Blog Post

Levelling up and London’s universities

London’s universities and higher education colleges play a crucial role in addressing London’s own levelling up needs, as well as contributing to wellbeing and prosperity across the UK. In April 2022, Centre for London and London Higher convened a roundtable discussion of leaders from London’s higher education sector, hosted at the University of Westminster, to discuss these issues.

This paper is largely based on our discussion, with contributions from wider policy work by both organisations. The paper was co-written by Claire Harding, Research Director at Centre for London, and Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive at London Higher.

The threat to London’s universities 

Levelling up has the potential to reduce geographical inequalities across the country, but the government’s levelling up agenda has the potential to level down London, making life harder for its residents and reducing London’s financial contribution to the rest of the UK through tax. Centre for London are running a year-long project which aims to make sure our city gets the best result it can from the levelling up agenda 

London’s universities and higher education colleges have already been affected by the levelling up agenda, with the removal of London Weighting from the teaching grant in the academic year 2021/22. The sector is justifiably concerned that a similar cut could be coming for London institutions in future research funding allocations. The Levelling Up White Paper says that research and development funding will be prioritised outside the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge – we don’t yet know how big this change will be, but it is unlikely to support London institutions to continue to support world-leading research for the capital, the country and international benefit. To make the situation harder, many of London’s universities are set to be disproportionately affected by other government policies – especially the student number cap and minimum eligibility requirements which are currently being consulted on.  

The contribution of London’s universities 

London’s universities and higher education colleges are already making a strong contribution to levelling up – both within London and across the UK. Just like our city and its people, London’s higher education institutions are highly diverse and they meet different needs – below we offer a short summary but , each institution has its own story to tell. 

  • Social mobility: recent research from the IFS and the Sutton Trust reveals that institutions in the capital have the highest social mobility rates in the country, with London universities making up the entire top 10 in the rankings through their work taking on high numbers of disadvantaged students and sending a significant proportion of them to the top of the earnings distribution. Queen Mary University of London is the highest ranked university in the study, demonstrating the commitment across the capital to deliver meaningful social mobility for all students .
  • Local pride and strengthening communities: London has over 40 universities and colleges, each working within their local boroughs to strengthen communities and civic pride. London universities and higher education colleges already work “beyond the campus” in various ways, from supporting business growth and innovation, enhancing health and wellbeing and helping local people with education and skills.
  • Driving local economic growth: London’s universities and higher education colleges are engines of economic growth, educating over 425,000 students in 2020/21 to power the skilled workforce of tomorrow, employing 223,000 people and generating £12bn in GDP. With London recently named as the best city in the world to be a young entrepreneur, it is not surprising that so many of the city’s graduates go on to set up their own businesses, with, for example, one in seven of Middlesex University London’s alumni managing or owning a business 
  • Contributing to London as a global city: London is the UK’s only global city, competing for investment and talent across the world. London’s universities are a big part of this success, particularly through research and development (R&D) in life sciences and the cultural and creative sectors. In 2019, R&D activities in London and the South East brought in  in £9.1bn into the UK economy . As the top European region for venture capital investment, London’s closest competitors remain the Ile-de-France and Berlin and Bavaria in Germany, showing London’s pivotal role in attracting investment to the UK in sectors such as ICT, biotech and healthcare. 

Cuts to London’s universities risk undermining all of these contributions and more. They may also make it harder for universities to train the key workers who are vital to delivering services in London’s public and private sector. In the academic year 2020/21, there were circa 17,600 enrolments in medicine, 21,500 enrolments in nursing and 11,500 enrolments in teacher training across London’s higher education institutions. 

How London’s universities can respond 

To respond to the threat posed by the levelling up agenda, London’s universities and higher education colleges need to change how they articulate their contribution to the UK, and perhaps who they work with and how. They are not alone in this – London as a whole needs to tell its story differently, and Centre for London’s overall project is considering this in more detail.  

Depending on their circumstances and need, universities in London could: 

  • Look to build partnerships for mutual benefit with others in different parts of the UK, sharing skills, ideas and resources and providing new opportunities to academics and students. 
  • Emphasise the global, making the case that for many types of R&D investment and overseas student recruitment, London’s competition is international and not regional. 
  • Talk differently about the outcomes of their research, focussing attention away from where the money goes and, instead, to where the output flows. Collaborations, such as University College London’s “Act Early” project, bringing benefits to local communities first in Yorkshire then in Tower Hamlets, London, are useful examples of this.  
  • Double down on their local partnerships and tell stories about local impact, so that other local organisations are more likely to support their work and advocate for them. The London Higher Civic Map can help as a means to visualise the many ways in which London’s higher education institutions are helping to achieve civic impact.  
  • Emphasise the connection between research funding and tax revenue across all areas of activity, and particularly the ones where London is internationally competitive.

We’re undertaking research to shape the government’s levelling up agenda and ensure it recognises and addresses London’s own levelling up needs. If you’d like to support this work, please get in touch with our Research Director Claire Harding.

Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London.  Read more from her here.