London boasts about 40 higher education institutions of various sizes and specialities, attracting about 16 per cent of all UK undergraduates and 23 per cent of the UK’s overseas students, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
“There are few places that offer the diversity, the strength and depth, the variation and excellence in terms of institutions and what they offer that London does,” says Jane Glanville, chief executive officer of London Higher, which represents and lobbies on behalf of London universities and higher education colleges. “London’s competitors in that respect aren’t Manchester or Durham or Exeter – they are New York, Tokyo and other world cities.”
Many London institutions enjoy a first-rate reputation, with the city’s five Russell Group universities featuring in the top 100 of the 2015-16 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
However, not everything is rosy in the capital’s higher education sector. In the Student Experience Survey 2016 – and, similarly, in the National Student Survey 2015 – London universities tend to score noticeably less well than those elsewhere.
With the exception of the smaller institutions the Royal Veterinary College and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, the highest ranking sizeable university, Imperial College London, is placed joint 54th in the Student Experience Survey 2016. Other large institutions in the capital are Queen Mary University of London at joint 78th, University College London at 84th, King’s College London at 97th and the London School of Economics in 110th place. In fact, more than half of the bottom 20 institutions in the survey are in London.
James MacGregor, director of higher education research at YouthSight, which provides the data for the THE survey, says that the past six years’ figures show a pattern: “London universities are doing increasingly poorly, relatively speaking. They are, on average, drifting down the rankings – Imperial stands out against that trend – so London universities’ relative position seems to be worsening.”
Why, then, are many of those studying in London less satisfied than their peers elsewhere?
“The ‘London factor’ is an element,” says Glanville. Living costs – especially accommodation and travel – are high, she says, adding: “A distinctive feature of central London institutions is the fact that they don’t have a traditional campus – they’ll have the old central building like UCL’s, but they’re not campuses like Warwick, Exeter or Durham. Therefore the buildings, the teaching facilities, the accommodation, the sports facilities are often dispersed away from the centre, so there are very real challenges for our institutions about how you maintain and enhance the student experience.”
The problem is one that Nigel Carrington knows only too well. Vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London, which comprises six colleges, including Central Saint Martins and the London College of Fashion, he says: “The challenge of interacting with a very demanding regime that is all about living and existing in London is not at all similar to the experience of students who are on single-site campuses.” Although it is investing heavily in ensuring that each college has a central hub, University of the Arts London currently operates from 14 sites.
However, attributing poor student experience rankings solely to the London living and learning context would be incorrect, says Paul Kelly, pro-director for teaching and learning at the London School of Economics, since some London universities are scoring higher than others. “We at LSE are aware that other institutions in London are starting to do better than us,” he says. “So it can be done.”
He adds that although the school has good retention rates and the employability of its graduates is excellent, “there is no disguising the fact that LSE came bottom in the Russell Group ranking of the National Student Survey – and bottom in areas where we shouldn’t have been”.
“We’ve got to get students to be happier here, otherwise it becomes ingrained, and league tables will support that, and students will start to go to other places.”
The London School of Economics is now launching “a major education agenda and strategy”, Kelly says. “Over the next three years we will be investing £11 million in improving aspects of student experience – the learning experience and also the informal stuff [such as] the networking experience, the space where students get together and the things that they’re saying they’re missing.”
It also has a six-year, £500 million campus redevelopment under way which will add a new sports facility and “completely rethink the learning space”, Kelly says.
In addition, the institution is consulting with students to draw up a covenant. “It’s a bit like a pledge-card commitment of the minimum conditions of offer that the school will provide.”
Imperial, which is bucking the downward London student experience rankings trend, has already developed a set of promises to its student body. These include the pledge to “engage students at all points of their time at Imperial so that they feel part of a prestigious community and become engaged alumni”.
Since the THE Student Experience Survey was launched six years ago, Imperial has managed to significantly improve its scores in the student support and welfare category, as well as noticeably improving areas such as “personal relationship with teaching staff”, “helpful/interested staff”, “well-structured courses” and “industry connections”.
Sue Gibson, acting vice-provost (education), says: “Enriching the student experience is a key element of Imperial’s ‘Strategy 2015-2020’. Over the past few years, the college has focused on improving the student experience as part of our commitment to providing a world-class educational experience. The commitment from colleagues across the college is shown by our steady rise in the National Student Survey rankings – the 2015 results saw the college maintain its position as the joint top Russell Group university in London [with Queen Mary], and higher than the national average.”
YouthSight’s MacGregor uses Imperial’s example to illustrate that the problems for London universities are not intractable. “No doubt there are challenges for students in this huge global city,” he says, “but it’s clear [from the survey results] that what universities are choosing to do makes a difference.”
He also points out the limitations of these measurements: “These experience surveys are designed to capture how students are experiencing being there...not to capture what they think they’re going to get out of it when they’ve left.”
The value of the degree from one of London’s highly reputable universities or colleges, could, therefore, override the challenging experience.
University of the Arts London’s Carrington says: “We would say that you can ask questions about satisfaction that are generic, and which don’t look at the particular discipline or industry that an institution is preparing students for, and you’ll get one answer. But if you look at things like ‘have I been connected to the industry which I hope to work in when I graduate?’, and ‘do I think I’m being taught by people who are really at the cutting edge of their subjects or the industries I want to join when I graduate?’, then you get a different set of answers, generally.”
He says that being in the heart of the industries they want to join is the real appeal of much of the capital’s higher education. “London universities are still so popular – we had a fantastic recruitment season last year – one of our colleges, London College of Communication, had an increase of 25 per cent in UK applicants. The fact that UK demand is very high and that international demand gets stronger and stronger must tell us that the education in our London universities is excellent. Their worldwide reputations are excellent and, in a sense, the market does speak.”