Podium, Access HE and that golden time around 2012

In the previous blog, I looked back on the initial years of my London Higher journey. In this one I take the luxury of looking back over the period before, during and after the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  On balance, whilst all parts of my 18+ year London Higher journey have given me something, maybe because sport has always been a major feature in my life perhaps those were the years I relished the most.

It wasn’t just the involvement of London Higher with the Games that lodges high in my memory though.  This was also the time when Access HE became a part of London Higher as well – and that is now the largest single division within the organisation.

As I reflected in the earlier blog, in committing to the bid process London Higher had in many respects been an outlier as a HE sector organisation (although I hasten to add that some UK universities, including Loughborough which now has a campus on what was the Olympic Games site, were engaged).  After the bid had been won, London Higher was the sector organisation in prime position to develop, launch and implement a project to bring as many institutions as possible – inside or outside London – to engage with the Games.  What resulted from our early scoping and discussions, including with what new London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), the office of the Mayor of London and others, HE and FE funding bodies, as well as HEIs was Podium.

Podium was, to give it the official description, the Communications and Co-ordination Unit for the 2012 Games. It became the single biggest project London Higher has delivered (to now at least). Launched in 2007, Podium ran until 2013 with most of the financial support coming from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the-then Skills Funding Agency.  Podium was unusual in that is was a London-led but nationally facing initiative that also embraced both FE and HE sectors.

I could write a volume on Podium but a note will have to suffice. In a nutshell, over 520 FE and HE education institutions across the UK delivered activities related to the London 2012 Games (94% of the UK HE sector at the time and 91% of FE sector).  Nearly 9 in 10 FE and HE institutions achieved their own top-ranked ambition for Games related activities, regardless of what that ambition was – and not all were related to sport! Over two-thirds of institutions were involved in multiple projects across a range of areas – with most activity focusing on volunteering, sport, education and also partnership building. Specific contributions were delivered to the Torch Relay and formal Ceremonies, ticket share and key seats programmes, Games times jobs and volunteering for students and for staff, and in providing the Games Expert database that was used extensively by the world’s media in 2012.

At the end of the day 94% of stakeholders considered Podium, which had a key role to communicate Games-related opportunities, to have successfully delivered this function.  As for me, one thing I remember was how everyone in the London Higher office looked daily at the ‘alternative’ medal table that Podium ran during Games time and which showed which institution medallists had attended.  I also remember vividly the sheer buzz and energy that was around at the time.  A few colleagues contributed to the Podium team over time and all played a role. But perhaps the three main stalwarts were Gareth Smith, Matt Haley and Tom Marsh – all of whom have gone on to do many good things since, too.

As the build-up to London 2012 entered its most frenetic time, a very different division was established within London Higher.  Access HE was created out of what had been London’s Aim Higher partnerships.  That national initiative – which had done much to boost the efforts to widen participation in England – ended over 2010-11 and funding for it stopped.  Across the country most of the Aim Higher partnerships simply closed down.  Not in London however where the entrepreneurship and determination of Dr Graeme Atherton saw three of London’s aim higher partnerships come together under a new, member led model. In 2009-10 London Higher had been funded with an element of London Challenge funding to explore schools and higher education links in London (our SHELL project). Through that work I first met Graeme – and I did not take much persuading to realise that London Higher could be a great ‘home’ for Access HE – and so it has proved.

Access HE is aiming for social mobility through higher education in London. Through collaboration with members and through many stakeholder links, Access HE creates opportunities to both learn more about and to support under-represented groups in accessing higher education. Since the early days, it has developed strongly and now runs a number of groups and forums, delivers many projects and events, and undertakes research and advocacy. One thing has not changed – Graeme Atherton has continued as Head of Access HE. Not just that but in the meantime he also founded NEON, the National Education Opportunities Network which supports those involved in widening access into HE.  NEON is another specialist division of London Higher

In writing this I am conscious I have not done justice to either Podium or Access HE. However I have been delighted to have been part of both.  Gareth Smith, Head of Podium, used to refer to me as ‘the Mother of Podium’.  On the quiet, I rather liked that! However as ever my role was principally I think to do what I could to support the creativity, hard work and enthusiasm of Gareth for Podium and Graeme for Access HE.  Hopefully I managed that.  One thing is for sure, for me those years between about 2010-13 had a particular golden glow about them.