Mark Corbett: London’s universities help the whole nation

Mark Corbett: London’s universities help the whole nation

Higher education in London faces two major political headwinds: firstly, the simple fact that the role of universities isn’t appreciated by the government; secondly, strongly-held sentiments in the wider UK and across political divides that London takes more than its fair share of everything.

The “levelling-up” agenda should never be an excuse for levelling down London, yet we in the capital are often made victims of our own successes. Having high educational achievement at all levels, world-class universities and specialist institutions, breakthrough research and top performing start-ups and spin-outs doesn’t seem to do us any favours. Because they make the gap between London and the regions more apparent, they are often not acknowledged in a positive way.

Yet London isn’t an island separate from the rest of the country. It is an integral part of it, and its universities drive progress across the whole country. The research conducted by London’s academic institutions, often in collaboration with others elsewhere, acts as a powerful catalyst, generating advancements that ripple out across the nation. But although we are very good at talking about the local and global impact of our institutions, we are not so good at showcasing these beneficial regional and national effects.

For example, London’s universities are at the forefront of healthcare and medical research. They have played a pivotal role in developing groundbreaking treatments and technologies. Researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research and Imperial College, in collaboration with the Netherlands Cancer Institute, discovered that a genetic test already operating in the NHS can also indicate whether certain cancer patients will benefit from chemotherapy. As a result, NHS doctors can provide improved care for their patients – a tangible benefit delivered at minimal additional public expense.

Universities in the capital have also been instrumental in producing the skilled healthcare professionals who serve communities across the UK. With a shortfall of over 10,000 nurses in London itself, there is more to do, so at London Higher we are gearing up to launch a campaign aimed at encouraging more young people to apply for nursing degrees. There is already good work being done here: London Metropolitan University’s new nursing facility has welcomed its first cohort of 30 Nursing (Adult) BSc students and this number is projected to grow to 400 by 2028.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is reshaping industries worldwide, and research at University College London (UCL) has been central to this transformation. Its experts have developed cutting-edge algorithms that optimise energy consumption in urban centres. With rising concerns about climate change, these innovations have direct implications for national sustainability goals.

London’s universities are also central to the UK’s response to the climate crisis. At Brunel University, scientist have disovered two new enzymes that are able to break down one of the most widely produced singled-use plastics, which would take hundreds of years to biodegrade naturally – a discovery with the potential to reduce contaminants in our water systems and oceans.

Meanwhile, the baby development lab of the University of East London has been pioneering methods of investigating the impact of changing modern living conditions on early childhood development. Its research has been disseminated to more than 50,000 early years professionals and 2,000 primary schools across the UK, leading to enhancements in educational spaces which will ultimately result in improved learning outcomes.

And research in London is not limited to science and technology. It extends to preserving the cultural heritage that defines our nation. The Courtauld Institute of Art plays a pivotal role in safeguarding the UK’s artistic legacy. By researching innovative restoration techniques, the institute ensures that priceless artworks remain intact for future generations. In a similar vein the University of Roehampton supports heritage organisations and museums in the East of England and the Midlands with training in conversation, promoting public engagement and improving accessibility.

In March, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said: “More powers are going to cities – that’s good for London.” I agree. Working with strong leadership in the regions, supporting better connectivity and building on the many existing collaborations will strengthen all UK cities. The growing number of metro mayors creates an opportunity for London to work with still more UK cities as well as with the international C40 Cities group, which Sadiq Khan currently chairs. As we navigate the “levelling-up” agenda, we must remember that it should about elevating the entire nation – and that includes London.

Mark Corbett is Head of Policy and Networks at London Higher. X/Twitter: London Higher and On London. Photograph from Courtauld Institute. If you value On London and its coverage of the capital, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. You will even get things for your money. 

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