London looks for strength in unity

September 24, 2004

42 institutions are pooling their considerable resources. Chris Johnston reports

London's universities are so busy competing with one another that they do not give a second thought to the possibility of collaborations.

That's the conventional wisdom. But a number of new initatives demonstrate a growing collective spirit in the capital's powerful higher education sector.

Universities and colleges in the capital employ more than 58,000 academic and non-academic staff - about one-fifth of the UK total.

The 42 universities and colleges win more than £600 million in research funding each year - a quarter of the national total.

They range from specialists, such as Trinity College of Music and Wimbledon School of Art, to the multidisciplinary institutions such as Imperial College London and University College London.

There is fierce competition for the best students, academics and research grants and many see their rivals as the best institutions in Europe and the US, not just Oxbridge.

Among those preaching partnership is Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, who is chairman of London Higher, the umbrella group that promotes higher education in the capital.

The group now includes all 42 eligible universities and colleges and is the largest regional higher education association in the UK.

Professor Smith argues that universities in the capital face common problems that can be tackled by working together.

International student recruitment is one example - London Higher's research has found that very few potential students know any British universities other than Oxbridge.

Professor Smith said that collectively promoting London as a destination was more rewarding than individual institutions trying to sign up students themselves. "In some sense, London has been backward in parading its wares and making the positive case that's there. Part of what London Higher is about is getting the data together," he said.

The StudyLondon campaign and website is an example of the benefits of collaboration. The website is a virtual shop window to higher education in London, offering potential students everything from visa application forms to guides to the best pubs and clubs.

In addition, institutions have set up a number of partnerships that have benefits for students and academics.

They include the joint faculty of health and social care sciences created by Kingston University and St George's Hospital Medical School. Then there is the strategic alliance in the health sciences between Professor Smith's own institution and City University.

He said there was a "stacked-up queue" of initiatives waiting to be implemented.

The London Development Agency, set up four years ago as the last of the nine regional bodies charged with driving economic growth and competitiveness, is responsible for nurturing some of these projects.

Greg Clarke, the agency's director of promotion and international initiatives, said there were six large-scale collaborative projects with aims such as making the best use of the capital's science base.

The concentration of public resources in London's higher education institutions means that universities and colleges are under constant pressure to demonstrate that the investment is justified.

Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said that when Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, took over from David Blunkett almost two years ago, he felt London's universities could do more to work together.

But Professor Driscoll said Mr Clarke had since changed his opinion.

Professor Driscoll said it was easy to question the need for more than 40 higher education institutions in one city. But he believed that the combination of large and small, specialist and general institutions, served its purpose well.

"London benefits from having the most diverse and rich higher education sector of any city in the world - not even New York or Tokyo compares. It is an asset to Britain, not just London," he said.

Collaboration is also to be "steadily enhanced" at the University of London, the federation of 19 colleges in the capital, according to its vice-chancellor, Sir Graeme Davies.

As well as the "spirit of partnership" within the university's colleges and institutes, they also collaborate extensively with other academic institutions in the capital, says Sir Graeme in a new publication on collaborative projects at the university.

Professor Smith believed any mergers between institutions and other consolidation of provision would be evolutionary and reflect demand. But he said some change was inevitable: "We will see a different landscape in ten years."

London Higher/StudyLondon: www.studylondon.ac.uk

chris.johnston@thes.co.uk


FACTS

* London Metropolitan University has more than 35,000 students, making it the largest unitary institution in the capital

* UCL has the largest number of academic staff - 4,323

* 45 per cent of undergraduates at the London School of Economics and Political Science are from overseas

* London's 340,000 higher education students account for 16 per cent of the UK total

* Higher education generated more than £4 billion in 2002 - about 3 per cent of the capital's total output.

* London is the most popular city in the world for foreign students, who contribute £746 million a year to the economy.

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