Yesterday, the BBC published research by the QS higher education group which ranks London as the best city in the world for university students. The ratings are based on "the number of top universities in a city, the local jobs market, the diversity of the culture and the quality of life."
The first thing that came to mind when I read the article was: which students are we talking about exactly? Students who can afford the extortionate cost of living? Students whose family lives in London anyway? Or students who have had to sacrifice a great deal in order to access higher education in this city?
To prospective students who wish to study in the capital, I pose the question: Are the benefits of being in London worth sacrificing your quality of life and mental wellbeing?
This week, I finished my degree at the University of the Arts London (UAL). While the last three years of my life have been some of the greatest, they have also been some of the most depressing.
I left home in 2015 with starry eyes, excited for all the freedom and opportunity that London has to offer. Coming from Reading, everyone warned me about how difficult the cost of living would be, but I had dreams and goals. At the time, I believed that London was the only place I could achieve them; I still do. It was 30 minutes from home, I’d been saving up lunch money to buy train tickets since I was 15 – it was where I needed to be.
The highs have been meeting like-minded people from all walks of life, who I am so blessed to call close friends, mentors and colleagues. I’ve had access to resources and networks which have helped me to develop my career. Being able to immerse myself in my love of music and the arts has been critically important to me, and being surrounded by other budding spirits and visionaries, and by cultural richness, is definitely motivating.
As for the lows? I’ll start by saying that studying in London teaches you survival skills. I lived in halls during my first year and student finance only covered half of my rent, so I had to work. I juggled full-time studying with working in retail, trying to make my dreams happen whenever I wasn’t in a lecture or on the shop floor. Despite how much I worked, I still found myself broke.
At times it was the kind of broke where you stayed out late waiting for the train barriers to be left open and went to Tesco just before it closed in order to buy the discounted food. Other times, it was choosing between going to that event you’re so excited about and eating lunch. Finding the balance between getting my degree, maintaining a social life, eating three meals a day and taking care of my wellbeing was often a not-so-fun game of 'one has to go'.
QS’ research concluded that London is seen as a good place to connect with employers and get a job. It "achieved a high rating for being a very international city, with high levels of tolerance and diversity, so that overseas students would not feel isolated or excluded. But when it comes to cost of living and affordability, London does badly, being seen as expensive and difficult for student budgets."
Yes, London is an 'international city' and it is very 'tolerant'. However, if we think about what 'tolerant' actually means, it’s not all that great for international students or students from marginalised communities. Tolerance is allowing someone to sit at the table, but not bothering to offer them a plate.
Many of the 'internationally ranked universities' from the QS group’s research currently have 'BME' students (a term I’m personally not a fan of) who are being done a disservice. For example, University College London is the highest ranked institution, yet there is "a discrepancy in the rate of good degrees achieved by black and minority ethnic (BME) students, compared with white students."
In many universities, you’ll find that the international diversity of the student body often isn’t reflected by the staff body. Which can make the experience of university more strenuous than it needs to be for some students.
'Tolerance' makes it seem like surface-level diversity solves all. Yet when you start to ask certain questions, you’ll find that London is currently not 'the best city in the world' for all university students. Maybe for a select, privileged few. But in my view, it could do a whole lot better.