London's reputation as a knowledge capital is well earned but we must ensure equal access, insists Ken Livingstone.
London has always been a beacon of knowledge and progress. Its universities have attracted some of the world's most influential men and women from Gandhi to John F. Kennedy to Desmond Tutu.
The capital's institutions have led the way in widening participation - University College London was the first in the UK to admit women on equal terms to men, and today more than 40 per cent of London's students come from ethnic minorities.
As Mayor of London, I am committed to maintaining the capital's position as a global centre of knowledge. There are more than 1 million further and higher education students in London, and the capital attracts more than 65,000 international students each year - more than any other city in the world.
London's 42 higher education institutions range from large multi-faculty universities, such as Westminster, to specialist colleges and academies, such as the Royal Academy of Music. The city offers flexible options for postgraduate study, with many professionals combining work and a masters course at Birkbeck College, and the opportunity to study at world-renowned institutions, such as Imperial College and the London School of Economics.
In addition, London's 54 further education colleges are a leading force in upgrading the skills of the capital's residents and workers.
The higher and further education sectors in London must be properly funded and supported, and all who want to participate should have the opportunity to do so. To make the case for higher education, the Greater London Authority commissioned a report into its economic impact on London. The sector brings a range of benefits to the capital, and the report World City, World Knowledge allows us to quantify these.
I will be discussing the report this week with educationists, economists at London's Higher and Further Education Conference. Higher education is an important part of the economy. Export earnings, including those from international students and visitors drawn to London's universities and higher education colleges, contribute nearly £750 million to the economy each year. In addition, London institutions and their employees generate activity for other sections of the economy - the capital's higher education institutions injected £4.9 billion into the UK economy in 2001-02 through the purchase of goods and services. They also generated 59,000 full-time equivalent jobs directly, and their demand for goods and services created an additional 58,000 jobs in other industries.
The advantages of higher education go further still. Individuals who realise their potential benefit society. Graduates are estimated to earn on average 25 per cent more than they would had they not gone to university.
There is also evidence of an association between the concentration of well-educated individuals in cities and economic growth. London has productivity levels matching those of the US. Economists talk of "knowledge spillover" - which refers to the knowledge of well-educated people spilling over to others and boosting their productivity.
But higher education is facing problems of funding and participation. Higher education has been seen as a way of encouraging social mobility and equality, but World City, World Knowledge suggests that university entry from London's poorest boroughs is just a quarter of the wealthiest areas.
Participation rates range from almost 65 per cent in Harrow to 16.5 per cent in Barking and Dagenham. There is also evidence of a widening difference of educational experience between students from better-off backgrounds and those from less wealthy ones.
The issue of whether and how the costs of higher education should be shared between the students benefiting and society as a whole is subject to much debate. London needs resources to accommodate the larger number of students who are being encouraged to go to university. But policy-makers must bear in mind that the prospect of debt deters more potential students from poor backgrounds than from the middle classes.
To ensure equality of access, participation in higher education should be free. Higher education can be the biggest chance an individual has of escaping disadvantage. This country prides itself on the quality of its learning, and it is unacceptable for anyone who can benefit from attending university to be prevented from doing so because of lack of resources. How we balance the demand for funding with the need for an equitable system is an issue I want to discuss at the conference.
Ken Livingstone is Mayor of London.