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November 23, 2011

UCL's second campus sends a chill down the spine

The announcement by UCL that it is to open a second campus, in east London, will send a chill down the spine of other elite universities in the UK.

Malcolm Grant told the FT today that the plan is for a big increase in research activity. Undergraduate numbers would increase only "at the margins". But the provoist's soothing words won't help the leaders of other Russell Group universities sleep any easier.

A huge new campus in Newham could, once it is built, turn out to mean capacity for many thousands more undergraduates at UCL. And thanks to the AAB+ market initiated by the government, UCL will be able to fill all those places with students paying the full £9,000 a year. The losers will be those universities, mainly in the Russell Group, that are slightly further down the list of applicant preference and aren't in London. Look out Nottingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow and co.

If this is what happens, then UCL will be following precisely the policy I advocated for Oxford and Cambridge in the wake of the AAB+ policy initiative (see Oxford 2, Cambridge 2 - One way England's universities might use their AAB options. The guaranteed income from all those AAB+ students makes dramatic expansion a much less risky proposition for the top, top universities. And just as I said Oxford could open a second campus in Birmingham to spread the benefits of excellence around, UCL is opening its second campus in the deprived (and HE-deprived) East End.

Places like Imperial, LSE and Manchester could follow suit. And even Oxford and Cambridge might find their hands forced. The prospect of losing top billing to UCL's horde of new researchers and postgraduates will concentrate minds.

But, as I pointed out back in July, there is a downside to all this expansion by Golden Triangle types. It means more government spending on research and teaching in the south east - and less in the other regions and nations - at a time when public spending outside the south east is being hammered from every direction. This is the reverse of the regional rebalancing that the Coalition keeps promising.

The market in undergraduates has not yet been let rip. The AAB+ corner that is open to competition is relatively small. But already I believe we are starting to see the dramatic consequences of a market there.

Hold onto your hats. The revolution in higher education is only just beginning.

[After prodding by the UCL press office, I updated this article on 25 November to clarify the distinction between what UCL says is the purpose of the expansion and my view of the announcement.]


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Given that the site in question has got standing buildings with sitting tenants all over, I suspect the AAB+ policy may well be a distant memory by the time that UCL actually move in.

So far Malcolm Grant's sake, I hope that isn't the only basis for making the investment.

I agree that the question of the persistence of policy is a big issue, for UCL here and everyone else. I suppose one question is, if UCL and local authorities spend tens of millions building a new campus, will any future government dare deprive them of the revenue they are expecting to make the sums add up? "Smoothing" comes to mind...

you also need to take into account the merging global competition. Does the UK really want to lose its "punching above its weight" status simply due to pandering to perceived local jealousy? I would say this second post war expansion opportunity (UCL in the East & Imperial in the West) represents more of a last chance saloon for "UK plc". Therefore a two tier system, one globally tuned and another at a more accessible level nationally might actually be beneficial for everyone.

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