Interview with Alison Johns

The chief executive-designate of the UK’s new sector agency discusses her West Country roots, the roles of academics and administrators, and escaping to the country 

September 21, 2017
Alison Johns

Alison Johns has been chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education since 2014. She has worked in university governance and management development for more than 25 years, having served as head of leadership, governance and management at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Last week, she was announced as the chief executive-designate of the UK sector agency that will be formed next year by the merger of the Leadership Foundation with the Higher Education Academy and the Equality Challenge Unit.

Where were you born?
Plymouth, Devon.  

How has this shaped you?
Hugely. Plymouth was a very working-class town, and proud of it. I was brought up believing that education and hard work were the way to succeed. We also had the four forces in the city – navy, army, Marines and the RAF. That, I think, created a respect for tradition and discipline. The city also had, following the Second World War, Greek, Italian and Chinese immigrant communities. My best friend at school was Chinese and our neighbours, who often looked after me, were Italian. They all suffered huge deprivation and discrimination. As did my grandparents and mother, who were disabled. I think this period taught me tolerance and the value of every human being. They were also happy times.

Plymouth people are very resilient. The city was flattened during the Blitz in the 1940s. I recall walking over bomb sites to school in the early 1960s, and mass burial sites where the whole air raid shelter had been sealed up as a communal grave as no one had survived. It is now part of the Plymouth University campus. All this, I think, gave me a spirit of resourcefulness and a “can-do” attitude.

What kind of student were you?
Hard-working, anxious to “get it right” and never satisfied with my work. I also really enjoyed the support of and had fun with my peers.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
I did the master’s in management learning and leadership (as it is called now) at Lancaster University part-time in the 1990s and loved it. I recall walking into the room on the first day and watching someone, who is now a great friend of mine, in the grips of “learning by doing”. He was trying to facilitate a very diverse group of 30 people who didn’t know each other and it was hilarious. He has become one of the best leadership facilitators I know.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
Competition. The investments that the post-Confucian economies have made during this timeframe are now paying off, in terms of not just volume but also quality. Recent world rankings show the challenges we face in maintaining our world-class position and reputation. However, in my 25-plus years in higher education I have seen the remarkable ability of UK higher education institutions to respond, adapt and lead and feel confident. We will continue to do so.

What do you think about oft-repeated claims that there is a growing antagonism between two tribes in higher education – academics and administrators?
As past president and chair of the Association of University Administrators, building our relationships between these two incredibly hard-working groups of people has been a life passion for me. However I do think that the lines between many of the jobs are blurring nowadays. Colleagues from my AUA days know that I strongly believe that the administration is there to support the academic endeavour of the institution, through relationships built out of trust and respect. One of my great claims to fame is that having spoken on this subject at the AUA 60th anniversary conference, I was featured in The Poppletonian by Laurie Taylor. It was then I knew I had finally arrived in higher education!

Tell us about someone – perhaps a distinguished leader – you’ve always admired.
Nelson Mandela. For his whole journey – his tenacity, resilience and political skills. That moment when in solitary confinement he had to decide the right time to meet F. W. de Klerk and change history, without the comfort of consensus with his team. His ability, through the truth and reconciliation committees, to heal a nation.

What divided your life into a “before” and “after”?
Meeting and marrying my husband. Losing my mother.

What do you do for fun?
The simple things in life. Escaping with my husband to our home in the country, with beautiful music floating through the house. Balm for the soul. A good book, good food, good wine and good company. I love cooking and using my hands to make and build things. I’m pretty good at DIY and fixing things. A complete antidote to the day job. I must have got that from my father.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
I would reduce the student loan interest rate from 6.1 per cent. Having worked at Hefce for a decade, I know how difficult the whole fees issue is, but 6.1 per cent while still at university just feels too much. And if I didn’t say this, my stepdaughter would disown me.

What saddens you?
People not reaching their full potential. Young people who are abused or who through circumstance never get to know what is possible for them. On a lighter note, the fact that I have very little self-control in the chocolate department!

What would you like to be remembered for?
As a woman of integrity, who loved and believed in people, who did her best to make a difference and was never a walkover.


Clare Mackie has been named deputy vice-chancellor of Birmingham City University, where she will take on responsi-bility for learning, teaching and the student experience. The pro vice-chancellor (teaching and learning) at the University of Sussex since 2010, Professor Mackie will join the Mid-lands institution in January 2018. A pharmacist by training, she has also been a pro vice-chancellor at the University of Kent. Philip Plowden, Birmingham City’s vice-chancellor, said that Professor Mackie had “an impressive track record as a strategic leader”. “Students must be our number one priority in all that we do, and learning and teaching sits at the heart of this,” he said. “Professor Mackie’s experience in achieving academic excellence will be vital as we take this ambitious and trans-formative university to the next level.”

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has named Sabrina M. Y. Lin vice-president for institutional advance-ment. She will join on 1 Novem-ber from her post as a corpor-ate vice-president at Cisco Systems. The co-founder of two Silicon Valley start-ups, Dr Lin was named one of Forbes China’s Top 50 Business Women earlier this year. Tony Chan, HKUST’s president, welcomed the appoint-ment. “It is our honour to have an accomplished and homegrown female leader, who is passionate about education and a role model herself, dedicated to diversity, joining the senior leadership team.”

Doreen Lorenzo has been appointed assistant dean of the School of Design and Creative Technologies at the University of Texas at Austin. She will lead the new unit.

Peter Decherney has been named faculty director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Learning Initiative. He is currently professor of cinema studies and English at Penn.

Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University has appointed David Goodman vice-president of academic affairs. He is currently head of the department of China studies.

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