This guest blog has been kindly written by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher – the representative body for the UK’s largest regional higher education powerhouse in London. Diana was previously Policy Adviser to the last three Universities Ministers, and you can find her on Twitter at @dianajbeech.
This time last year the former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson dealt a significant blow to London’s higher education sector when announcing his intention to reform the Government grant for higher education in England, including abolishing the London Weighting.
Despite the Office for Students (OfS) acknowledging in its response to the ensuing consultation that higher education providers in London face the highest operating costs of anywhere in the country, the decision was nevertheless made to remove over £64-million-worth of funding from the capital’s universities and higher education colleges with immediate effect from the 2021/22 academic year.
This decision was callous enough at the time: for ignoring the evidence; for ruling out a ‘phase-out’ period to soften the impact; and for reallocating the money to providers across every region of England excluding London.
To deny London institutions fair access to funding – despite supporting students from some of the poorest wards in England – exposes the decision for what it is: a blunt political signalling exercise to show that London and its residents have had too much and no longer matter.
Looking back on that initial announcement one year later, the world has changed: Gavin Williamson is no longer Education Secretary; the loyalty of the so-called “Red Wall” to the Government is now in serious question; and the country is teetering on the brink of a cost-of-living crisis, with rising inflation, looming tax hikes and soaring energy bills.
In London, where the costs of living are already between 15 to 58 per cent higher than the rest of the UK, and more than 41 per cent of Londoners have insufficient income to reach an acceptable standard of living (compared with 29 per cent for the UK overall), the year ahead is set to be a tough one.
For the capital’s universities and colleges, in particular, which serve as vital ‘anchor institutions’ in their boroughs and already contribute to hundreds of civic projects across the city, the pressure to continue supporting their diverse student population, staff and local communities with diminishing resource is clearly mounting. Yet, thanks to last year’s decision to remove and redistribute funding along a crude ‘everywhere but London’ formula, the capital’s higher education institutions have been left facing the perfect storm with their hands bound.
In April last year, London Higher research showed that the decision to cut the London Weighting was set to hit London’s higher education institutions hard. At best, this would reduce their modest surpluses and, at worse, risk pushing them into deficit or exacerbating losses largely brought on by the pandemic. It is almost certain that these pessimistic projections have now worsened as Covid-uncertainty continues and institutional overheads rise.
With the national economic outlook now so bleak and London’s higher education institutions pushed perilously into a position of distinct disadvantage, surely now is the time for the new Education Secretary to correct the ills of the previous funding allocation in a timely guidance letter to the OfS?
After all, if this Government is to show it is serious about levelling-up, not just across but within regions, then the current anti-London funding arrangement cannot be left to prevail. This both discriminates against the capital as a region and hurts those in our society for whom we most need to be opening up opportunities, not closing them down.
There is also much to gain for the Government should it soften its present approach to the capital. With the London local elections just months away and the threat of losing key London authorities only too real, a more inclusive funding arrangement based on genuine levelling-up needs across the whole country including London would send a welcome message to Londoners that their hopes and ‘dreams‘ matter too.
Given the projected growth in demand for higher education in London and the South-East from now until 2035, this should be something the Government will want to get right, lest it lose the support of the UK’s most populous city for generations to come, not to mention put the brakes on England’s biggest social mobility success story to date.
The choice is clear: ‘Leaving London out’ is a policy formula that helps no-one. Conversely, ‘letting London in’ will ensure nobody gets left-behind, and our incredible higher education sector can move forwards as one – powering the country’s levelling-up agenda, and skilling, reskilling and upskilling the nation in ‘a fair and inclusive system‘ called for by Ministers.