Higher education is one of the jewels in London’s crown. With nearly 40 separate higher education institutions in the UK capital alone, home to more than 360,000 students and about 80,000 staff, it is easy to see why.
London also has three institutions in the top 30 of the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, with 14 in the top 500 – more than any other individual city in the world.
But it cannot rest complacently on its laurels. This position has been obtained over many years only with hard work. Maintaining a lead has depended on substantial investment and an acute sense of the sector’s contribution both to London’s overall success as a city for the benefit of its own citizens and to its world standing. The capital’s universities have also benefited from a commitment to the sector from governments, of all parties both nationally and in London.
All these commitments need to be sustained, but each is coming under pressure. This mirrors the pressures facing most universities around the world and provides a backdrop to this year’s THE World Academic Summit in London, hosted this week at King’s College London. But London’s university sector now faces, in addition, some very large challenges of its own.
First is Brexit. This could hit universities on three fronts. The ability of students from European Union countries to remain here after 2019 or to continue to come and study in London as now, together with related issues for non-EU countries that are affected by a new post-Brexit UK immigration regime, is the biggest challenge.
The time really has finally come to take students out of the government’s immigration calculations, as other countries have done. That way the current flows from the EU can be retained, the access to London (especially for key non-EU countries such as India and China) will be eased, and London’s ability to continue to be a world university hub can be sustained.
London’s universities also need assurance that the ability to attract international academic talent will not be restricted by Brexit. Again, the post-Brexit immigration regime needs to give this a high priority. Here, proposals for an element of regional-based immigration rules, like in Australia, for example, might assist London in particular – and other nations and regions of the UK that wished too.
Finally, Brexit risks hitting university – and other – research funding and, in the Brussels negotiations, the UK government has to give a high priority to continuing full cooperation with the EU on research projects and funding.
The second major challenge is to expand the capacity to educate London’s youngsters. Members of the next generation, from all backgrounds, are an integral part of London’s society, community and economy and thus London’s universities have a special job to help educate them.
A lot has already been done, of course, and more is planned. Some 48 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds in London go to university – slightly higher than across the country as a whole – and 57 per cent of all students in London universities are from the capital. The numbers in both these categories will probably rise, given the various plans of London institutions.
In particular, it is crucial that London’s universities recruit further from disadvantaged groups and communities, including families in London from which no one has been to university before. The main institutions all run substantial widening participation programmes, with extensive outreach to relevant schools and communities, and have plans to expand these. London universities should also examine their student support programmes to make sure that they are being targeted well.
With the era of £9,000-plus tuition fees (even higher for non-EU international students – who alone make up 17 per cent of all London students), the resources now exist to do more for disadvantaged London students. Expansion of scholarships and other fee-waiver schemes for eligible London students is one route to take. In addition, maintenance support for eligible students in London where costs, including travel, are high even for students living at home, could be increased.
The third challenge – which also widens participation – is for London’s universities to play a full part in the current push to create high-quality education and skills training for the half of school-leavers in the capital who do not go to university. The revenue from the new apprenticeship levy, the new resources available to the mayor and other related changes will start to provide real scope to make fundamental improvements in the non-university sector, such a vital part of London’s future success.
Tony Halmos is director of the King’s Commission on London and a visiting professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.