“The Athens or Rhodes of the global economy”: what role do universities play in London life?

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park: London's new education hub? Image: Getty.

Much is made of the success of London’s universities, and rightly so. The capital is home to five of the world’s top universities – the only city in the world that is able to make such a claim. London, in the words of Boris Johnson, is the Athens or Rhodes of the global economy: the modern world’s favourite university town.

But behind the rankings and bombast, the impact that London’s universities make on the physical appearance of the city, and their wider civic role, are much harder to quantify. While many of the institutions themselves are iconic, the majority of university buildings in London remain hidden in plain sight. Older institutions have become woven into the city’s urban fabric; modern university campuses remain tucked away in London’s suburban hinterlands.

A number of high profile moves and plans for expansion suggest, however, that the role of universities in London’s urban form is beginning to change. For many of London’s institutions, building up or out is simply not an option. As a result, a number of universities are expanding beyond the sector’s traditional central London heartland, often to areas where land is cheaper – or at least more readily available – thanks to industrial restructuring, land assembly, and public intervention.

By way of example, Imperial College London’s new White City Campus is planned as a centre for research, innovation and the translation of pure research into practical applications. On the other side of London, UCL and the University of the Arts London are joining Loughborough University in opening new facilities in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park: all this is part of the mayor’s “Olympicopolis” vision for a new cultural and educational quarter in Stratford.

Many of these developments are taking place despite – or perhaps even on account of – a greater emphasis on student-based university funding. The lifting of the government cap on student numbers, coupled with tuition fee increases and students’ increased expectations of high-quality facilities, means that universities are now competing more strongly to attract students.

Changing places, changing roles

It is not just the location of London’s universities that is changing, but the nature of their campuses. Few sites are dedicated solely to university use. Many new “Innovation Districts”, the subject of a Centre for London report published on 14 April, include incubator, accelerator and co-working spaces for both university and non-university occupants. A number also feature residential units, often for use by staff and postgraduate students.

The challenge to universities is not simply to build new campuses, but to create new places. This means designing buildings and sites that look outwards rather than inwards, and which include public spaces and amenities for non-university users.

Leadership matters, too. There are encouraging examples of new developments spurring increased collaboration between universities, local authorities, and existing institutions: these include the development of London Cancer Hub in Sutton, and the establishment of the Knowledge Quarter in Kings Cross.

Done well, these developments won’t just create great quality spaces: they can also transform the way in which students, businesses and citizens interact. They can allow London’s academic institutions and their partners to achieve something that is greater than the sum of their parts.

Creating quality space that isn’t just for higher education, but for London’s knowledge-led economy, will enhance and improve London’s offer to global talent and investment. If collaboration is a contact sport, it is vital that capital’s university bring their A game.

Kat Hanna is research manager at the Centre for London.

The think tank is launching its new report – “Spaces to Think: Innovation Districts and the Changing Geography of London’s Knowledge Economy” – on Thursday 14 April 14.  Register now to secure a place at the launch event.


As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.

The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.