London Higher head aiming to counter government ‘preconceptions’

Diana Beech, former adviser to Tory ministers, wants to challenge ‘crude generalisations’ that could hit London’s vital arts courses

December 31, 2020
A workman measures up a mural of British musician David Bowie in Brixton, south London
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Sizing up the sector: London HE group wants to challenge preconceptions that pit the arts against the sciences

A former adviser to Conservative universities ministers who now leads the London Higher group wants to challenge the Westminster government’s “preconceptions” about higher education, along with its “crude generalisation” in pitting the arts against the sciences.

Diana Beech became chief executive of London Higher – an umbrella body representing about 50 universities and higher education colleges in the UK capital – in October, having previously been a policy adviser to ministers Sam Gyimah, Chris Skidmore and Jo Johnson.

Dr Beech told Times Higher Education that she aimed to articulate the “London voice” and “get us on the national policymaking radar”.

“I see no reason why we [London Higher] shouldn’t be around the table alongside the representative bodies of Universities UK, the Russell Group, University Alliance, MillionPlus, etc,” she said. With just under 400,000 students and 100,000 staff, the capital’s universities were “a powerhouse in London and in the sector”, she added.

London Higher members include big research-intensives such as UCL and large post-92s like London Metropolitan University, as well as smaller specialists in the sciences and the arts.

Key issues for London universities include the “disproportionate effect” of Brexit given the capital’s position as a global city, along with issues affecting their high numbers of international students and commuter students, Dr Beech said.

London has the highest higher education participation rates of any UK region. Students in London and its surrounding area could account for almost half of an extra 350,000 places that may be required in England by 2035, according to a recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute, which said the government may need to tackle the huge disparity in participation between the capital and the regions if it truly wants to “level up” parts of the country that feel left behind.

London has affluence “and then it has pockets of absolute deprivation”, with universities “grappling with different demographics in their area”, Dr Beech said.

“If we’re serious about levelling-up, we need to be aware of those nuances,” she added. And given the increase in London student numbers coming, it was “important we get government and the Greater London Authority aware of the need to do this sustainably and start looking at the future now and funding things accordingly”, she said.

The government’s agenda to level up the regions could also mean a smaller share of research funding going to London universities, a field that they, along with Oxbridge, dominate.

Dr Beech stressed she was a supporter of levelling-up: “How can you not be?”

“However, that shouldn’t detract away from funding excellence wherever excellence is found,” she said. “I am worried there is a crude north-south narrative coming through this levelling-up agenda…A lot of this research is civic activity which lots of local London communities depend on.”

Dr Beech described herself as “a natural ally of the sector”, who will “wear my policy adviser hat on the outside” and work to ensure that the government is “basing their policy on evidence”.

“I do feel at the moment that this government has come to the table with some preconceptions about universities and the higher education sector,” she said.

Such as? “I think we’re seeing them all in the headlines at the moment: about low-quality degrees…grade inflation,” she replied. “Really the onus is on the sector to get on the front foot with this and prove we are taking these issues seriously and are committed to stamping out any bad practice in the sector.”

Government ministers and advisers might have some London institutions in mind when they talk about “low quality” courses as measured by graduate jobs or earnings – with those metrics failing to take into account the career profiles for many creative arts graduates, in particular.

Dr Beech said: “To go back to one of the crude generalisations I mentioned earlier, one thing we are seeing with this government is a frequent pitting of the arts against the sciences. London has some of the most world-class creative and arts institutions.”

And recovery for the creative industries, “which, remember, before Covid were some of the fastest growing in the UK”, will need “the pipeline of talent on the doorstep to reinvigorate them”, she continued.

“You can’t say that arts degrees are low quality, because you are going to decimate an entire industry that London as a city depended on,” Dr Beech added. “I will definitely be fighting in the corner for the arts and creative industries and London’s role in reinvigorating them UK-wide.”

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