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Centre for London conference 2022


The London Conference is a cornerstone of the London public policy and political calendar, bringing together the brightest minds from government, the private sector, and the third sector each year to discuss the most pressing issues facing the city.For all of London’s great successes, the city does not work for the benefit of all Londoners. From daily struggles made worse by the cost-of-living crisis, to high rates of pollution and poor health outcomes for London’s most vulnerable, many people are unable to access the full opportunities a world class city like London affords. For London to work for everyone, change is needed. The London Conference will involve keynote speeches, topical panel discussions and debates, with ample time for networking for both our in-person and online audience.

Centre for London Conference speaker Vice-Chancellor Professor Wendy Thomson CBE

Wendy Thompson's speech to Centre for London conference 2022

“Well welcome everyone and good morning. We’re really delighted to welcome you all to Senate House – it is a great honour to host the Centre for London conference this year.

The University of London has London right there in full view of everything else that we are and do, so it’s ever so appropriate for us to be involved in life in London and the Centre for London is key.

We’re in Beveridge Hall, it was William Beveridge who was the driving force behind the idea of Senate House, when he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, back in the early 1930s. My discipline was in social policy, and I’m from Canada, so we think these great names of the British welfare state are iconic, so to be in a hall that’s named after him and in a building that he managed to go to New York and get Rockefeller to largely pay for which was also probably a good idea, seems to me a daily privilege.

The building was designed by Charles Holden to pioneer architecture of ‘function and pure form’. But the Second World War marked the end of those great plans for what was to have been the home for all London’s universities. You do reflect on those heady days that gave birth to the Welfare State, and proclaimed in the Beveridge Report after the War.

Some of you who are architectural aficionados of whom I imagine there are quite a number in this room will know Holden was the pioneer architect of function and pure form – and this was actually supposed to house and be the home of all London universities, as it turned out, war intervened, so just this much of it got built, but there is a model upstairs where you can see the ambition was to take over most of London, right from here to Trafalgar Square, virtually, and to house all of London’s universities.

It didn’t quite get finished. Instead it became the Ministry of Information which was home to the anti-misinformation bureau to combat some of the disinformation in the War period – I think some people feel we still play that role, with some of the Institutes we have here, trying to combat the fake news that has become so rampant in today’s media.

Perhaps also the London we find ourselves in today is as turbulent as it was 80 years ago. Again we’ve seen war in Europe, which I think we’d hoped never to see in our lifetimes, the cost of living crisis, a government that’s in constant turmoil, and climate change becoming not just an idea but an ever more visible impact on daily life here in the capital and of course around the world.

But there are always reasons to be grateful, and if you’re in our field of social policy you always have to have optimism. So we can be grateful we don’t care Covid restrictions today, so we can meet together face to face, which is a great pleasure for the networking we can do.

We have with us here today many of the great people that make London work. I think it’s a mixed story living in London but by and large I think it does work. While everyone here today will have different motives and reasons for coming together, I think we have a shared commitment to London, and to make life better for the millions of hardworking Londoners who call it their home, as indeed I do. Despite this accent which I have never managed to shake I have a long-established connection to London. I was chief executive of the London Borough of Newham, Deputy Chief of Islington, and I do mean long – my first job in London was at the Greater London Council – some of you won’t even remember that - so I do consider myself a Londoner and think it’s a great place to live and work.

I’m honoured to chair the London Anchor Institution Network, which brings together organisations from across the capital to deliver opportunities for those most impacted initially by the Covid crisis, but I think we have an ongoing role as anchor institutions. This idea of the anchor is those institutions like the Met, the NHS, Transport for London, who have a significant impact on this city through the money they spend, the people they serve, and the staff they employ.

The University of London is a key part of that network and delighted to be there. We’re the largest UK provider of international distanced education, we hold here a national centre for the humanities supported by world-class libraries and Institutes, and of course a proud citizen of London, Europe and the world. We also see ourselves historically as having a real commitment to social mobility in London and internationally, and really see education making a major contribution for social mobility and life opportunities.

We are a federation of 17 world class institutions, Queen Mary, Kings College, UCL, SOAS, Goldsmiths, Birkbeck, London School of Hygiene, these are all part of the federation of the University of London and they all play a major role in levelling up London’s disadvantaged students, and the social and economic recovery of the city.

We have together over 190,000 students studying in London, and 50,000 staff, we deliver world class research which comes into its own solving some of the major challenges, COVID being one of the most recent ones, but continually facing really important global challenges and ones that are really felt here in London. Together we spend about £5 billion, so this is an example of what an anchor institution is and the potential impact it can make if it focuses its efforts on really strategically addressing the challenges that London faces.

There is a good story to tell about Higher Education in London, sometimes I think these Universities are seen for attracting a huge number of international students, which indeed they do, but actually they serve more London students than I think people recognise and the participation rate of higher education for Londoners the last time it was counted is about 63 per cent, which I think could be even higher, a few recent reports suggest it should be 75 per cent which I would support, but 63 is still a lot than a lot of the country manages so we’re very pleased about that.

A lot of our courses are quite vocationally orientated, many of our Universities are amongst the top ones delivering graduate outcomes, which is where graduates take on professional managerial jobs, over ninety per cent of the students in St Georges, UCL, LSE, Kings University, Imperial, if you look at the list, there’s a lot in London, which is sometimes not the impression you get if you listen to some of the more sensational media accounts of what university education is all about.

So we’re very pleased to be part of London, and the University of London has recently established the London Research and Policy Partnership, which is a way of brokering some of these rich research assets which exist across London’s universities to engage with some of the big policy challenges that London’s civic authorities and communities are facing.

I think if you’re not inside a University, sometimes they can appear quite impenetrable, which door do you knock on to find out answers to which questions, so I think this brokerage is one way that we’re attempting to make that brokering role better.

We’ve also recently launched the University of London Scholars programme, which will see more than £2m invested in supporting young people from London to attend London Universities.

So these are just some of the small but important ways we consider ourselves at the University of London to be civic citizens in this great city, so we are very pleased to host you here today. I’ve looked at the programme, as I’m sure you have, it’s going to be a really exciting opportunity with some great sessions planned. I hope you enjoy the day, and have a little look round the building if you get the chance.

Thank you very much.”