London’s higher education cluster – a cause for celebration.

The latest Times Higher Education World University rankings are out.  London’s world-leading position was underlined (again) in the results.  This league table is only one of a number of course (and an increasing number at that) but it is one of the more established. And, from my position in London Higher, news like this brings a smile.

At London Higher we encourage others to celebrate with us in having in our UK capital a wonderfully if not uniquely diverse cluster of universities and HE colleges that is the envy of the world – an acknowledged jewel in what is an international crown.

It is also great to see prominent articles – such as the one headlining in The Standard – about our world leading cluster which will be read by a wide audience. And – importantly – an audience that goes well beyond the HE sector itself and for positive reasons.

I’ve worked around London’s HEIs since 1989.  It is a pleasure and a privilege to work with this group.  Visiting the institutions, talking with their leaders and other staff, and engaging with them at our many events and meetings, remains a great buzz for me.

Yet like many other people in/around London’s HEIs I am struck (for the wrong reasons) by what seems an intensive and ongoing determination, especially on the part of Government and some politicians and media outlets, to put a big dent if not a series of them into what is a brilliantly successful sector nationally as well as in London. One that contributes in so many ways to the economy and society as well as helping to change countless individual lives for the better.

Simon Baker’s recent article in the THE points out that a Brexit ‘threatens London’s lead as global destination’. Government policies on immigration and on visas (staff as well as students) are amongst other big pressures the sector has to deal with. On their own these pose major challenges for HE institutions. Increasingly, however, criticisms of our universities of all types, sizes and missions are flying in constantly on many fronts. This frustrates and disappoints me.

Claims are being made that that going to university is no longer a good investment for many individuals, that there is ‘grade inflation’, and that the student experience and/or the outcome in terms of attainment and employability is not good enough. This especially in relation to rising tuition fees and long-term debt levels that a number of students face. In addition that old ‘ivory tower’ chestnut is getting a new roasting – with many in and outside of Government of the view that universities are prioritising their international work (and students) whilst becoming more distant from their local communities and their home students.  And of course pay levels for vice chancellors and accusations about lack of restraint have become front-page tabloid news – mostly thanks to the trial by twitter campaign run by Lord Adonis.

In fact, hardly a day let alone a week goes by without more unwanted reading or viewing. The sector has responded – but whether or not the response so far constitutes a ‘fight back’ is debateable. A few individuals from the sector have been reproached for what they have said – Louise Richardson, the VC of Oxford University being one. Support from outside the sector is currently somewhat patchy although it has been refreshing to hear some balanced words from David Willetts, for example.

One of London’s truly distinctive features is the fantastic strength in depth and diversity of our university and HE college cluster.  It is the variety of the HE landscape in London that is envied across the world, as well as the reputation of the teaching and research that goes on here.  Unfortunately the preference from many in power, so it would seem, would be for ever-increasing homogeneity with growing regulation and prescription, and a narrowing focus.  Hardly conducive to fostering the reputation and standing of our universities and HE colleges.

The flak can be and is being countered.  I just hope the evidence-based responses will be read by more than the subscribers to WonkHE.  We are very good at talking to ourselves and to others who think ‘like us’. I believe we have to do more than just answer the politicians who seem to want to hasten a decline in the standing of HE in London and elsewhere.  We need to do much better in communicating to the public at large, including those who are touched by populist sentiments.

The UUK CEO, Alistair Jarvis, has written an excellent piece entitled ‘It’s time to tackle the crisis of confidence in our universities’.  I agree. But despite the headlines there is no crisis per se. The THE world rankings is one illustration that there’s much success to be recognised. And so I reflect, once again, about the fantastic group of HE institutions that serve the city, businesses, communities and people of London – as well as those who study in them.  I am confident that London’s universities and HE colleges will overcome the trials ahead and will continue to be beacons of teaching, research and innovation. History shows us that they adapt to changing times.  They will have to again – and my colleagues and I at London Higher will do what we can to support them. I wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else.