What does the Journey to a Million mean for London?

Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer, London Higher

London is not just the most populous city in the UK. It is home to the largest concentration of higher education institutions of any UK region. With almost 50 universities and higher education colleges in the London Higher membershipi, London’s higher education sector offers students an unrivalled choice about where and what to study. 

As of January 2023, London’s universities are home to over half a million students and London’s student population is as local as it is global.ii Collectively, London’s higher education institutions educate more students from their ‘home’ region than their counterparts anywhere else in the country while also being proudly international. Roughly one third of students in the capital come from overseas, with the vast majority from outside the European Union (EU).

Local and global

Both student markets are growing rapidly. A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) projects that over 40% of the 360,000 new higher education places that will be needed for domestic students in England over the next decade will be required in London and South East.iii This is due to a combination of demographic changes, with the region’s under-18 population rising sharply, and higher participation levels in higher education by students from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds, thanks in large part to the continued successes of London’s school system.iv This is also reflected in findings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and The Sutton Trust which show that London’s universities effect the highest levels of social mobility in the country, with many of the capital’s higher education institutions taking relatively high rates of disadvantaged pupils with high levels of pre-18 attainment and equipping them with good outcomes on graduation.v 

London’s appeal to international students similarly shows no signs of slowing. Another HEPI report reveals that well over 70,000 first-year international students come to study in London each year.vi This is more than three times the number of international students coming to study at higher education institutions in the West Midlands and more than twice the number of overseas students enrolling at universities across the whole of Scotland. For international students, then, the London study brand remains strong, and the city continues to top global best student cities rankings for the diversity of its student mix, the number of world-class universities and student feedback on their experiences.vii London Higher’s analysis of the 2022 HEPI/AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience Survey data reveals that students in London were indeed more likely than those in other English regions to say their higher education experience exceeded their expectations and international students in London were more likely than home students to say that they see their courses as providing good value for money, despite paying higher fees.viii 

Diverging student cohorts

What these growing student numbers mean in practice is that, as the Journey to a Million continues apace, London’s higher education sector needs to be preparing for increasing polarity in its student intake. On the one hand, London’s higher education institutions can expect to experience increasing hyper-diversity among its domestic applicants. A report from London Higher’s AccessHE division, reveals that, by 2030, students of non-white, or ‘Global Majority’, ethnic backgrounds will constitute almost three-quarters (74%) of those entering higher education in the capital; over half of students entering higher education from London (54%) will be the first in their family to go to university; and the percentage of learners from free-school-meals backgrounds from London entering higher education will reach 73%.ix This means that London’s higher education offer will need to evolve to meet the needs of this hyper-diverse, local student body, including providing wraparound support for study skills, financial management and student wellbeing, among others, to increase retention, progression and success.

On the other hand, while London’s domestic students are becoming ever more diverse, the capital’s international student population risks going the other way. This is a result of access to a London-based higher education becoming increasingly restricted to international students either with the personal means to meet the higher international fee levels together with the capital’s elevated living costs, or the fortune to win competitive scholarships which cover current UKVI fees and maintenance requirements.x As of January 2023, London’s EU students, now subject to international fees, have declined to just over 35,000, a decrease of almost 25% from the previous year.xi While non-EU student numbers coming to the UK capital continue to grow and more than make up for this shortfall in London’s EU student population, the rising costs of living and global austerity measures risk further squeezing the cultural and social diversity of London’s international student population. This is a particular concern of Professor Adam Habib, Director of SOAS University of London, who continues to raise fears over high overseas student fees, especially for those from developing countries.xii 

Maintaining the capital’s success

Of course, the direction of travel for London’s future applicants is not set in stone and much depends on whether significant reforms are made to government policy over the coming years. For example, should student number controls become a reality, based on minimum eligibility requirements at pre-18, then the capital’s domestic students would be hit particularly hard. Analysis by London Higher shows this could lock out almost half (49.1%) of free-school-meal-eligible learners in outer London who do not achieve a grade 9-4 pass in English and Maths, plus 40.1% of Black pupils and 86.1% of pupils with special educational needs.xiii Should these requirements be based on A-Level attainment, this would disproportionately affect London’s Black African, Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani applicants who are most likely to hold at least one ‘E’ grade at this level, thereby reversing the tide on London’s widening participation successes.

Similarly, should any restrictions come into force to cut the number of international students coming to the UK, it would be London’s student community which would, once again, bear the brunt of the damage through its status as the UK’s leading global student city. It is therefore imperative that policymakers consider who and what we stand to lose before making any significant changes to the admissions ecosystem that is clearly working in the capital. In many ways, London’s Journey to a Million provides hope for all those wanting to see a fairer, more equal and more diverse student community. Yet, it also stands as a warning for all that we stand to lose should we renege on our commitments to tomorrow’s students, whether local to London or from across the globe. 

iLondon Higher, Members. Accessed February 21st, 2023

iiHESA (January 2023), Where do HE students come from?

iiiRachel Hewitt (October 2020), Demand for Higher Education to 2035.

ivOfqual (August 2022), Infographics for GCSE results, 2022.

vThe Sutton Trust (November 2021), Universities and Social Mobility: Summary Report.

viHEPI, London Economics, and UUKi (2021), The costs and benefits of international Higher Education students to the UK economy

viiQS (June 2022) Rankings revealed: Best Student Cities 2023.

viiiLondon Higher (March 2023), London students most satisfied with student experience out of all English regions.

ixGraeme Atherton and Tuba Mazhari (2018), Preparing for hyper-diversity: London’s student population in 2030.

xUK government, Student visa: Money you need. Accessed February 21st, 2023.

xiHESA (January 2023), Where do HE students come from?

xiiTom Williams (September 2022), Charge lower fees to students from developing world, says Habib.

xiiiLondon Higher (February 2022), London Higher responds to the government’s announcement on funding for post-18 education.

Dr Diana Beech

Chief Executive Officer, London Higher

As CEO of London Higher, Diana is responsible for overseeing the overall strategic direction of the organisation and being a voice for London’s universities and higher education colleges.  

Diana has previously worked in government as a policy adviser to three Ministers of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. Prior to this she was the first Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).