London Higher: new civic map points to ‘cold spots’ in outer London

Universities in London are capable of making an international contribution while also delivering local priorities, says Dr Diana Beech

For higher education institutions, being civic – in the sense of serving one’s ‘place’ – is nothing new.

After all, the first major expansion of UK higher education in the 19th century came about primarily as a result of the need to establish institutions which would not only support local industrial growth and innovation, but also the workforce to power it. These ‘civic’ institutions went on to become the universities and medical schools which form the backbone of our world-leading higher education sector today, and which have inspired the creation of more modern technical and vocational institutions that continue to serve societal needs.

With globalisation having broadened universities’ horizons over time, the original civic mission of higher education institutions now sits alongside more national and even international ambitions. This is especially true in London, with the capital’s universities and higher education colleges today not only serving more students from their ‘home’ area than any other region in England, but also generating the largest share of revenue for UK GDP through their support of jobs across all sectors of the national economy, as well as attracting the highest numbers of international students.

Being nationally and globally important in this way should not negate the immense civic value of London’s higher education sector. Yet, in talking up London’s role as a major world city, we risk forgetting that London is local too, and that the capital’s universities and higher education colleges continue to play a key role in providing opportunities for some of the UK’s most disadvantaged communities.

At London Higher – the representative body for the UK’s higher education powerhouse in London – we have begun to capture the valuable civic contribution that our members make to individuals and communities across the capital through The London Higher Civic Map, which details exactly which civic activities London’s universities are pursuing, and where and with whom they are working. By bringing together projects which benefit local London society in six core areas, including business, health and education, the map demonstrates the myriad ways in which London’s higher education institutions work ‘beyond the campus’ and helps to identify ‘hot spots’ of civic engagement.

Although being civic goes to the heart of what universities do, the UK higher education sector has not always articulated this mission effectively in ways which speak to the ‘outside world’

While currently in its first iteration, The London Higher Civic Map already shows that London’s higher education institutions have instigated or are involved in civic projects which improve the lives of local Londoners across all 32 boroughs and the City of London. With initial entries from over 40 different higher education institutions – including those whose main campuses are elsewhere in the UK but have a dedicated London centre – the map illustrates the benefits to the city of having a rich and diverse higher education sector in its midst and proves to policymakers that universities are a force for good when it comes to recovery and regeneration.

Some notable examples from the map of how universities are boosting London’s sub-regional economies include the Camden Renewal Commission set up in conjunction with University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose to address the inequalities that exist in Camden, and ‘ideas incubators’ such as Brunel University London’s Central Research Laboratory, or The Greenhouse which is supported by the University of the West of Scotland in London.

However, The London Higher Civic Map is not just about shining a light on existing projects run by London’s higher education institutions. Its real value lies in its humility and its openness about civic ‘cold spots’, or places where institutions could be doing more to address local challenges and community needs. Naturally, our map exposes a wealth of university-led civic activity within the inner-London boroughs, where most higher education institutions are based. Yet it also shows that the outer London boroughs are not as well-served. It is therefore our hope that the map will both encourage future collaborations between our members to address these disparities and prompt policymakers to call on higher education institutions to develop community projects in other areas of the city.

Although being civic goes to the heart of what universities do, the UK higher education sector has not always articulated this mission effectively in ways which speak to the ‘outside world’. Some institutions are choosing to create Civic University Agreements to illustrate their commitment to intra-regional development and partnerships, such as the joint agreement for Lewisham from Goldsmiths, University of London and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. However, this approach is not yet universal and, until we agree on a means of capturing all civic university activity within each region, The London Higher Civic Map provides an inclusive platform for higher education institutions to illustrate their civic contributions publicly, irrespective of how far along their civic journey they may be, and facilitates pan-London working both within the sector and with other key London partners.

With today’s policymakers focused on rebuilding society following the Covid-19 pandemic, our map will likely be the first attempt of many across the UK to capture the collective civic initiatives of universities and make the case for higher education to be front and centre of local growth and recovery. Within London, we trust our map will encourage those in power to harness the full potential of the capital’s universities and higher education colleges to address local challenges.

Yet we also hope our map serves a national purpose and helps to instil in universities across the country the confidence that each civic project in each place matters.

Together, through civic work both within and across the regions, higher education can help weave a national picture of opportunity and hope.

Dr Diana Beech is the CEO of London Higher

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