All roads lead to London

The lure of the capital is irresistible to universities, but with the unique opportunities come unique challenges

May 29, 2014

Some things are common to every airport: privacy-invading scanners, Boots outlets overflowing with Soltan, and pyramids of Johnnie Walker all spring to mind.

But recently, another “must have” has joined the list – the prefix “London”. London Luton, London Stansted and London Southend have all bent the laws of geography, and it’s surely only a matter of time before Cornwall tries it on with London Newquay (“just a short five-hour shuttle ride to the heart of the capital”).

The overriding importance of the capital is increasingly obvious in higher education, too, although in this case it is not London’s name being exported but institutions being imported.

In parts of the city, one can hardly turn a corner without passing a brass plaque (usually on a grand-looking building) announcing the premises of The University of X, London.

There is fierce competition, and there’s no escaping London’s sky-high living costs and the unique aspects of the student experience

Vice-chancellors will insist that there are all sorts of factors fuelling this trend, but the crux of the matter seems clear enough: just as a partnership or branch campus abroad has long been seen as crucial to accessing international students, so a London campus is now viewed in much the same light.

At the same time, a plethora of private colleges (some entirely credible, others decidedly ropey) have sought to capitalise on London’s allure and on David Willetts’ friendly regulatory regime, while international universities have also scrambled for a foothold in the city.

For Robert Allison, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University – which is setting up shop at the Olympic Park site – London is “one of the top five world cities that just happens to be in the UK”.

Even the voting patterns in last week’s local and European elections, particularly in relation to support for the UK Independence Party, showed a clear divide between the capital and the country at large.

This week, in our features pages, we explore the trends and issues that set London’s higher education scene apart, and the challenges and opportunities faced by its institutions.

It isn’t gold paving slabs all the way. There is fierce competition in a city that was home to more than 40 universities and colleges before the new interlopers began to arrive, and there’s no escaping London’s sky-high living costs and the unique aspects of the student experience.

Not every foray into the capital has been a triumph: the University of East Anglia announced earlier this year that it intends to end its London adventure.

Edward Acton, UEA’s vice-chancellor, insisted that the closure of its outpost was a strategic decision to focus energy on its Norwich headquarters, and not as a result of financial concerns.

But with UEA’s accounts showing that the London campus made losses of £7 million between January 2010 and July 2013, the balance sheet cannot have helped its cause.

Different strategies will work for different universities, and it’s always been said of branch campuses abroad that they are more about brand and reach and profile than about straightforward revenue. Perhaps the same is true of branch campuses in the capital.

But taken as a whole, the dominance of London gives a clear impression: that the UK has split into two long before the Scots go to the polls this September, with the division drawn not across Hadrian’s Wall but around the M25.

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