Diana Beech: Boris Johnson’s government is levelling down London’s higher education

Diana Beech: Boris Johnson’s government is levelling down London’s higher education

Just six days ago, Boris Johnson took to the stage in Coventry to talk about the government’s flagship policy – levelling up.

Although the jury is still out as to what levelling up means in practice, the Prime Minister used his speech to placate fears that he is intent on taking away funding from wealthier areas of the country like London and reallocating resources elsewhere. He said:

“…let us be clear about the difference between this project and levelling down. We don’t want to level down. We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies, we don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer…”

Yet a decision by the education secretary Gavin Williamson announced yesterday has done just that by authorising the removal of London Weighting funding from the capital’s universities and higher education colleges with immediate effect.

Despite Johnson emphasising less than a week ago that “levelling up is not a jam-spreading operation, it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul, it’s not zero sum”, this latest decision by the Department for Education will see funding, which has historically compensated for the higher costs of operating in the capital, removed from London’s universities this summer and redistributed across higher education institutions elsewhere in England. 

The London Weighting cuts alone equate to a £64 million loss for London and will affect all the capital’s universities and higher education colleges, irrespective of subject specialism or institution-type.

Many higher education institutions offering creative arts provision are also set to be hit by a double-whammy of funding cuts, with the government halving “high-cost course funding” for all courses outside healthcare, science, technology, engineering and mathematics – putting at risk courses in the creative disciplines at many of the capital’s multi-faculty universities.

Conversely, the redistributed funds will go to higher education institutions in other regions of England, several of which already generate more international student income and are comparatively better off than many of London’s more local higher education providers.

While the government maintains it is easier for London’s universities to generate extra revenue due to the capital’s popularity with international students, not all London providers recruit – or, in the case of healthcare education providers, are able to recruit – large numbers of overseas students. As such, many London universities and higher education colleges exist primarily to serve local people and support local industries. Their services have never been more important as we seek to renew London and recover from the pandemic.

In its analysis of the responses received in the consultation leading to this decision, the regulator for the higher education sector, the Office for Students (OfS), confirmed that operating costs for universities remain higher in London than elsewhere; that not all universities are able to diversify their subject offerings or add new income streams; that the cuts risk London becoming an “enclave for the wealthy”; and that the removal of the London Weighting from the student premium allocation may impact on the work providers do in addressing the needs of minority ethnic students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Choosing to go against the evidence in this way and cut London’s university funding streams at this crucial time in the nation’s recovery risks closing off vital training and skills opportunities for local Londoners and could pose serious setbacks for UK race equality, just weeks after the Euro 2020 Final in the capital exposed the need for more progress in fairness and inclusion.

The decision also overlooks the uniqueness of London’s research and innovation system, which is powered in large part by the creative industries and relies on a strong pipeline of creative talent to enable the city and nation to build back better for the future.

With London’s universities now set to lose millions of pounds of funding overnight and concerns growing over the future prospects for Londoners to get in to university and get on, this decision shows full well that the threat of London and Londoners being levelled down is real, despite words to the contrary. The guillotine looks to be coming for the tall poppy after all.

Dr Diana Beech is chief executive of London Higher, a membership organisation of 40 higher education institutions across the capital. Follow Diana on Twitter.

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