A makeover challenge

November 9, 2006

Not far from the capital's tourist hot spots are deprived areas crying out for regeneration. Universities are heeding the call and leading the revival, as Mike Thorne explains

Away from the tourist attractions and gleaming office blocks, there is another London - a London made up of neighbourhoods that are among the most deprived in the country. Some 260,000 council homes fall short of the Government's decent homes standards; the regional child poverty rate is the highest in the UK; the capital has five of the nine worst-performing local authority districts in England for unemployment. In many parts of the city, life is neither developed nor sustainable.

These areas are the new front line in urban regeneration, and London's higher education institutions are key players in tackling this agenda.

In teaching and research, London's institutions are educating the next generation about environmental challenges, while research helps develop sustainable solutions. Examples include embedding sustainability into the curriculum and at research centres such as the University of East London's Centre for Sustainability. Both City University and Middlesex University are members of the Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability, an initiative to promote sustainable development in higher education.

But perhaps it is in the realms of intervention where universities can have the greatest impact. Many are involved in local strategic partnerships (LSPs), and all play some part in the London Aimhigher initiatives.

Increasingly, universities are engaging with local employers, and there are well-established consortiums aimed at providing services for business, such as West Focus and Knowledge East.

The Thames Gateway, Europe's largest regeneration programme, aims to breathe life into some of the most deprived areas of East London and South-East England. As part of the Gateway project, eight universities and colleges have come together in East London to deliver Knowledge East, which is one of 22 centres for knowledge exchange in the UK. Knowledge East provides local businesses with access to researchers and facilities while showcasing the area's intellectual resources and its knowledge base.

The institutions - Goldsmiths, University of London; London Metropolitan University; Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication; Queen Mary, University of London; Trinity Laban; the University of East London; and Greenwich University - are working with partners such as the Learning and Skills Council and the London Development Agency towards economic, social and cultural development.

As a world city, London's strengths are evident - a nexus for cultural exchange, a powerhouse of commercial success, a centre of research, teaching and training prowess. But it would be too easy to think that London's position is unassailable; that there are other regions more deserving of scarce government resources. This is blatantly not the case.

London has great natural assets, but its weaknesses are systemic and chronic and, if not addressed, they threaten to overwhelm what the city has achieved in other areas.

Higher education is an important part of the solution, but, ultimately, co-ordinated and targeted programmes hold the greatest potential.

Mike Thorne is vice-chancellor of the University of East London.

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