Can London dethrone Oxbridge?

By Jack Peat, Editor of The London Economic 

Every year since 1856, as the first leaf buds appear on trees and daffodils can be seen in terraced gardens and along the banks of public parks, Oxford and Cambridge eights race along the River Thames as part of the most watched university competition in the country between the two oldest and, for now, most respected institutions in the country. But could they about to be displaced by university colleges that reside within touching distance of the very banks upon which they compete in their famous race?

Last year wind of change could be felt among Britain’s most respected university institutions as the QS World University Rankings placed both University College London and Imperial College above the University of Oxford. The Times Higher Education rankings reached some similar results and although the top universities weren’t dethroned, it was evident that whereas previously Oxford and Cambridge could rely on their reputations to attract the most talented students, now they must compete for them.

The 2014 QS World University Rankings gives some indication as to why that may be. Imperial College London has been ranked joint second place with the University of Cambridge, two spots above the University of Oxford which is tied in fifth place with University College London. Imperial has been recognised as a world-leading institution for research with top academics – Professor David Nut, Lord Robert Winston, Molly Stevens, Professor Wendy Atkin and more – producing groundbreaking research. The secret to its success; entrepreneurship.

Imperial has gone to great lengths to help great minds make money from their research. In 2005 Imperial Innovations signed a deal with the university to turn Imperial College’s research into companies and licenses that bring in cash, which differentiates from most other universities where academics license their findings and receive a cut. The company, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, has enjoyed remarkable financial success which has been channelled back into research, thus boosting the university’s ranking as one of the UK’s top establishments.

Ross Cummings, Chief Executive of Imperial Innovations, noted that “starting from the bottom” is a unique approach. “We manage the intellectual property, do the patenting work and help academics either secure a license or start a business. Then we provide the capital, recruit a team and bring co-investors on board.”

Although Oxbridge is getting in on the act, Imperial now has a reputation for fostering entrepreneurship. With other London colleges looking towards less conventional funding methods, perhaps the country’s leading business hub may find being the country’s leading educational hub to be a rather attractive bedfellow.

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