Transforming universities, transforming lives

Dr Diana Beech, CEO of London Higher spoke at the International Association of University Presidents, 07 March 2024. The below has been adapted from her speech.

Good afternoon, presidents, rectors and vice-chancellors. I am truly honoured to meet you all today and I am particularly grateful to Dr Fernando Leon-Garcia and, of course, to Professor Edward Peck for inviting me to join you all here at NTU’s London campus to welcome you to the great global city of London and hopefully to set the scene for your discussions over the coming days. 

Now, I don’t know if you all have similar friendly rivalries in your own countries, but here in the UK, there is a bit of a joke going on between leaders of higher education sector bodies like myself about who really has the best job in the sector. And today, I’m clearly going to claim that is me, and if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to explain why. 

So, as CEO of London Higher, I have the great pleasure of representing well over 50 unique universities and higher education institutions right here in the London region. Our membership at London Higher is also one of the most diverse – if not the most diverse – of any UK sector body, as our members range from some of the smallest, specialist world leading institutions (such as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art with only 120 students) right the way through to large, multi-faculty universities like UCL, the UK’s largest university, with a population of well over 50,000 students. And of course, we’re also home to everything in between – we’ve got modern, technical universities in the North, South, East and West of the city, we’ve got former polytechnics in the heart of the city and we’re even home to postgraduate research institutes like The Institute for Cancer Research or the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – global names, tackling global challenges right here in the UK capital. 

And as you’ll note from our hosts of NTU today, we don’t only represent local London institutions. At London Higher, we are firmly committed to representing the full diversity of higher education in the capital and, given London’s connectedness as a global city, our membership now includes 15 London campuses of universities not just located elsewhere in the UK, but also elsewhere in the world. The fact that more and more universities outside London, and indeed outside the UK, are choosing to establish centres and campuses in London is testimony to the power of this great city to create opportunities that spread far beyond its own borders.  

Now, you might say I’m biased, but even before I became CEO of London Higher 3.5 years ago, I had long recognised just what an amazing asset London is to the whole of the UK higher education sector. Brand LondonHE is ultimately part and parcel of Brand UK HE, and when London succeeds, the whole UK succeeds along with it.  

And London’s higher education sector really is home to some truly amazing success stories: 

  • For the past 5 years London has held the title of the world’s best city to be a student, according to the QS world student city rankings – and clearly, I am hoping we can make this 6 years in a row when the 2025 results are released in just a few months’ time. 
  • There are more students in London than any other UK region, with well over half a million students studying at the capital’s 50+ higher education institutions. London really is the ultimate student city, with data from the Higher Education Policy Institute showing that students in London are more likely to be happier and see good value from their courses than their counterparts anywhere else in the country. 
  • Moreover, London institutions are as local as they are global: while one in three students in London now come from overseas, attracted by the city’s vibrancy and diversity, the majority of London’s domestic students actually come from the local London region, with many from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds in the country. 
  • In London, poverty sits side-by-side with prosperity, and many of London’s higher education institutions serve communities grappling with the highest inequalities in the country. To give you an example, the London borough of Newham over in the East of the city is one of London’s most diverse but it’s also one of the most deprived. Four areas of the borough are among the poorest in England, with 50% of children in the borough living in poverty and 30% of local jobs still paying under the London Living Wage. But London universities are fighting back against these inequalities and are leading the way in spreading opportunities and transforming lives. In fact, 17 of the top 20 universities for social mobility in England are found right here in this city, including all 10 of the universities in the top10. 
  • Equality and diversity are at the heart of this success, with attainment and progression particularly high among black and minority ethnic communities and among the most disadvantaged. In fact, by the end of this decade, it is expected that 74% of local Londoners going to London universities will be from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and 73% of local Londoners going to London universities will be from free-school-meal backgrounds, and that shows just how London’s universities are delivering for all. 
  • London’s universities are also leading the way when it comes to student employability. The latest data show that graduates entering employment in London have salaries that are higher than those in any other region, with those working in London receiving over £6,200 more a year than those working in Wales, for example (that’s roughly an extra £120 a week). 

I could probably go on and bore you silly with many more facts about London, but I hope what I have done with that small taster alone is to get you excited about your meeting here at the heart of London’s diverse higher education sector, and to give you a flavour of the many exciting possibilities that can be had through partnerships and collaborations with our city’s many different institutions. 

Universities in London and indeed the wider UK are open for collaboration. You’ve just heard how London is the world’s best student city. Well, it’s also the number one choice for the tech community, home to the world’s top creators and innovators, thanks in large part to London’s universities and research institutes. 

As CEO of London Higher, I am really delighted to see you – as leaders of global universities – meeting in this great city and I want to see collaborations flourishing between you and my members as part of my mission to make London the higher education partnership hub of the world. 

There is so much for you to talk about over the coming days – from new research collaborations to new exchanges, or from employability initiatives to student support. Whatever it is you talk about, and wherever your discussions lead you, I hope that you’ll remember that your ideas were made in London, like many of the best things in life, and that London will always be a place for you to find friends and partners who can help make your ideas a reality.