Reports in the Evening Standard yesterday raised the spectre of London’s ‘big four universities’ carving up the city in a competitive race to establish their pre-eminence through huge ‘land-grab’ developments (‘London’s big four universities go on £4bn “Premier League” spending spree’, 26th March). They came hard on the heels of the announcement of the new HEFCE research funding allocations in which Imperial College, UCL, and Kings benefited from significant increases, making UCL now the second most highly-funded institution for research income based on an impressive return to the REF – and the highest-funded overall (for teaching and research) at £171m. By contrast, some of London’s other higher education institutions outside the emerging so-called ‘Premier League’ – including London Metropolitan University, University of the Arts, and Goldsmiths – have suffered major grant losses (THES 26th March, ‘Winners and losers in HEFCE funding allocations’).
Simultaneously, Property Week announced today that ‘Aviva Investors is on the cusp of signing a £150m deal to forward-fund a huge White City office building aimed at science start-ups’ for Imperial College on its White City campus (Imperial West) (Mar 27th, Aviva wins Imperial College war). In ES, the Imperial West development is described by the university’s new president Professor Alice Gast, as a second ‘Albertopolis’ for London, with reference to the South Kensington museums site where Imperial’s existing campus is located (ES 26th March, ‘Imperial’s White City campus “will be the next Albertopolis”’) – but without any reference at all to the ‘Olimpicopolis’ cultural and education quarter in the Olympic Park, based on the same concept, which was allocated £141m of government funding last December. As the design competition brief for this project explained last year in similar terms, ‘The ‘Olympicopolis’ plan pays homage to the ambition and achievement of Albertopolis, which followed the 1851 Great Exhibition, and established a constellation of museums, universities and artistic, scientific and cultural organisations in Kensington’.
Olimpicopolis in East London will house not only the V&A, Sadlers Wells, the London College of Fashion, and branches of the Smithsonian and Guggenheim museums, but also UCL, one of Imperial’s main contenders in the big four league. Is London really going to have two Albertopolises and an Olimpicopolis vying for pre-eminence on its West–East axis? And if so, should we start to wonder how far these grand urban development gestures hold the city in their best interests, or whether they are essentially stadia for an increasingly intense game of higher education premier league football?
ES reports that ‘ “The new university funding system enables the top universities to grow away from others” (Professor Alan Smithers, University of Buckingham)’, and notes that ‘London has more top universities than any other city in the world’. Those institutions are ploughing huge amounts of money – an estimated £4bn (including £400m on the first phase of UCL East, £3bn on Imperial West, and £120m for LSE’s new Aldwych development) – into the redevelopment of large swathes of the city to meet their own space needs and upgrade facilities to attract the best students and staff from around the world. As quoted by the paper, Professor Gast is candid about her ambitions for Imperial West: ‘“We will become a hub of influence and impact”’, echoing equally assured aspirations across the capital’s elite HE sector.
But in the meantime, community groups and local stakeholders in White City and Stratford still have scant information and little assurance that they will see many, or any benefits trickle down to local level as a result of the transformative effects of ‘-opolisation’ on their doorsteps. So it is to be welcomed that these issues will be raised in two forthcoming conferences – albeit outside London. Sheffield University’s ‘Communiversity: how can universities in cities unlock their assets to help communities?’ takes place on May 20th (firstname.lastname@example.org), and University of Northampton’s ‘The urban university: universities as place-makers and agents of civic success in medium sized towns and cities’, on July 2nd-3rd (email@example.com).
At the same time, UCL Urban Laboratory yesterday issued a summary of interim findings from my own research on university-led spatial development and urban regeneration, which demonstrates the impact of public funding cuts and intensifying international competition as key factors leading universities to invest in spatial expansion, and delivers insights into the institutional policies, visions, and processes involved in implementing major development plans. But it also highlights the complexity of the urban and planning contexts which inform them, and of the impacts and projected impacts which they have on existing sites and communities from a regeneration perspective.
So it’s to be hoped there’s fuel for this debate to gather steam over the forthcoming months, and focus attention on the wider social issues barely concealed by the seductive images of glamorous new buildings for the emerging Premier League of higher education, and the big numbers that go with them.