Q&A with Baroness Rebuck

We speak to the publisher and incoming pro-provost and chair of the Royal College of Art’s council

January 29, 2015

Baroness Rebuck is chair of publisher Penguin Random House UK. An alumna of the University of Sussex, she became founder director of publishing company Century, which later merged with Hutchinson and was then acquired by Random House, where she served as chair and chief executive from 1991 to 2013. A member of the Royal College of Art’s council since 1999, she becomes its chair and pro-provost at the beginning of March.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in London, in February 1952, at Paddington Hospital.

How has this shaped you?
Mine was an urban upbringing and we rarely went out into the countryside. I grew up in an era when most women’s entry to the workforce was through a secretarial course rather than a trajectory into the executive suite. That shifted during my career, but there is still a long way to go.

How does leading a higher education institution compare with running a publishing house?
A diverse publishing house and a world-leading arts and design institution are both creative organisations trying to balance cutting-edge research, creativity and efficiency. Although one is a private sector organisation and the other an educational institution, they are both guided by an aspiration for excellence in the field in which they operate; both are driven by new ideas and both have to balance the needs of world-class professionals and the students they teach or the authors they edit and publish.

As a champion for the creative arts, do you think that policymakers neglect the arts and humanities and concentrate too much on promoting STEM graduates? And is that filtering down to prospective university students?
I am obviously with the movement to add the “A” into STEM to create STEAM. The UK leads the world in the creative industries and this will continue only if we ensure that the curricula in our schools are as broad and as stimulating as possible and, more practically, if we continue to invest in our world-class higher education institutions, such as the RCA. Design is at the heart of all innovation.

What are the potential societal consequences of a dearth of arts graduates?
We need a balance of graduates in all disciplines in order to continue to compete on the world stage, but the arts uniquely define our evolving culture, our sense of ourselves and our well-being.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Every time I read a brilliant new outline, a world-changing idea or an extraordinary new novel.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Follow your instincts and never look back.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Charles Handy was my business guru when I became CEO of Random House in 1991. I have also admired the great publishers I have been privileged to work with.

Over the course of your career, what book have you taken the most pride in publishing?
There are far too many. The joy of being a publisher is that each year is a new adventure, when you can be surprised by the brilliance of an established author’s new work, or feel that the world has been permanently changed by a new intellectual insight.

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
In my industry, the majority of new recruits are graduates. We are lucky to be able to employ many of the best and the brightest.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Constantly curious; generally rebellious, in keeping with the times (1970-74); but also quite assiduous in my studies.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Being taught by Quentin Bell in my first semester. Deciding to change my degree to the newly invented intellectual history course, sitting in lectures on the modern European mind by István Mészáros.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
Sort out the mechanism for allowing bona fide, talented international students to come and study at our great postgraduate institutions without the complexity and red tape of current visa applications. I also agree with [RCA provost] Sir James Dyson’s recent comments that Theresa May’s immigration plans would damage the UK both intellectually and commercially.

What do you do for fun?
Read and visit art exhibitions.

What is your biggest regret?
Giving up art after O level.

What keeps you awake at night?
Having too much to do and unnecessarily worrying about the whereabouts of my fully grown-up daughters.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 a year fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
I would go again, 100 per cent. University changed my life.


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