A closer look at London’s science specialist institutions

London has long been a powerhouse of education and research in the sciences, from large ‘introduction to biochemistry’ first year undergraduate lectures to specialist Covid-19 postdoctoral work. When we wrote the International education strategy for London (IESL), we recognized that London’s science provision, particularly the scientific work that takes place in the capital’s science specialists. We also know that the practice of science is inherently international and that international students notice and value London’s scientific expertise.  

Internal data from ApplyBoard tells us that 44.3% of searches for all London-based institutions were for STEM subjects between March 2021 and October 2022. In the whole of the UK from March 2021-Sept 2022, UK searches on the ApplyBoard platform increased by a massive 267% for health fields of study. We also know that incoming international students are more likely to choose engineering and technology courses in London than any other course group, including the ever-popular business and management studies, but all STEM subjects are growing in popularity across the UK. 

At undergraduate and postgraduate (taught and research) level, London is at the top compared to other international cities for its quality and scale of science provision. Across the three 2022 QS subject group rankings for sciences, London is the joint-top city with the most appearances in the top fifty entries for each science. London’s science specialists both large (Imperial College London) and small (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) are represented here at the top of their fields. There are many science subjects that are unique to London’s specialist universities, colleges and other institutes which, provide one-of-a-kind courses from the undergraduate degree in Wildlife Health Science at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) to the MSc in Analogue & Digital Integrated Circuit Design at Imperial to the research degrees delivered in the unique environment of the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR). Alongside its course offerings, London’s world-class laboratories, research opportunities and academic environments make it one of the best places to do scientific work in the world, at any level and stage of one’s scientific career.  

However, this does not mean that there aren’t challenges. The current economic situation makes planning for the future difficult, even for subjects that are generally agreed to be a strategic priority. The international student application landscape is changing, due to the impact of Brexit, the global economic situation in the wake of the ongoing war in Ukraine, and myriad other factors. The changes to international student fee eligibility for European students may drive promising European scientists to choose European institutions. Another world-class scientific institution, ETH Zurich, charges the same fees for domestic and international students, totalling less than £700 per semester. For European students, studying on the continent has always been a cheaper option than London, but gap between tuition fees has widened since the UK’s departure from the EU. In sciences as with all other subjects, the equilibrium of where international students arrive from is shifting, away from the EU and towards the rest of the world. This can open up new challenges for students who may be arriving from very different secondary educational contexts, whose qualifications may not have close UK equivalents. At the same time, students arriving from a greater range of places across the globe will bring new perspectives and backgrounds, enriching London’s scientific expertise.  

The uncertain future can, of course, bring opportunities as well as challenges. Collaborative teaching and research and new approaches to interdisciplinary subject matter open up productive new areas for work that benefits students, teachers and the planet. Science, by its very nature, is always discovering new research areas and new ways of working. London’s variety of specialist institutions by working together can achieve a lot in combatting major new global problems. We would do well to remember what one great London scientist of the past said about his discipline: ‘A problem solved is dead. A world without problems to be solved would be devoid of science.’  

This blog has been written by Emily Dixon, Programmes, Communications and Research Officer at London Higher.