23 May 2017

Higher education institutions could “suffer from a failure of the imagination” when tackling the challenges posed by megacities, the Vice Chancellor of the University of the Arts London, Nigel Carrington tells delegates at the Going Global 2017 conference.

The world has seen cities grow in size and autonomy from only three megacities (roughly defined as cities with populations of 10 million people or more) in 1976, to more than thirty in 2016, and predicted to rise to 41 by 2030.

“There’s something very futuristic about the expression megacities but the phenomenon is already with us,” he said.

Describing his own university, where 49% of its 19,000 students come from outside the UK, he said that cities would increasingly be the deciding factor in how ambitious students chose where to study.

Megacities were a ‘magnet’ for students, with London pulling in one quarter of the UK’s international students and large cities on the east and west coast of the USA pulling a similar proportion.

Such megacities were ‘prime drivers’ of trans-national education, he added.

This new scale of city was reducing the proportionate role of universities he said, giving the example of Coventry, where the city’s two universities account for 10% of jobs, and London where 40 universities account for 4% of jobs.

“We find it difficult in megacities to connect with the political and urban priorities of those cities in a joined up way,” said Mr Carrington.

“We haven’t fully developed the mental and strategic framework to influence these places.”

“In order to do it better we need to think big and beyond the walls of our institutions,” he added.

Megacities were not always popular with the rest of the country, he said, noting the tension caused by the power of such cities.

“We cause problems for universities in other cities. In terms of our balanced national development we need to be so careful in our megacities to try to join up what we do with our colleagues in the rest of the country,” he said.

However the role of higher education in these cities was currently undervalued, with the economic benefits of students only being measured in terms of their spending while studying.

“The main economic benefit of students comes from the intellectual, entrepreneurial and business value that they generate after graduation,” he said.

Universities could boost or initiate entire industries, such as the growth of Silicon Valley around Stanford University in California, or the BBC, arts and culture sector, and ‘burgeoning creative economy’ that surrounds universities in London.

They also play a strong role in increasing social cohesion in increasingly internationalised cities, allowing better integration into the labour market for second and third generation immigrants and subsequent community benefits.

“We in London need to increase our migrant access to higher education,” he said.