Q&A with Vivienne Stern

We speak to the director of the UK Higher Education International Unit

June 19, 2014

Source: Alys Tomlinson

In April, Vivienne Stern became director of the UK Higher Education International Unit. She was previously head of political affairs at Universities UK, and has worked for the chair of the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee and as a policy adviser for UUK. She is a graduate in English literature from the University of Cambridge.

Where and when were you born?
London – about 10 minutes’ walk away from my current office [in Tavistock Square].

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in Leicester, which saved me from a totally London-centric view of the world.

What do you think is the most attractive aspect of the UK’s higher education sector among prospective international students?
It is quality. The UK has huge natural advantages – language, history and culture – but the quality of our higher education system is frequently cited first in the conversations I have.

Has the UK suffered a dip in reputation or is it still strong in the international market?
We have a fantastically strong international reputation, but there are many other countries putting considerable energy into challenging our position as one of the most popular partners and destinations for international students. The UK government understands how important higher education links can be, politically, diplomatically and economically. But it is not always as helpful as it could be, or as some competitor governments are. The recent decreases in the number of new international enrolments in the UK should be a real warning sign.

Are any of the decisions made by policymakers risking the UK’s reputation? If so, why?
Ministers are keen to stress that the UK welcomes international students – I notice they have that message on screens at passport control at airports. But the rhetoric aimed at domestic audiences sends the opposite message, and frequent visa policy change just creates the impression that the UK is unwelcoming.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Possibly a bit floaty. I used to read Dante at dawn by the river, so…But I had great freedom as an undergraduate. I chose papers because I wanted to be taught by particular people; by doing that I was exposed to things I never knew I would be interested in, like political communications. I have always felt that if you surround yourself with good people and listen hard, some of it rubs off.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
Getting cast in my first play – Richard II. I went out at midnight to check the cast list, which had just been posted outside the theatre. I played a henchman. In chiffon trousers. It may not have been a huge dramatic triumph.

If you were a prospective university student facing £9,000 fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
Definitely go to university, without a doubt. It broadens minds. I don’t necessarily think it matters what you study unless you have a specific career in mind. I didn’t realise how useful my degree was until I was about a decade into my career, but I now think it laid the foundations of everything I do well – like arguing!

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Here’s an unpopular answer… There are a few politicians I deeply admire. I won’t name them because it might be undiplomatic, but they come from across the political spectrum. Politics is as tough a career as you can imagine, but we need good politicians. I worry about the habitual knocking we give them – why would anyone good want to do the job?

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
To start with I wanted my own shop, basically because I could think of no higher calling than working a real till. I liked pressing buttons. I still do.

What do you do for fun?
Hang out in the park with my children and their friends. Most days I think to myself: when they are grown up, will I regret the time I didn’t spend playing with them? I am determined I won’t be in that position – even though this job is pretty demanding.

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
I have lots of them, some less brilliant than I initially think. But I am completely comfortable with the fact that I am unlikely to push back the frontiers of human knowledge, because I think my job – in an indirect way – is to support those who do.

Tell us about a book, show, film or play that you love.
I love John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America – it’s about him travelling around the US with a big poodle. It’s a really humane book.


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