Malcolm Gillies - Capital partnerships

London’s universities are all in the same goldfish bowl, says Malcolm Gillies

July 18, 2013

England isn’t the UK and London isn’t England. I am reminded of this constantly at meetings of the London Economic Panel, where the capital’s and national performance on everything from house prices to manufacturing outputs, from unemployment to inflation, is regularly presented side by side.

London tends to be more extreme: the highs are higher and the lows (sometimes) lower. It is a “world city” - some would say the world city - and often has more in common with New York than with Bristol, Bradford, Birmingham, even Berlin. One moment it reflects those global insecurities, costs and opportunities, while the next it is subject to mandatory national or European Union price, income or regulation fixing.

Higher education is no exception. The domestic first-year studying in London can gain a maintenance loan up to 40 per cent greater than one of their peers outside the capital (£7,675 compared with £5,500), presumably because of the higher cost of living. However, that same student’s tuition fee is capped at the same fixed amount as any in the rest of England (£9,000) so there is no such adjustment for London institutions.

A distinctive “London factor” is seen over most indicators of educational activity. The city has for many years sent many of its own population out of town for their undergraduate education, but brings them and their peers back in droves for postgraduate studies. Or did. When graduate education takes a serious downwards trajectory, London can suffer disproportionately. However, any change to fund students to study only in their local regions could bring thousands of undergraduates back to the capital.

Equally, London remains a mecca for international students - 100,000 of them, nearly a quarter of England’s share and just over a quarter of London’s total student numbers. Add the large number of EU students and London’s own natural diversity, and it isn’t surprising that the ethnic composition of the city’s university classrooms is more diverse than ever. Indeed, the majority of undergraduates studying in London declare themselves to be other than “white British”.

But there are more challenging realities to the “London isn’t England” story. All studies show that students in the capital are less likely to live in university or subsidised accommodation, more likely to commute long distances, and pay a higher percentage of disposable income on the basics of accommodation, victuals and daily transport than elsewhere in the country. Unsurprisingly, the Home Office requires international students in the city to have £1,000 a month to cover living costs compared with £800 for those outside London.

Looking at national league tables, you can see that London institutions score highly on “graduate prospects” (for example, five in the top 10 and only one in the bottom 10 in the recent Complete University Guide 2014) but uniformly perform pretty poorly on “student satisfaction”. In fact, from the same source, the top-ranked university for student satisfaction in the London region is 25th overall, while six of the bottom 10 in the table are based in the capital.

“Student experience” is even more of a challenge. In Times Higher Education’s Student Experience Survey 2013, eight of the bottom 10 institutions are in London, with the capital’s top representative in 37th place nationally. While its institutions often offer students good connections with industry and highly regarded staff, they struggle to gain high marks in areas such as social life, community atmosphere, extracurricular activities and student accommodation.

London institutions tend to dominate the tables for high starting salaries but are well scattered in terms of their graduate work/study track records. The latest Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Institutions results for full-time first-degree graduates show universities in the capital at both the top and the bottom of the pile, with the large former polytechnics having quite a different profile from the specialist London institutions (“University graduate employment figures revealed”, News, 4 July).

We cannot all offer the full range of services, from research libraries to playing fields to course offerings, so we have learned to collaborate and to share

In combination, a new, more mixed model of higher education is emerging in the city. The concept of a traditional “sector” is more tenuous here, as branches of foreign universities and two dozen regional British universities vie with the 40-odd established London institutions, alongside a multiplicity of “alternative” providers and an increasing number of new private universities.

What most London-based institutions have worked out, whether old or new, public or private, is that we are all swimming in the same goldfish bowl. My undergraduates are your graduates; bad publicity for you is bad for London, so potentially bad for me. Collaborations across the traditional divides are growing. We cannot all offer the full range of services, from research libraries to playing fields to course offerings, so we have learned to collaborate and to share, while still remaining fiercely assertive of our defining differences.

Perhaps London is our campus? The city itself provides much of the social life and buzz that regional universities have to create for themselves. The 2010 Global University City Index, based upon factors of amenity plus global recognition, education and research inputs and performance, claimed London as the global leader, followed by Boston, Paris and Tokyo. Was it right?

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