Bridging cultural space big enough to test Nasa

October 6, 2000

The key to success for the GLA and London is partnership with educational institutions, says Trevor Phillips

In public school novels, the boys of School House (or whatever) seldom stray off the grounds, except to put St Percy's to the sword at cricket or rugger. On the rare occasions that they do leave their charmed world it is to enter the strange, hostile world of town, where they are forced to defend their honour (and their uniforms) against townies. Hoi polloi have their own uniform - shabby clothes, cloth caps and an ugly leer. The encounter would usually end in a fight, from which the townies would eventually flee, their tails between their legs.

The same could have been said for the real-life, grown-up versions until a generation or so ago. Universities and the towns they inhabited treated each other warily. The city fathers would treat the university with deference, the dons would regard the municipality with polite indifference. Those of us fortunate enough to study in the university sector would look at our polytechnic and college brethren with ill-disguised sympathy. Their vocational training would eventually decant them into - horror of horrors - a job. The idea that universities should pay anything more than cursory attention to their cultural or economic environment seemed unimaginably rightwing.

Things began to change a generation ago. Rival higher education institutions - polytechnics -funded by local authorities, competed for students and prestige. Students began to think about what happens after graduation before they had even started their degree courses; no doubt the consequence of being prodded by regular reminders of how much they owe on their loans. The universities found themselves needing to accommodate vast numbers of fee-carrying students to keep them solvent and had to be polite to local councillors who could stymie their expansion plans.

In London the relationship between educational institutions and the city was just as strained. In the 1970s, I spent one year as the leader of London's university students, followed by 12 months as troublemaker-in-chief for the rest of the capital's colleges. The journey between the National Union of Students's HQ and nearby Kingsway-Princeton is a ten-minute walk, but you would need to call in Nasa to find a path across the cultural gulf.

As a student who did not receive a grant, my only direct contact with the Inner London Education Authority was to occupy its offices. Our finest hour as student militants came during a protest against overseas student fees. I led a team of crack troops who abseiled into the council chamber of the Greater London Council in a thoroughly irresponsible but successful manoeuvre.

Today's students are less theatrical. So far, most of the adolescent posturing has come from the mayor and the assembly.

The Greater London Authority has no direct responsibility for education, but it does have a duty to develop a training strategy for the capital through the learning and skills councils. Put another way, the mayor, the assembly and the London Development Agency have to come up with a way to ensure that the talents and skills of those who leave London's colleges and universities will maintain the city's economic boom.

The LDA has begun this task, bringing university leaders onto its board as observers and coming up with projects to ensure that badly needed skills for the creative industries and information technology are nurtured. At least one candidate in the mayoral elections promised to invest in retaining the fruits of medical, scientific and design research produced by London's universities for London's economy. He lost, but the mayor, who thankfully has no coyness about stealing his rivals' clothes, has made it clear that he sees universities as a major asset.

Crucially, the political leaders of the GLA are no strangers to the city's universities. The mayor attended one of its colleges of education, and the chair of the assembly is a graduate of London University. The authority has turned to its higher education centres for advice, notably to Imperial College's transport experts and the planning gurus at University College, while consultation with Tony Travers of the London School of Economics' department of government seems to have become an unwritten article of the Greater London Act.

But, with a Labour-leaning leadership in City Hall, it would be a mistake to imagine that the only beneficiaries will be the older institutions. The regeneration and social inclusion agendas should provide a place for the new universities in the GLA's range of partners; Westminster's focus on information-based, professional training could turn it into the capital's white-collar powerhouse, while the non-traditional reach of universities such as South Bank and North London will give them a path into the new establishment. London has a new government, and it needs brainpower to fire its policies and practice.

Trevor Phillips is chair of the London Assembly and a former president of the National Union of Students.

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