I get it. Under the current political agenda, London isn’t exactly flavour of the month.
Even taking into account the fact that the capital’s economy has been the hardest hit by the pandemic and some London communities are now ranked among the most deprived in the country, there is a distinct sense that the capital has had it good for too long and, so, must suffer for the wider aim of “levelling up”.
The government’s proposal to remove the London Weighting from funding for London’s universities is a case in point. Despite being set to leave the capital’s higher education institutions with far less money than they need to meet the higher costs of operating, the redistribution of funding is still seen as the right thing to do. This is a matter of conviction, rather than logic.
The government has its arguments lined up – it isn’t fair that London’s universities get extra money just because of where they are located. It is easier for London institutions to attract more international students and make up the acknowledged shortfall. And the sum of money being taken away from the capital isn’t supposedly that much anyway.
At London Higher – the representative body for over 40 universities and higher education colleges across London – we’ve done our best over recent weeks to remind policymakers of the negative impacts of this change for London’s higher education institutions, should it go ahead. We shall also be submitting a response to the OfS consultation on recurrent funding, which closes later today.
But let’s be clear – this is not just a London issue, and individuals and institutions elsewhere in the country would do well to think about the full implications of what these funding changes could mean for them too. I think there’s three non-London-centric reasons why this policy proposal could work against the levelling up ambitions for the rest of the country.
First, actively encouraging London to recruit more international students could deprive the regions of significant economic benefit. As it stands today, international student numbers are fairly well distributed across the UK. Although a handful of London universities recruit substantial numbers of international students, many others have very small overseas intakes and recruit locally in some of the city’s poorest communities.
Other regions, from the Midlands to the North West, are also popular with international students. So is Scotland, where the funding system already incentivises increased international admissions. If London is to be pushed in this direction by underfunding too, then it is only natural that some of the capital’s providers will step up their efforts to recruit internationally in ways not previously seen.
But with the future of international student recruitment still so uncertain as the world grapples with Covid, we cannot assume that a concerted drive for international students will necessarily result in higher numbers of overseas entrants enrolling at UK providers, as per the ambition set out in the government’s International Education Strategy.
Instead, the more likely outcome is that it will only increase competition within the current system – effectively pitting London against the rest of the country for a much more limited pool of international students over the years ahead. So, a policy devised to “level up” could end up taking many more economic gains away from the regions than it provides.
Second, lowering “per student” funding in London doesn’t just punish Londoners. As recent research for London Higher shows, a significant proportion of students from elsewhere in the UK move to London for their higher education. Some of these students may have aspired a lifetime to enrol at a London-based provider – be it to pursue a particular course at a specialist institution or simply to embrace the very British residential model of going away to university and experiencing “big city” life.
Although high-quality higher education provision is found right across the UK, incentivising students to stay in their home regions by underfunding higher education in London runs contrary to the current regulatory landscape built on expanding student choice. As well as running the risk of locking Londoners out of their local institutions and threatening a decade of progress in widening participation across the capital, it equally limits the ambitions of those from elsewhere, who are being deterred from investing in a London-based higher education.
Applicants from the Midlands and the North East have the right to a high-quality university experience elsewhere in the country, including in London, too and genuine levelling-up should be about keeping all options open to them – not closing them down.
Third, knowingly underfunding London’s higher education institutions will have knock-on effects for the attractiveness of the whole sector. Like it or not, London is often the first port of call for international students when starting to look at study options in the UK. As one of the world’s major cities, it is also in the eyes of the global media. So, what happens in London is seen by the rest of the world.
That’s why cutting funding to the capital is sure to raise alarm bells for those thinking of investing in a UK higher education – not to mention be seized upon by international competitors who are keen to show they are investing in their major cities, not undermining them.
If we alter funding for London, we alter opportunities for everyone. So, if we don’t use today’s consultation to recognise the negative implications of this policy outside London, then we won’t be levelling up the regions, but levelling down their prosperity and the life chances of individuals.