Q&A with Joanna Newman

We speak to the new vice-principal (international) of King’s College London

January 9, 2014

In March, Joanna Newman – currently director of the UK Higher Education International Unit and recently appointed an MBE – will take up a new role as vice-principal (international) of King’s College London. Dr Newman has headed the International Unit since March 2011 and before that was head of higher education at the British Library.

Where and when were you born?
In London on my birthday.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in a London shaped by multiculturalism, politics, music, Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Council. I have always felt proud to be part of such a vibrant, alive and changing city, and to have been born and raised here.

How do you feel about working at a university again?
I can’t wait. I’ve loved working at the International Unit, which has such great influence and profile and has played an important role in opening doors for UK higher education internationally. But there’s something special about the buzz of working at a university, surrounded by the extraordinary and diverse talent that higher education attracts.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Whether or not Archimedes had his great insight in the bathtub, it is unquestionable that the bath is an excellent place for contemplation, but my ideas generally come to me at much more inconvenient times, like when I’m in the middle of talking to someone about something completely different.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Believe in yourself because if you’re going to convince other people to believe in you, you need to set a good example.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My grandmother was an incredible woman who trained as an artist in Berlin in the 1920s and worked in the fashion industry. I like to think I have inherited some of her independence, inner steel, imagination and entrepreneurial spirit, but in all honesty I suspect I inherited only her stubborn streak and love of colour and fashion.

In the past decade, what has changed most in international higher education?
Where do I start? There’s been so much change but the most important change – and one I like to think that the IU has been influential in – is that internationalisation of higher education is about partnerships and reciprocity, not simply about student recruitment.

What keeps you awake at night?
Very little. The occasional urban fox fight outside my window.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I can’t remember, but my mother reminds me that aged 10 I was a passionate actress, starring as Dorothy in a production of The Wizard of Oz.

Tell us about a book, show, film or play that you love.
I love reading, so choosing one book is almost impossible, but I do have a big soft spot for A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and a favourite passage of all time is Claude Lévi-Strauss’ description of a sunset in Tristes Tropiques.

What do you do for fun?
I like long walks on Hampstead Heath or in the country, Atlantic beaches and swimming in cold seas. I love eating Italian food and drinking Prosecco and, on cold rainy Sundays, I like watching Inspector Montalbano on my iPad.

Which country is most likely to challenge established nations as a global player in higher education?
Given the scale of its ambition, its potential, its creativity and wealth of natural resources, I would say India, but not for a few years yet, given the huge internal hurdles it must overcome to get there.

What’s your biggest regret?
I try not to look back, I never have regrets…OK, not learning Latin.

Who from history would you most like to meet?
I have a list of unsung diplomats who ignored red tape at crucial times in history, such as Raoul Wallenberg. But if I had to choose one historical figure, it would be Elizabeth I and I would talk to her about diplomacy, love and empire.

If you could instantly become fluent at three new languages, which would they be?
I speak some German and French, but I’d love to speak Mandarin, and Spanish and Portuguese would allow me access to Latin America, where there are great opportunities for UK universities. If I could add to the list, it would be Indian languages but that might need to wait for another lifetime.

What is the biggest hindrance to exporting UK higher education?
There’s a perception internationally that the UK visa system works against prospective international students. A lot more work needs to be done to convince the world that the UK is open for business and welcomes international talent. There is an excellent opportunity to do that now, after a period of considerable change.

To what, or whom, do you feel most allegiance?
That’s a big question. To my country, to London, to my family, to the freedom of ideas and to the idea that higher education should be available to all those who aspire to it.


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