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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 provoists soothing words wont 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 arent 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 Englands 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 UCLs 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.]