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Olympic legacy for higher education: Who will take the podium?

With the London 2012 Olympic Games just beginning, concerns about their legacy will fade into the background for around 17 days, as people focus on the games-time competitions. But soon after, they will return with a vengeance, as Britons wonder whether it was all worth the effort and whether there will be any long-term value to having hosted them.

While most of these conversations focus on plans for venues or even the capacity to generate new income for Britain through the greater exposure afforded by the Olympics, it may also be useful to consider whether there is a legacy for the higher education sector.

Back during the bid stage, educators spoke with admiration of the ideas of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games and educator by profession.

His vision for the games was shaped by the British education system and his aspiration for Olympians was that they should cultivate both their intellects and their physical capacities. It is fitting then that the only place in the world to have held the Olympic Games three times is London.

What would De Coubertin have made of London’s attempt to engage higher education professionals and communities?

Ahead of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Russia has created the Russian International Olympic University.

Britain didn’t go quite this far, but there have been significant investments from many universities and colleges to create new programmes of activity – the kind of thing that the impending research assessment in 2014 will love to articulate as research impact.

Also, a number of universities have been able to disrupt the university sports hierarchy, particularly the University of East London, which has emerged as a real winner from the London 2012 programme. Of course, it helps having a campus right in the heart of the redevelopments.

PODIUM, the ‘FE and HE Unit for London 2012’

However, perhaps the most interesting story in legacy terms is told through the work of PODIUM, which describes itself as the "FE and HE Unit for London 2012". A quick examination of its website reveals that it has been the lynchpin in higher education strategy around London 2012.

Set up with funds from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Skills Funding Agency, PODIUM has had an inside track with LOCOG – London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games – and has managed to ensure that more than 90% of all universities have contributed in some way to the 2012 programme.

It has coordinated projects, award programmes, large-scale events and even games-time activity, with a relatively small team.

During the Olympic Games, PODIUM has launched a ‘Games Experts’ database, which will aim to steer the 20,000 journalists during the games to academic experts in Olympic research.

It has also launched its own reporter service, which will promote higher education stories about athletes who went to universities – a recent claim was that over 50% of Team Great Britain went to college or university.

Higher education and the Olympic legacy

PODIUM is perhaps the primary route through which to secure a coordinated legacy for the UK higher education sector. Indeed, it may be the only route, but it will need support from universities to optimise these opportunities, and this is of pressing concern as many of the 2012-related organisations will quickly cease to exist after the games have finished.

Moreover, as UK universities step over one another to secure exclusive international partnerships, it will be difficult to ensure that all universities and colleges benefit from this opportunity.

Yet, many individual institutions will have cultivated a particular niche expertise that can be appealing for future games sites to learn from. Whether it is in hospitality, tourism, landscape gardening or sports management, universities and colleges should quickly learn to think of their newly found insights as consultancy opportunities for future games hosts.

While consultancy in itself may not be enough to ensure that UK institutions generate ground-breaking research, it can be a first step to fostering a long-term relationship with an international partner, from which much more can come.

While one may typically imagine that the hard work for Olympic host nations takes place in the seven years leading up to the Games, all the evidence suggests that it is the work after the games that will determine the range of benefits that can arise.

The UK higher education sector thus needs to be thinking about how best to fund work that can maximise these possibilities and secure its place as a reference point for all future Games.

* Professor Andy Miah directs the Creative Futures Institute at the University of the West of Scotland. He is author, with Dr Beatriz Garcia, of The Olympics: The basics, published by Routledge 2012.
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