The Spring Budget should harness the strengths of London’s universities

Written by London Higher CEO, Diana Beech.

At this week’s Spring Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt faces the unenviable task of setting out plans to grow the UK economy while reducing public debt and halving inflation. While Mr Hunt may not have as much leeway as his predecessors to make headline-grabbing tax cuts or significant spending pledges, he does at least have a silver bullet in his armoury in the form of the UK’s world-leading university sector. 

Until now, universities have not been more than a mere footnote at the Budget Day despatch box, usually only mentioned in relation to plans to increase UK research and development (R&D) outputs – and only then in the context of the UK boasting four of the global top ten universities. This year’s Spring Budget, however, provides the ideal opportunity for a step change, and the Chancellor should acknowledge universities for the myriad other opportunities they bring to UK society – through delivering the skills our economy needs, attracting inward investment, promoting business growth, regenerating local highstreets, and exporting knowledge and education across the globe to enhance the UK’s ‘soft power’. 

The potential of universities to turbocharge the Government’s growth ambitions is immeasurable. The London region alone is home to almost 50 higher education institutions, which collectively educate over half a million students, contribute over £12bn to GDP and employ over 223,000 people across all sectors of the national economy. Investing in London’s higher education sector is an investment not just in the capital, but the country as a whole, as London’s successes filter out nationally, driving growth, innovation and opportunity through connectivity across the regions. 

Many of the students enrolled at London’s universities will go on to be the essential workers of tomorrow, training to become nurses, doctors, teachers, dentists and paramedics. Others will go on to power the UK’s fastest growing industries, such as the UK creative sector which is a significant contributor to the London economy and where the jobs of tomorrow are continually being developed. A significant number will also stay on in public and private-sector R&D to bolster the UK’s ‘science superpower’ status – all facilitated by London’s place at the heart of the ‘Golden Triangle’. 

Therefore, on Budget Day, we’d like to see the Chancellor recognise the pivotal role of London’s universities through: 

  • re-engaging with the agenda that looks at the cost of living, supporting students and researchers in one of the most expensive cities in the world and ensuring that the social mobility agenda is being achieved; 
  • supporting properly funded medical degree places across all London medical schools and providing the time and engagement to ensure these can be properly delivered on;  
  • reviewing initial teacher training (ITT) accreditation decisions to ensure we are increasing the number of places for aspiring teachers rather than taking them away at a time when pressure on classroom sizes is increasing; and 
  • championing London so that it can retain the top spot in attracting foreign direct investment in financial and professional services, benefitting the entire nation, and showing that UK R&D really is on the Government’s priority list. 

London and its universities are true national assets and should be harnessed for the benefit of the whole country, not overlooked or ‘levelled down’ for the sake of popular politics. This year’s Spring Budget offers the Government the ideal opportunity to put to bed the needless negativity around London and its institutions, and place the capital and its universities back at the heart of the drive for growth through their extensive reach, networks and collaborations.