Universities’ role in building back London

UCL Public Policy
Dec 14, 2020 · 5 min read

By Amy Lightstone, Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan, Siobhan Morris, Em O’Sullivan and Dr Olivia Stevenson

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and transformed London life more than any event in living memory. It has shown fragilities, called into question working arrangements for offices and leisure, and exacerbated inequalities. We’re now getting evidence showing just how different the experiences of lockdown have been for relatively prosperous white-collar workers able to work online from spacious homes with gardens and that of poorer families short of cash, confined in small flats and houses.

The crisis is far from over and i­­s now going through a second phase of intensification. But even as new constraints are imposed, thinking is also shifting now to the next phases: how to reopen the economy and how to ensure that whatever happens next is not just a return to the status quo, but also addresses some of the structural problems revealed by the crisis. It is imperative that any sort of recovery is fair, inclusive and targets the groups that need it most.

One of the many questions raised by this is the role of universities: how should London, and other cities, be making the most of the extraordinary knowledge they have at their disposal, and how best to orchestrate collaboration between government, academia, business, and community organisations to build back better in London. These questions link to a longer-standing argument about how much universities should look outwards — to global students and research collaborations — and how much they should be embedded in the civic life of their local economy and society.

Here, we point to four elements that need to be part of this next phase, all of which can help to mobilise the capabilities of universities to serve the city better.

1. Data
The first concerns data. Data has been very prominent throughout the crisis: data on infections, transmission and economic activities projected into people’s lives on a daily basis. London boasts characteristics like many other capital cities, and these particularities are what merits linkage on data-specific issues. In London, factors such as reliance on commuting, geographical trends, concentration of jobs and social inequalities (amongst others) all risk an unequal recovery if not tackled head-on.

The pandemic has highlighted opportunities in which we can look ahead at ways to better underpin and support decision making whilst being alert to the structural inequalities that exist in London. Creating living data dashboards is just one way cities like London can support decision making over the next few years.

Such dashboards need to cover:

· Transport — e.g. commuting patterns and the demographics of people using public transport;

· Jobs — e.g. which ones are growing and shrinking, and what skills are in growing or declining demand;

· Housing — e.g. the impact on tenants, evictions and those who are rough sleeping or homeless;

· Geography e.g. — job concentration and economic impact.

Part of the value of these data dashboards is to highlight difference — which sub-sectors or places are being hardest hit — and generate locally appropriate actions. In the past, London has pioneered data of all kinds, from the nineteenth century to the London Data Store. Now is the time for another jump forward. To do so requires close engagement between universities and key partners, for example by supporting the London Transition Board and London Recovery Board. New collaborations such as this will require coordination — some standardisation and an ethos of maximum openness — to have maximum reach and be beneficial for all.

2. Evaluation
However, data only take you so far; London also needs better evaluation of what is and isn’t working. Being big doesn’t necessarily allow for alignment; 33 London Boroughs all doing things differently can be a virtue, but only if there is systematic shared learning and insight.

New arrangements could link up universities with policy stakeholders, such as the Greater London Authority (GLA) and the London Boroughs, to orchestrate rapid learning and to apply consistency into already existing arrangements: how to handle lockdowns, how to reskill young people and how to manage schools during the constantly shifting patterns of COVID-19.

In the context of COVID-19, a greater focus on evaluation also prompts the question — are equality impact assessments still fit for purpose? For example, BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) categorisation is useful for statistical data, but not for nuanced policymaking; disadvantages faced by different ethnicities can be hidden under broad categorisations. Better data analysis on race are required in order to understand issues within London communities and tailor policy accordingly.

3. Experiment
Around the world, the sheer pressures of the crisis are forcing governments and cities to shift away from carefully piloting and evaluating new policies to having to do the opposite and experiment at large scale in real time. That requires much stronger shared capabilities to assess and evaluate, and ideally platforms to run multiple experiments in tandem: London has all the building blocks for doing this well but hasn’t yet pulled them together.

4. Universities as problem solvers
There are over 40 universities in London. They have many roles and responsibilities, but one must be to help the city think its way through the crisis, looking ahead to a London with net zero carbon emissions or radically reorganised social welfare system, but also making sense of the complex trends of the present and the policy options faced by government.

Other cities are experimenting with new relationships to universities — for example, with much more explicit ‘challenge-based’ models where universities work on the big challenges facing the city and integrate these right down into undergraduate degrees. They can also play roles in reconciling the need to link multiple forms of data with the need for privacy, acting as hosts for data trusts of all kinds.

And of course, universities need to be working hard to ensure that their students are equipped for the likely jobs of the near future, particularly those students who may lack the connections and cultural capital that still, sadly, play a big role in shaping opportunities in the UK labour market.

London is extraordinarily rich in capabilities and opportunities. But it can do better in harnessing these to tackle its pressing problems, working more collaboratively to turn promising ideas into impact on the ground.

Despite the economic challenges that have arisen during the pandemic, there is enthusiasm and opportunities to work together to ensure a more equitable, inclusive recovery. The idea that the capacities of universities should be closely tied into the collective intelligence of the city should be obvious. This crisis may turn out to be the trigger that can make that more of a reality.

Policy Postings: UCL Public Policy Blog

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