London: global capital of higher education?

This week, I have asked my London Higher colleague, Dr Graeme Atherton to write a piece in his capacity as Head of Access HE. Thanks Graeme!

London’s educational success story since the early 2000s has been highlighted so frequently in recent years it is in danger of becoming a cliché. Its schools now out-perform the rest of the country by a considerable margin. Far more people go onto HE from London than any other place (so many more as to mask flat progress elsewhere). Where the progression of learners from lower socio-economic groups is concerned, again London’s performance out-strips that of any other region in England.

But should London even be comparing itself to the rest of England anymore? London is one of the major global cities. It has a GDP higher than many small countries. In higher education it continues to excel. The concentration of relatively high performing higher education institutions (HEIs) led to London in 2014 being ranked by Price Waterhouse Coopers as the ‘global capital of higher education’.

Being a global city though brings with it major challenges. While London may be a very rich city it is also a very unequal one. Over a quarter of children in London live in poverty. It is also characterised by ‘super – diversity’, where increasing multi-ethnicity is coming to define the culture, economy and politics of the city. There are over 50 different ethnic communities in London with over 10,000 members. This super-diversity is a strength and one of, if not the, drivers of London’s economic success. But it also means that London has to be able to reflect this diversity in the opportunities it offers its residents.

Increasing inequality and super-diversity demand we take a much more forensic and nuanced look at higher education performance. This is especially the case where who participates and succeeds in HE is concerned. Can a legitimate claim to be the leading city for higher education nationally, or globally, be made if those benefitting from HE do not reflect the population of the city?

As I pointed out in the report I authored on access in London last year: Access to Higher Education: the London Challenge? the overall figures where access by socio-economic group in the capital are concerned mask huge differences. Your chances of entering HE if you receive free school meals differ by as much as 35% depending on the local authority you are educated in. Research from HEFCE released last year shows that even after controlling for ‘institution attended’ and ‘prior qualifications’ black students are nearly 20% less likely to get a graduate job after leaving HE. Given the concentration of such students at London HEIs, this is a challenge that is very much a London one. London HEIs do lead the way where diversity is concerned in terms of entry. The vast majority of learners from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds in the UK go to London institutions. However, super-diversity is not a static state. There are new ethnic communities rapidly growing in the capital – are they reaching higher education and do London HEIs understand their challenges?

Being the best creates its own pressures. But it also creates opportunities. London does have legitimate claims to be the world’s leading city for higher education – but if it is how is it using this position? There is an opportunity to use it to raise the bar where the idea of higher education cities is concerned to include not just research intensity, rankings positions or numbers of international students but access and equity. London already leads the country where access is concerned – can it lead the world too?