CUNY (City University of New York) is one of those universities you wonder how it exists. It's in the middle of New York with 60,000 students, no great campuses, no dorms, and as the Economist reported, not much in the way of academic credibility, until recently.
A mixture of overly-optimistic admissions programs and failing city finances helped depress CUNY. But back in the first half of the 20th century CUNY produced 9 Nobel laureates. It graduated some of the best social thinkers and at least one Supreme Court justice. It's heyday was during the period when Jews were excluded from mainstream schools. It was free but it had tough entry standards. Without CUNY many would have had no higher education and America would have been worse off.
To reclaim some of that former glory CUNY has started a program of scholarships for those clever enough accepted to its honours program. Success brings a stipend of $7,500, a laptop, and no tuition. Applications are high and rising. And there is still considerable diversity among the student body. To be able to do this in a city acutely aware of its ethnic melange is a fantastic achievement.
Cross the pond to the UK and the situation is very different and worse. Leaving aside the current debates about how schoolchildren should be selected for schools (and ability is not to be part of the calculus), universities have a lot to learn from places like CUNY. Take my university, the University of Westminster. Its student body is very diverse, from all socio-economic classes, and generally urban-based. We only have around 14,000 students, far less than CUNY's 60,000. But do we get the best-qualified student applicants? No. How many Nobel laureates have we produced? None.
An institution like Westminster could learn from CUNY. It claims to be student-centred but I doubt that. Because of its delight in wrapping itself up in bureaucratic procedures that are supposed to assure the student experience is all right, it forgets that students are there to learn, to grow intellectually. Transferable skills (whatever they may be) have become a poor substitute for teaching students how to think. Unfortunately this way of thinking appears to be endemic among British universities.
What is worse is that Westminster undervalues itself. It has no sense of pride or feeling of achievement in its faculty, which is a shame because those feelings are transmitted to students. It also means that Westminster keeps its entry criteria low compared to other universities. The result is that it becomes the insurance choice for students who fail to get in elsewhere. It also means that the students aren't as highly motivated as those who enter their first choice institutions.
What then if Westminster instituted its own scholarship program for really good students? In the present day where students are going to incur considerable debt by the time they graduate (along with the prospect of working during their university years), an offer which could erase that future burden could be tremendously attractive. Invest in the best students and as a result raise the faculty profile, and finally create a major reputation for excellence. Westminster already has some starting points. In the last Research Assessment Exercise in 2001 Westminster had four departments that were rated 5 (very high). They were law, media studies, Asian studies, and linguistics. These subjects could easily be the points of departure for such a scholarship program.
There is no reason why with a bit of imagination and creative leadership Westminster couldn't become the CUNY of London.