A nursery of industry and innovation

November 9, 2006

As hothouses that allow hard-working and talented people to bloom London's universities are hard to beat. But they also strengthen the roots of national prosperity, says Deian Hopkin

London experiences constant change, and what makes the city work so successfully is the particular set of dynamics involved. It is an expanding city - its population is expected to grow by some 700,000 over the next few years. Some of its boroughs have the largest numbers of young people in the country, while others are the natural destination for thousands of talented citizens from all over the world. Many of these immigrants, such as highly educated professionals from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, need to adapt to UK conditions and requirements; universities and colleges are ideally placed to be the interlocutors for such a process.

London's higher education institutions are agents of change. Through their teaching and training they provide ladders of opportunity for individuals; and, by developing their estates, they transform the built environment of their neighbourhoods.

Working with schools, local authorities, community and voluntary groups, London's universities and colleges offer life-enhancing opportunities for talented individuals, many of whom have been excluded from such opportunities in the past. In this way, institutions of higher education contribute to social justice and social cohesion.

However, another aspect of the dynamics that help London work is the close proximity of enterprises hungry for skills and expertise, whether in the City or service industries, to the rich supply line that is fostered by educational institutions. The sheer size of the city and its boroughs contributes to this, but so too does the global nature of so much of London's business.

London's universities and colleges enhance the city's economy and society in many ways, boosting efficiency and productivity. They teach subjects that are in demand among the capital's employers, providing training and skills development for every sector, and they conduct research of the highest quality in areas vital to the economy.

Enterprise and innovation are key to the competitiveness and the prosperity of the UK. London's universities, in common with their counterparts across the country, are engaged in nourishing new ideas, new technologies and new productive methodologies. Some of these arise from basic research, others from the application of novel processes.

There are many stages of knowledge transfer, from discovery to commercial production, and universities are engaged in all of them. In this respect, the impact of London's higher education institutions can be depicted in terms of a "nursery" model. From a rich pool of ideas generated by researchers, moderated through a skilled workforce of graduates, vibrant businesses can be created.

This applies across the spectrum of the economy, from finance to medicine, from architecture to creative production, as London Higher's report London: Knowledge Capital demonstrates.

Public services of all kinds also gain from the rich portfolio of vocational and professional courses that the higher education sector offers.

Of course, universities are not only seats of learning and education; they are also, as others in this supplement highlight, substantial businesses in their own right. They are large employers that generate significant income from a range of productive activities, and their economic impact is multiplied in their sub-regions and across the city; the indirect economic benefit from their activities is often five or six times greater than their revenues reveal.

A recent poll among the business community revealed that the generally held view is that in 30 years, Shanghai is likely to be the world's premier city. Higher education may be a key to ensuring that London remains as competitive and as prominent in future as it is today.

Far from it being a matter just for London, this is vital for the UK as a whole.

Deian Hopkin is vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.

 

Federal Force

The University of London, founded in 1836, is England's third oldest university. And from its early years, it has been a pioneering force, introducing many new subjects including modern languages and laboratory science.

The university is a federation of 20 independently funded colleges that has about 125,000 students and a further 36,000 studying by distance learning.

It has a reputation for collaboration with sister institutions in London, the UK and overseas.

Through its multi-faculty and specialist colleges, it is able to provide an astonishing spectrum of opportunities for students, for collaboration with commerce and industry, and for links with the global educational economy.

Graeme Davies is vice-chancellor of the University of London.

 

Trade winds

Simon Prince, a lecturer in aeronautics at City University, has been awarded a £40,000 grant to investigate the commercial potential of technology to make wind turbines more efficient.

He secured the grant through the Emerald Fund consortium of eight London universities, which has been awarded money from the London Development Agency to set up a pre-commercial fund.

By improving the performance characteristics of wind turbine blades, Prince aims to increase the power generated. The technology has been tested successfully in a laboratory wind tunnel. The next stage is to develop a computer simulation code for wind turbine power calculation.

In parallel, the market for the technology and the potential competition are being assessed.

The grant will pay for a graduate research engineer to work on the simulation code and to establish what data manufacturers would need to embrace the technology.

The Emerald Fund has been running since early 2005. It awards grants at two levels: mini grants of up to £10,000 and standard grants of up to Pounds 40,000. The eight partner institutions are City, East London, Goldsmiths, Greenwich, London Metropolitan, London South Bank and Middlesex universities and Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication.

The grants are intended to allow recipients to establish commercial potential resulting from their research. To date, 25 mini grants and nine standard grants have been awarded.

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