A number of high profile moves and plans for expansion suggest, however, that the role of universities in London’s urban form is beginning to change. For many of London’s institutions, building up or out is simply not an option. As a result, a number of universities are expanding beyond the sector’s traditional central London heartland, often to areas where land is cheaper – or at least more readily available – thanks to industrial restructuring, land assembly, and public intervention.
By way of example, Imperial College London’s new White City Campus is planned as a centre for research, innovation and the translation of pure research into practical applications. On the other side of London, UCL and the University of the Arts London are joining Loughborough University in opening new facilities in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park: all this is part of the mayor’s “Olympicopolis” vision for a new cultural and educational quarter in Stratford.
Many of these developments are taking place despite – or perhaps even on account of – a greater emphasis on student-based university funding. The lifting of the government cap on student numbers, coupled with tuition fee increases and students’ increased expectations of high-quality facilities, means that universities are now competing more strongly to attract students.
London is a boon to the consumer university. London is a drag on the producer university. Of course, the Cult of Jane Jacobs insists that uber dense, global London will stoke the fires of innovation. Anyone who knows just a bit about the history of the university will recognize the absurdity of such an assertion. Research has long been more monastic than social. On the other hand, the draw for deep-pocketed undergraduates is undeniable.
In the Rust Belt, "land is cheaper – or at least more readily available – thanks to industrial restructuring". Cities such as Pittsburgh are well-positioned to grow the urban producer university. The "translation of pure research into practical applications" attracts private firms such as Google, which in turn can dangle the city as an amenity to prospective employees. Such an arrangement gives the illusion that urban density begets knowledge production. But Uber would chase Carnegie Mellon University robotics talent out into the rural hinterlands, if need be.
Demographics define the ceiling of the consumer university approach. More and more regions face a decline of local high school graduates. Which means, more and more universities will rely upon exporting higher education services. This zero-sum game benefits the biggest brands in a winner-take-all economy.
The producer university approach enjoys a positive-sum game. Knowledge is non-rivalrous, benefiting a growing number of people in a world increasingly experiencing demographic decline. The downside is that research universities are "anchored" to a community that has grown around it. Expanding the footprint is politically difficult and economically expensive.