London, states its cheerleader-in-chief, is a “cyclotron of human beings”, a place where talent and ideas crowd together with high-energy results. Its mayor, Boris Johnson, made the analogy earlier this year when he spoke of the capital’s universities having the “critical mass” to compete with the world’s best.
“Critical mass” features in every debate on higher education, whether the topic is the ability to conduct cutting-edge research, to secure funding or to recruit students. It is usually applied to individual institutions, but an accelerator effect can also be seen in clusters such as those in Boston (which has seven universities ranked among the world’s 200 best), California and, in the UK, the “golden triangle”.
London, Oxford and Cambridge form an elite grouping, but the UK has also long had strength in depth – north, south, east and west.
Other research-intensive universities must despair when, for example, they see AstraZeneca leave Manchester to join the ‘critical mass’ in Cambridge
This week we publish the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013‑2014. All the detail and full analysis can be found in the special supplement, but one trend suggested by the performance of UK universities is that London and Oxbridge are tightening their grip at the top while others are slipping.
The limitations of ranking exercises have been well rehearsed, not least in these pages. But ours are clear and transparent in what they measure, and the picture they paint must concern the UK as global competition grows.
The status of the South East of England as a dominant force is not restricted to higher education: much has been said in the wake of the financial crisis about the lack of balance in the UK’s economy, and variances also persist in such areas as health and life expectancy.
Yet it is still surprising to learn from a recent report by the Association of Business Schools just how distorted the UK is as a “mono-city nation”: the population of London, it says, is equivalent to that of the next 17 largest cities in the country combined (that’s Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield, Bradford, Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Leicester, Belfast, Nottingham, Newcastle, Hull and Plymouth).
Paris is only two and a half times bigger than the next largest French city, Marseilles; and Berlin is just twice the size of Munich.
There is a problem here in drawing lessons for higher education, in which the UK consistently outperforms its continental neighbours, but such focus on London – or, for our purposes, the golden triangle – has huge bearing on the country as a whole.
Other research-intensive universities (and their local communities) must despair when, for example, they see AstraZeneca leave Manchester to join the “critical mass” in Cambridge.
Efforts are being made to address the imbalance: the proliferation of research groupings based on regional networks could strengthen the hand of those outside the golden triangle, and many universities are tapping into London’s global appeal by establishing centres in the capital, primarily to attract overseas students.
Ultimately, the stellar performance of the London elite, Oxford and Cambridge can only be cause for celebration – the UK is fortunate to have such jewels – but a strong national sector is vitally important, too.
Many universities will never be “world-class” on the criteria measured by rankings, but all have a crucial role to play in addressing divisions of wealth and opportunity.