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“The Athens or Rhodes of the global economy”: what role do universities play in London life?

Much is made of the success of London’s universities, and rightly so. The capital is home to five of the world’s top universities – the only city in the world that is able to make such a claim. London, in the words of Boris Johnson, is the Athens or Rhodes of the global economy: the modern world’s favourite university town.

But behind the rankings and bombast, the impact that London’s universities make on the physical appearance of the city, and their wider civic role, are much harder to quantify. While many of the institutions themselves are iconic, the majority of university buildings in London remain hidden in plain sight. Older institutions have become woven into the city’s urban fabric; modern university campuses remain tucked away in London’s suburban hinterlands.

A number of high profile moves and plans for expansion suggest, however, that the role of universities in London’s urban form is beginning to change. For many of London’s institutions, building up or out is simply not an option. As a result, a number of universities are expanding beyond the sector’s traditional central London heartland, often to areas where land is cheaper – or at least more readily available – thanks to industrial restructuring, land assembly, and public intervention.

By way of example, Imperial College London’s new White City Campus is planned as a centre for research, innovation and the translation of pure research into practical applications. On the other side of London, UCL and the University of the Arts London are joining Loughborough University in opening new facilities in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park: all this is part of the mayor’s “Olympicopolis” vision for a new cultural and educational quarter in Stratford.

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Many of these developments are taking place despite – or perhaps even on account of – a greater emphasis on student-based university funding. The lifting of the government cap on student numbers, coupled with tuition fee increases and students’ increased expectations of high-quality facilities, means that universities are now competing more strongly to attract students.


Changing places, changing roles

It is not just the location of London’s universities that is changing, but the nature of their campuses. Few sites are dedicated solely to university use. Many new “Innovation Districts”, the subject of a Centre for London report published on 14 April, include incubator, accelerator and co-working spaces for both university and non-university occupants. A number also feature residential units, often for use by staff and postgraduate students.

The challenge to universities is not simply to build new campuses, but to create new places. This means designing buildings and sites that look outwards rather than inwards, and which include public spaces and amenities for non-university users.

Leadership matters, too. There are encouraging examples of new developments spurring increased collaboration between universities, local authorities, and existing institutions: these include the development of London Cancer Hub in Sutton, and the establishment of the Knowledge Quarter in Kings Cross.

Done well, these developments won’t just create great quality spaces: they can also transform the way in which students, businesses and citizens interact. They can allow London’s academic institutions and their partners to achieve something that is greater than the sum of their parts.

Creating quality space that isn’t just for higher education, but for London’s knowledge-led economy, will enhance and improve London’s offer to global talent and investment. If collaboration is a contact sport, it is vital that capital’s university bring their A game.

Kat Hanna is research manager at the Centre for London.

The think tank is launching its new report – “Spaces to Think: Innovation Districts and the Changing Geography of London’s Knowledge Economy” – on Thursday 14 April 14.  Register now to secure a place at the launch event.
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