how to balance things. That is one thing that university teaches you."

Professor Malcolm Grant
We try to provide world-class research - through discovery, invention and creativity - and convey the excitement of it to able young minds
Professor Malcolm Grant

In the student union building there are bars, shops, a theatre and a gym: diversity all around.

Ten full-time staff make sure things run smoothly.

Alexandra said: "Once you get to university, you have got to sort yourself out. Nobody is there doing it for you."

So, contrary to the image of lazy students and dithering academics, self-discipline is key.

Everything you could need - be it intellectual, social or recreational - is available. Students have almost as much choice as staff.

Which is great for all those involved, but UCL cost more than half a billion pounds to run last year.

With such vast sums involved, the taxpayer would be justified in asking: "What are universities for?"

Worth the money?

Professor Malcolm Grant, provost of UCL, has a neat reply: "To provide world-class research - through discovery, invention and creativity - and to convey the excitement of it to able young minds."

The university is, therefore, universal. It unites and stimulates talented people and influences the wellbeing of society.

Dr Ruth Campbell
Ruth Campbell cherishes the freedom the university offers

Dr Ruth Campbell, an expert on how deaf people deal with language, said: "In funny corners you find people doing the most amazing things. There are always people in cupboards doing funny stuff.

"The main thing is the autonomy you get. It's not that we can do whatever we like, but you are your own boss.

"You find yourself working 50 to 60 hours a week and the money is not great. But there is always so much going on. It's incredibly stimulating."

Back in his office, Professor Grant has the task of driving and co-ordinating this huge, creative, intangible enterprise.

UCL COSTS 2002-3
Staff - 286m
Running costs - 137m
Others - 33m

He said: "We are trying to get this balance right between keeping everything going that's good and ratcheting up the standards of excellence. To do that we have to invest in quality staff.

"What we do is curiosity-driven. Some of the things you see people doing here are humbling. They have a lot of freedom but what they do has to be very good or they don't get funding."

Famous backing

UCL is a big employer, even by London standards. On top of 4,500 academics, it needs 3,500 support staff - among them cleaners, technicians, cooks, secretaries, medical workers.

The institution is spread amid dozens of buildings in the Georgian squares of Bloomsbury, giving an impression of smallness and immediacy.

Freshers are confronted with hundreds of societies to join

Few people get a sense of the whole, except those who have to make sure it is paid for.

UCL has set up what it describes as the biggest fund-raising effort in history by a UK university. It wants to generate 300m within a decade.

A former student, CBI director Digby Jones, has agreed to become president of the campaign.

Appeal organiser Alisdaire Lockhart has a staff of 45. The US-style exercise would have been unthinkable in the UK just a few years ago.

Alumni, parents and businesses are to be approached.

Ivy League

Dr Lockhart said: "The academics come to us to let us know what they need money for and we try to raise funds with that in mind."

The main tactic is to play on a sense of shared identity among ex-students.

Some may feel it is their duty, as recipients of a free education, to help their successors, who will have to pay 3,000 a year for courses from 2006. Others may donate out of gratitude or simple benevolence.

Alisdaire Lockhart
Alisdaire Lockhart has to raise 300m within 10 years

Universities used to have little contact with students once they had graduated.

US Ivy League institutions show this was not good business. Harvard, the world's richest university with an estimated endowment of $19bn (10.5bn), has never been too shy to ask for money.

Fund-raising is the most obvious form of the professionalism of universities.

UCL, one of the oldest higher education institutions in England, was founded in 1826 on the radical premise of providing higher education for non-Anglicans.

So perhaps it is fitting that it is moving ahead of others in a commercial direction.

Prof Grant is at pains, however, to emphasise that learning and research are still paramount. The fund-raising is an enabler.

'Strong feelings'

A modern university, ranked in the world's top 25, is an enormously diverse place.

Its budgets are akin to a multinational company and its influence on science and the arts are immense.

Despite the vastness, there is the sense of "belonging", of the university as an idea as much as an institution.

The freshers at the fair, the academics and the fund-raisers might never meet one another, but they see themselves as part of the same whole.

Prof Grant said: "It's surprising how strongly people feel about that."

Unlike the patient with the rubber hand, what they feel is far removed from what they see.

University launches 300m appeal
05 Oct 04 |  Education
Now 44% go into higher education
20 Apr 04 |  Education
Increase in students 'not needed'
29 Mar 04 |  Education

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