Dreaming spires and cloistered courtyards: the image of Oxbridge has for centuries defined excellence in Britain’s global higher education offering. But in the twenty-first century, it is London’s elite universities that are tearing up the script.
Last September, Imperial College shared second place with Cambridge in the QS World University Rankings, with Harvard just behind. UCL, meanwhile, tied with Oxford for fifth place. A separate 2014 study rated UCL higher than Oxbridge for research strength. It is a brand being aggressively built upon as it draws up expansion plans for a new campus, UCL East, on the former Olympic Park.
The relentless rise of London’s institutions in the university league tables coincides with our city’s seemingly unstoppable growth as a premier destination for global talent, capital and ideas. Oxford and Cambridge Universities dominate their respective cities, whereas London’s universities are threads in a complex metropolitan tapestry. While London’s students may not get the authentic “university town” experience, they are more than compensated by a vast pool of opportunities.
Just as the metropolis has married financiers with startups to create a booming tech sector, our universities have become adept at collaborating with the city’s business, philanthropic, government and research communities to widen their offering. My constituency is home to three of the capital’s top universities – Imperial, KCL and LSE. Their expansion plans have fascinated over the past decade. In 2007, Imperial integrated its medical faculty with St Mary’s and Hammersmith hospitals. Today Imperial College Healthcare is a globally respected centre for medical research, with patients benefiting from cutting-edge care and academics able to trial new treatments on London’s uniquely diverse population. Imperial is similarly collaborating with Aviva Investors on a new White City campus, Imperial West, to support science startups and ensure that the UK benefits commercially from breakthroughs made in its university labs. The plan is for the university soon to be virtually independent of public funding.
Amid healthy rivalry between London’s top institutions there is also partnership. Imperial, King’s and UCL, for example, have joined forces with government and others to build the ground-breaking Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research at King’s Cross. Once open, this will complement the arrival of Central St Martins in nearby Granary Square, whose student population has already injected life into the urban revival of this once seedy quarter of central London. In fact, the investment of universities in formerly forgotten corners of the city is proving central to the sustainability of some of London’s biggest housing and commercial regeneration projects.
So compelling is the proposed mix of good transport links, housing, flexible commercial space and cultural facilities at Stratford’s Olympicopolis, for example, that Loughborough University wants a piece of the action – it has snapped up the former broadcasting centre to help expand its postgraduate offering in engineering, digital technology, sports and the creative industries.
It is only one of a number of non-London universities acknowledging the importance of having a presence in the capital as part of their international offering. Naturally, London’s institutions thrive because of their academic excellence, but it is the fact that so many high-fee-paying overseas students want to study in our city that is the real key to their storming success. The financial clout of this international contingent has also given London universities the confidence to expand.
In the aftermath of 2008’s financial crash, there was much talk of the pressing need to rebalance the economy away from banking and finance. That task has been completed very successfully in London with the creative, tech, research and education sectors all thriving. But this has only served to entrench the capital’s dominance in the wider UK economy, rather than address the other rebalancing act of boosting the regions.
How the rest of the UK’s universities compete with the southern academic powerhouse is the real challenge now. Some experts warn of a “relentless decline” of the other leading universities in England. A fifth of government research funding is now claimed by the top three universities – the so-called “golden triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London – and it is the capital that has over 100,000 square metres of new research facilities in the pipeline.
If the chancellor’s northern powerhouse and broader devolution agenda is to work, he should examine how London’s universities have not just integrated academic excellence into the heart of this global city, but have provided a compelling educational offering to the world by relentlessly building links with industry, commerce, government and finance.