London Higher: The Early Years

On September 30 I will be stepping down as CEO from London Higher after 18+ years with the organisation.  To mark this I am writing three blog specials.  In this first one I reflect on the early years.

London Higher (then the London Higher Education Consortium) was one of nine higher education (HE) regional associations that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) helped set up or in one case enhance. Back then the Blair Government was pushing a regional agenda, and the regional development agencies were in the offing.  In London with it’s complex HE ecosystem, and easily the largest and most diverse regional cluster of HE institutions, it took time to come to fruition.

When I arrived, initially on secondment, in May 2002, the organisation was still in an embryonic state, having been without an executive lead for some while. Arguably it was lagging behind the eight others. My initial task to do some troubleshooting and relationship building in an effort to enable the organisation to come together and begin to become more visible, and then to create a programme that would be the foundation for growth and development. There was me and one part-time colleague. In a previous career life I had worked as a Hefce regional consultant for London and so at least I understood what a great asset to the UK as well as to the region the cluster was.

That first rebooting phase, and the scoping for what became the first big new project determined by the group not driven by funders, took a year.  The Steering Committee of the day, led by Professor David Rhind, Vice Chancellor of City University, got behind the effort and with their active support things momentum picked up.  By June 2003 the initial formal business plan had been agreed, a threat of funding clawback of one of the two original grants dispelled, and the organisation moved to its first long-term home – within Senate House at the University of London. At that point I made what was rather a leap of faith to join the organisation full-time, supported by two colleagues.

The first of ‘my’ projects was the Study London campaign.  Attracting immediate support from what was the new London Development Agency, it was also of interest to the Mayor of London – then Ken Livingston.  Study London promoted London as a fantastic place to be a student in, and encouraging those thinking about an international experience to come to our capital and choose one of London’s HE institutions. From launch the project grew steadily over the years.  No-one can say how many students have chosen London as opposed to another international destination through the Study London initiative – but given the overall numbers probably thousands.  The campaign was always about attracting international students to a wonderful world city of knowledge and learning with its vibrant culture. Critically, it complemented and didn’t compete with the marketing efforts of individual universities.

I remember this approach being described as the ‘hopper principle’. London Higher through Study London was increasing the flow of student interest into top of the hopper – and so as that filtered through there were in turn more students for the individual institutions to engage with using their standard competitive recruitment practices.  That image has been one that has often come back to me for different projects and activities over the years. Part of the reason London itself has thrived has been because both collaboration and competition are part of the accepted parcel.

The Study London campaign is still active today – albeit not run out of London Higher.  Following the demise of the Development Agencies, in 2010 the Greater London Authority pitched for it to be transferred into what was to be the new Inward Investment Agency for London – London & Partners and funded directly accordingly.  Not without some regret on my part the move took place.  London Higher today remains a partner for Study London. In fact against the backdrop of the covid-19 pandemic and the disruption to global travel and to international recruitment, the new campaign we are working on together will arguably be more important than ever to London’s HE institutions.

A lot more could be said of the early years.  Far too much for one blog – or to be of general interest! It was an exciting period in my career  – and it was a privilege to have been part of things.  If I pick out just one other milestone it would be the step change in 2005 when London was awarded the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. London Higher (as it had become in 2004) helped in the formation of the bid. With no great confidence outside of the capital and a few sporting bodies that a bid could be successful, the effort we put into this was perceived by many as a gamble if not a waste of time. Whilst national HE and FE sector bodies chose not to get involved, at London Higher we formed an Olympic Bid group, and ran a process to secure commitments to provide an amount of university accommodation during Games time. We also helped draft a few aspects of the bid relating to education. There was never a risk of it being said that one reason a London Games bid failed was due to lack of support from the HE sector.

On 6 July 2005 it was announced that the London bid had been successful. I had gone to see Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, University of London. From his office we heard cheers erupting and there was obvious delight from everyone inside and outside of Birkbeck.  I always believed that London would go on to deliver a fantastic Games and that we at London Higher could have a major part to play – and so it was a pivotal and joyous moment. However, reader, I also recall how from that ‘high’ the next day things plummeted to the depths with the awful tragedy of the London underground terrorist bombings. Afterwards the resilience of London and its communities and businesses was put to the test, even more so given the financial crash hit hard in 2007-8 too. The latter just as London Higher began to ramp up preparations for 2012. Fast-forward to today and in London (and the UK) we are in the midst of a very different crisis to either of those. The power of collaboration proved very important back then – and together with that resilience, I believe it can come to the fore again.

In the second of these blog specials, l look back on the period from 2009-14 – including the engagement of London Higher with the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  A golden time.