Tony Halmos is a visiting professor and Director of the Commission on London for the Policy Institute at King’s College London.
Higher education is one of the jewels in London’s crown. With nearly 40 separate HE institutions in the UK capital alone, over 360,000 students, around 80,000 staff, nearly 3% of London’s economy, around one-fifth of all UK research funding, and 3-4 institutions in the top 30 each year of the main international university league tables, with 15 in the top 500 in the latest THE survey – both more than any other individual city in the world – it is clear why.
But it cannot rest complacently on its laurels. This position has been obtained over many years, only with hard work, substantial investment, an acute sense of the sector’s contribution both to London’s overall success as a city for the benefit of its own citizens and to its world standing, and a commitment to the sector from governments, of all parties both nationally and in London.
All these commitments therefore need to be sustained. This mirrors the pressures facing most universities around the world and provides a backdrop to this year’s World Academic Summit in London, being hosted at King’s. But London’s university sector now faces, in addition, some very large challenges.
First, is Brexit. This could hit universities on three fronts. The ability of students from EU countries to remain here after 2019 or to continue to come and study in London as now, together with related immigration issues for non-EU countries which are affected by a new post-Brexit UK immigration regime, is the biggest challenge. The time really has finally come to take students out of the immigration calculations, as other countries have done. That way the current flows from the EU can be retained, the access to London especially for key non-EU countries like India and China will be eased, and London’s ability to continue to be a world university hub can be sustained.
London’s universities also need assurance that the ability to attract international academic talent will not be restricted by Brexit. Again, the post-Brexit immigration regime needs to give this a high priority. Here, proposals for an element of regional-based immigration rules, like in Australia, for example, may assist London in particular – and other nations and regions of the UK that wished too.
Finally, Brexit risks hitting university – and other – research funding and, in the Brussels negotiations, the UK government has to give a high priority to continuing full co-operation with the EU on research projects and funding.
The second major challenge facing London’s universities is to expand its capacity to educate London’s youngsters. They are an integral part of London’s society, community and economy and thus have a special job to help educate London students from all backgrounds.
A lot has already been done, of course, and more is planned. 48% of the age group in London is going to university – slightly higher than across the country as a whole – and 57% of all students in London universities are from the capital. The numbers in both these categories will probably rise, given the various plans of London institutions.
In particular, it is crucial that London’s universities recruit further from disadvantaged groups and communities, including families in London from which no one has been to university before. The main institutions all run substantial “widening participation” programmes, with extensive outreach to relevant schools and communities, with plans to expand these. London universities should also examine their student support programmes to make sure they are being targeted well.
With the era of £9,000+ student fees and even higher income from non-EU international students – who alone make up 17% of all London students – the resources now exist to do more for disadvantaged London students. Expansion of scholarships and other fee-waiver schemes for eligible London students is one route to take. In addition, maintenance support for eligible students in London where costs, including travel, are high even for students living at home, could be increased.
The third challenge for London’s universities is to play a full part in the current push to create high quality education and skills training provision for the half of the age group in the capital that does not go to university. The revenue from the new apprenticeship levy, the new funds being provided to the Mayor, and related changes will start to provide real scope to make fundamental improvements in the non-university sector, such a vital part of London’s future success.
Universities need to develop further partnerships and other joint approaches to help this sector, including possibly sponsoring individual college programmes, or even whole colleges, providing access to relevant teaching resources, where feasible, and other forms of partnership.
Meeting this challenge, with the others, will help London to remain a centre of excellence worldwide in higher education and its universities to continue to make a substantial contribution to London’s success.