“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.


There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.

In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.