With a student population of over half a million – and growing – London must be doing something right when it comes to attracting students to any one of its many world-leading higher education institutions.
Perceptions of the capital as a lonely, expensive and unhappy place to study may be thought to tarnish London’s appeal as a satisfying study destination, but a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) shows these assumptions are unwarranted.
According to analysis of national survey data conducted by London Higher – the membership organisation of which I am chief executive – with the support of current students from City, University of London, students in London are more likely than those in all other English regions to say their experience of higher education has exceeded their expectations and that they feel better prepared for life after graduation.
The Living and Learning in London report also finds that London’s students are, along with students in the north-west of England, the most likely to say they would choose the same course and higher education institution again, and are more likely than students anywhere else in the UK to say they are very satisfied with their lives. Indeed, the report reveals that London’s students are among the happiest in the country, with more significantly more of them rating their happiness at nine or ten out of ten than counterparts elsewhere.
Of course, there is no such thing as a single London student experience. That is because London is home to such a range of universities and higher education colleges – from small, specialist performing arts conservatoires through to large, multi-faculty universities. These all offer students different courses, ranging from higher technical qualifications and undergraduate degrees through to research Masters and PhD qualifications.
London is also home to an extremely diverse student body. The capital has one of the largest populations of “commuter students” – students living in their family home while studying instead of moving away – in the country. It has one of the largest populations of mature students aged 25 and over, and it welcomes the largest international student population of any UK region. One third of London’s students now come from overseas.
While all these groups are known to require enhanced institutional support to aid their successful participation and retention, UK universities are clearly meeting their needs. The national survey data shows mature students and commuter students are more likely to say their experiences of higher education have been better than expected, and international students are more likely than “home” students to say they regard their courses as providing good value for money, despite paying higher fees.
Further to this, London’s domestic student body is ethnically and socio-economically varied. Earlier research by London Higher’s AccessHE division shows that, by 2030, non-white students will constitute almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of those entering higher education from the capital and, if present rates of progress continue, the percentage of learners from free school meal backgrounds from London entering higher education will reach 73 per cent by the end of the decade. With such a spread of backgrounds and circumstances, achieving good overall ratings for the student academic experience is no mean feat.
In the current cost of living crisis, which is affecting the capital acutely, some might be surprised to learn that students in London are more likely to say their courses provide good value for money than those in other regions of England. Only students in Scotland give higher value for money ratings, but there domestic Scottish students do not pay tuition fees, showing there are many more factors at play in the capital apart from cost that make London’s students feel they are getting good value out of their studies.
For the past three years, London has been ranked the world’s best student city, beating rivals in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia for indicators including student mix, desirability and employer activity. The new analysis of HEPI’s and Advance HE’s national student survey data adds important fresh colour to what London’s students rate most highly about their academic experience, including teaching quality, course content and institutional facilities and resources.
In doing so, the analysis also shines a light on small, specialist institutions – of which London has many – where students tend to be happier and think their courses are serving them well, probably due to their smaller staff-to-student ratios and the nature of intense, specialist higher education provision.
With demand for higher education in London and the south-east set to grow sharply over the next decade, the capital is certainly in a strong position to deliver for the students of the future. Much, however, depends on a sustainable funding solution – as fees remain frozen while operating costs rise – together with a reaffirmation of the UK’s international education export ambition, which puts the capital at its heart and builds on London’s capacity to deliver a high-quality student experience for a diverse student mix.
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