Joanna Newman began her academic career as a postdoc at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies. She has worked at a number of universities, at the British Library, as director of Universities UK International and as vice-principal (international) at King’s College London, where she is still a senior research fellow. Her new job, as chief executive and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, takes her back to her original field – and an office two minutes down the road from where she started.
Dr Newman recently returned from a meeting of Commonwealth youth ministers in Uganda, which she attended as an official observer, but it is at the meeting of Commonwealth education ministers in Fiji next February that she is due to sign an agreement with the Commonwealth Secretariat focusing on three areas.
The first is around employability and skills, where she said that the ACU is carrying out research on “what employers will need in a few years, in light of artificial intelligence”. The second is concerned with “fostering tolerance of diversity and respect within universities”. This will build on the ACU’s recent Statement of Shared Values, which the association is asking member universities to endorse and which Dr Newman “would like to see rolled out across the Commonwealth, looking at regional challenges, to create an environment where our students can flourish”. And the third area explores “the power of mobility”, to be achieved both through “creating more scholarships” and “a new project for a Commonwealth-wide framework for mutual recognition of qualifications”.
The ACU already administers a number of programmes such as the Commonwealth Scholarships, funded by the Department for International Development (DfID), for citizens of developing countries who want to come for master’s or PhD study in the UK. It manages capacity-building initiatives such as Structured Training for African Researchers, funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung foundation, and another initiative for supporting research on climate change in Africa.
It also awards its own grants for emerging academics to attend conferences and fellowships to promote mobility. A recent example saw a Canadian researcher travelling to the University of the West Indies campus in Barbados to identify genetic risk factors for breast cancer among women with African ancestry. The researcher went on to set up her own cancer research laboratory once she had returned to McMaster University.
Although enthusiastic about the work that the ACU already does in “building capacity” and “seeding change”, Dr Newman believes that it must do better in “calling attention to what we do”. She would like each of its member institutions – more than 500 in over 50 countries – to employ someone specifically as an “ACU champion”, most likely within the international office, on at least a part-time basis. This would enable the association to “help universities enhance their international strategy”, develop dialogue between different kinds of university and “access experts on gender equality, climate, capacity building or human resources”. This would then feed into a new series of regional meetings built around the local “burning issues”.
Since joining the ACU, Dr Newman has been in discussion with the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), which has a programme for finding posts in UK universities for persecuted and refugee academics. A forthcoming memorandum of understanding with the ACU will allow Cara to expand the scheme to include institutions right across the Commonwealth.
While at King’s, Dr Newman spearheaded a programme called the Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access to provide education to refugee students in Jordan and Lebanon. The ACU is soon to launch another project funded by DfID, the Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning, designed to “address the critical academic staff shortages in many East African universities”. Dr Newman hopes that it may be possible to find ways to extend coverage to the many academics and students displaced within Africa.
She would also like to see the ACU, the world’s first international university network, playing a prominent part in global debates around the value of higher education.
Although higher education has been included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals since 2015, Dr Newman said that she was concerned that, at a time of “tightening resources and rising nationalism, [and] more refugees than ever before, [we hear increasing scepticism about] the power of higher education to change things. Yet if you look at Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, World Bank and United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation statistics, it’s clear that the countries that invest in higher education are far more secure places for their people to live and contribute.”
The ACU is ideally placed, she argued, to help disseminate such evidence and to “advocate for higher education as a power for good – look at our members!”