Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

One of the things people ask me the most on my travels, is “Is Wonkfest coming back?”

Wonkfest has been our flagship festival of higher education since 2017. We have held three in-person and one online, with one cancelled during the pandemic twice (more on that later).

In 2017, we were working flat out to establish Wonkhe’s presence in the sector, and I cooked up Wonkfest as the next big way of doing that.

The team thought I was mad. It pushed us right to the edge in our capabilities, and dates slipped for months while we narrowed it down to something we were really happy with – a true expression of the Wonkhe brand in person, a chance to build our audience and to put on a show that would be relentlessly useful and interesting to everyone that came, from whichever part of the sector you came from, whatever your role or level or seniority.

The programme from the first Wonkfest in 2017

Enormous, heroic efforts went in by all involved to get it together, particularly Catherine Boyd and Ant Bagshaw from the team, and countless volunteers, friends of the show, partners and sector big wigs that mucked in. It wasn’t easy, but it was all worth it. We launched, and though people were initially incredulous at the name*, we quickly sold out of tickets.

And it was a total blast, with some amazing highlights, including Jo Johnson, then universities minister, turning up for an unscheduled addition to the schedule where I interviewed him in that brilliant atrium in Ravensbourne.

Jo Johnson makes a surprise visit to Wonkfest

2018 and 2019 festivals also had their highs and lows, a venue change to the Business Design Centre and improvements to the overall experience being asked for in the feedback.

And everything was set for a 2020 edition, but the pandemic struck, and though we had bought and paid for the venue, it was clearly impossible to stage that year. It was a blow, made worse by the fact the venue was not prepared to be flexible; it seemed for a long time that we were going to have to write off the costs, a really painful decision for a small business like ours.

The ad first made to launch the 2020 then 2021 in person Wonkfests – both abandoned but you can get a flavour of the old event from this

The experience put me off wanting ever to organise another event on that scale, and that carried so much risk. Eventually, we were able to recoup some of the costs by using the space for something else in between Covid waves, but, bruised by the whole experience, I vowed we had organised our final in person Wonkfest.

But time passed and I realised that there was a way of completely reimagining the whole event, and discussions with the University of London over several months unlocked The Festival of Higher Education. A shared ambition to open up the higher education debate, an interesting and brilliant venue in Senate House, Wonkhe’s experience of organising higher education festivals…. and the partnership was born. It’s a new home for us, and I’m delighted that it’s taking place inside a university – something really important for the DNA of the event.

Now on the name, I know from direct feedback that people have sometimes struggled to get their line managers to approve the costs of attending “Wonkfest”. It needs too much explaining, and instead of contorting ourselves with branding and slogans to get around the issue, we decided it’s time to call a spade a spade. After all, it always was a festival of higher education, now it’s simply The Festival of Higher Education.

The naming decision also partly reflects Wonkhe’s own journey since that first festival in 2017. People know about Wonkhe now – for better or worse, we have established ourselves on the landscape. Wonkhe and its team have also matured (just a little…) so it feels like the right time for our flagship event to grow up too (but just a little…don’t worry). As an aside, I’ve been working on Wonkhe full-time (as opposed to the weekend hobby era) for ten years, and next year is the tenth anniversary of our relaunch and proper start. I’ll be reflecting on that journey a little more in due course.

In the meantime, what can you expect from The Festival of Higher Education? Well, it’s going to be epic. Big name speakers, debates, in-conversations, workshops and masterclasses, fringe activity and of course tons of socialising, networking, fun and mischief. We’ll look ahead to the next year, a general election and beyond with new research, insights and data. Like the Wonkfests that came before it, it will be unmissable and the most exciting event on the higher education calendar. A full programme will launch after the summer.

I can’t wait to welcome you all to Senate House in November.

*A final note about that name. It was always a slightly uncomfortable truth that there is another Wonkfest – a punk music festival in London. They were less than pleased we (unintentionally) used the same name for our festival, and although the events couldn’t be more different, it turns out there’s a reasonable overlap of guests that go to both events. We’ve tried hard to build bridges with the punk community to minimise tension over the years. But I am glad to put this chapter behind us and genuinely wish Wonk Unit and Wonkfest all the best for a clearly brilliant and popular annual event. I might even go along next time.