London campuses help universities go global

Universities from around the UK are investing in London campuses. Anthony Devlin/PA

London campuses help universities go global

Universities from around the UK are investing in London campuses. Anthony Devlin/PA

To cash in on global demand for British higher education, universities have been busy setting up international branch campuses to transplant the UK student experience (or aspects of it) to the Gulf or to China. But this massive demand from foreign students has led to an interesting development: many universities from elsewhere in the UK are now setting up campuses in London.

It’s easy to see the attractions of a campus in the capital. London has always been different, but it’s been often remarked that over the last few decades it has become essentially a different country from the rest of the UK: richer, more productive, more ethnically and culturally diverse, and more international. London likes to compare itself with New York or Tokyo these days, not Manchester or Birmingham, or even Paris or Berlin.

As London’s universities and colleges have never tired of pointing out, its concentration of activities – economic, scientific, political, professional, cultural – provides excellent resources for higher education to draw on. This is true both in a practical sense (using museums, say) but also in an emotional sense: a five minute walk from my office can bring you to plaques marking the homes of Charles Darwin or JM Keynes.

Politicians sometimes lazily suggest that the UK’s “traditional” universities are insufficiently entrepreneurial and dynamic. The 2011 White Paper on higher education contained a good deal of unsubstantiated rhetoric along these lines, contrasting universities unfavourably with what have become known as “alternative providers”.

In fact, whatever you think about them, market-oriented higher education policies over the past 20 or so years have been extremely effective in changing institutional behaviour – and non-London universities’ responses to London’s attractions have been a modest but interesting example of this.

Universities in other parts of the UK (as with everything else, Oxford and Cambridge are exceptions) wanting to recruit international students have thought about what they could do to improve the attractiveness of their offer. One answer has been: “London”.

Perhaps the most radical, in terms of geography, has been Glasgow Caledonian University’s “professional postgraduate university campus” in trendy Spitalfields, on the eastern fringes of the City of London. Set up in 2010, GCU London offers master’s courses mostly in marketing, finance, IT and related topics.

Presumably because of the availability of premises, two other “out-of-town” universities are near-neighbours of GCU – Coventry University’s “London Campus”, near Liverpool Street station, and just down the road from it, the University of East Anglia’s “London Study Centre”.

Both focus on management and finance courses, and their websites draw attention to the delights of London living – without quite going so far as to denigrate the attractions of either Coventry or Norwich. It is at least a variation on the “yet convenient for London” line often found in the prospectuses of universities several hours away from the capital.

One institution to try a different approach was the University of Warwick, which borrowed space for a now-closed London office from a sympathetic think-tank based near Parliament. This was intended not as a student recruitment exercise but as a seminar facility to attract London-based speakers, and also as a base for meetings, lobbying and general PR activities.

The university perceived that a small London base offered particular advantages to an ambitious research institution. However, it seems that without students to provide a directly attributable income stream, the benefits did not in the end outweigh the costs. Warwick isn’t giving up on London though: its business school is due to open a campus in the city next year.

Where teaching is the main activity, it must clearly be a challenge to provide an acceptable student experience in a small academic unit far from the main institution. Both staff numbers and other facilities such as libraries and student unions are inevitably limited. If these are then bought in from nearby London institutions, students must surely ask themselves why they are not studying there in the first place.

The overheads of running a small, distant outpost must also be relatively high. GCU’s most recent Quality Assurance Agency review, in 2011, was presumably too close to the opening of the London campus to allow consideration of academic quality there; it will be interesting to see what view future reviews take of this.

These London campuses are undoubtedly a creative response to a difficult student market. As long as the cost/quality equation can be made to work, and while the UK maintains its strong cultural capital, the attraction to foreign students is clear.