London Higher – a regional HE membership association survivor. A few thoughts on why..

It’s THAT time of year. London Higher is immersed in preparations for the AGM. In a small business it’s all hands to the pump. Nerves, confidence, tension and anticipation swim around together.  This year we are seeking approval to increase member contributions – an added edge.

London Higher is a higher education regional association (HERA). Once there were 9. Most were founded in the late 90s. A new regional thrust in England seemed likely then.  HEFCE itself helped to set up the HERAs.  In London progress was slow and prospects at best looked mixed. The other HERAs seemed more robust. I joined in May 2002 for a 2 year stint. I wasn’t convinced about a longer term!  13 years on and I’m still here. London Higher is still here.  Yet most of the other HERAs (and many other smaller HE sector collaborative organisations) have disappeared.

What distinguishes London Higher from other HE membership organisation? In many respects nothing. If London Higher didn’t differentiate itself members wouldn’t pay to join at all. Determining member priorities, defining the right offer, not duplicating the work of others, and establishing how to deliver value for money, are preoccupations.

How come London Higher has weathered many storms, and the worst of the recession, and retained its membership?  I am not placed to comment on other organisations. But our 40+ HEI cluster, with no one dominant HEI in the pack, is a likely factor.  London Higher can operate even if a member or two choose to dip out for a spell, or mergers come about. It would be harder in a smaller group.

To me, London Higher engaged with its HEIs, and with other regional stakeholders, in a way that always seemed different. This perhaps borne of necessity due to the size and diversity of our membership.  And of course the scale, shape and dynamics of the capital impact on the nature of both the challenges and opportunities of being located in London.  The environment is a unique one.

I used to meet with colleagues from other HERAs. I often felt that what I had to say, and what London Higher was interested in, seemed dissimilar.  We never had anything in the way of big national or EU regional projects to administer either. Even when grants were common, member contributions were always our main income source.  Sometimes I bemoaned all this.

Maybe the lack of major external income streams, and the constant striving to embrace our diverse member HEIs, in planning and delivery, flexing as necessary, were essential planks for longevity.  Over the years the organisation has developed. Our advisory groups and networks (not standing committees) have become well embedded. As an executive, our expertise and understanding has grown, and we also – I believe – have proved our worth. We now appear trusted as being non-partisan, reliable and capable by our member HEIs. Another key to our success is, of course, the excellent team around me. A representative, and engaged, Board likewise.

The AGM gives an opportunity for our members to challenge the elected Board and the Executive, to query or contest our achievements this past year and our plans for next, or both.  There are tough times ahead too. We must go on working hard to stay on the front foot and be ready to make tough calls.  But would I bet on whether the organisation will still be around in another 13 years? Yes. If London Higher did not already exist then something similar would need to be invented – a telling indicator of whether there is a case for any organisation.  Roll on the AGM.