Profile: Advance HE CEO Alison Johns – ‘I am that widening access kid’

Alison Johns is chief executive of Advance HE, the sector support agency that combines three previous agencies. So how does she manage the sheer range of her brief? Paddy Smith finds out

CV: Alison Johns

Name: Alison Johns

Job title: Chief executive, Advance HE

Born: Plymouth, Devon

Education: MA in management learning, Lancaster University

Awards: Honorary fellow at Cardiff Metropolitan University; fellow of the Association of University Administrators; Crabtree Scholar (UCL Chapter)

Career highlight: Being given the privilege of merging, creating and building Advance HE

What would you have done if not education? I think probably something in the health professions

Best leadership advice: Continue to learn, so you can be yourself with skill – leadership is a journey not a destination


Alison Johns should be more flustered than this. It’s moving-in day at the new Advance HE office in London’s High Holborn and 38 degrees in the shade. The education secretary and universities minister have just been replaced. She’s jet-lagged. She wasn’t expecting a journalist to visit the office. She hasn’t had a chance to prepare properly. Within 10 minutes, she is breezily discussing institutional strategies for a rapidly changing sector.

Perhaps she is finding the current circumstances relatively peaceful. When she came to the job of chief executive last March, Advance HE had just been forged out of three sector agencies: the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE). Johns established both the ECU and LFHE, and was chief executive at the latter. As she describes some of the issues involved in that merger it’s clear that the boxes stacked on the office floor are a mere bagatelle.

In terms of challenges ahead, Advance HE has been handed an unenviably broad brief: ‘a single sector agency for equality and diversity, learning and teaching, and leadership and governance in higher education’. The scope is staggering, and yet there’s more work afoot for not just the new London office, which replaces two previous addresses in the capital, but also an office in York (“where all the back end functions sit”) and in Scotland, which is “quite different” in terms of funding, regulatory regimes and quality approaches. The Scottish office, Johns admits, is “basically two rooms in Universities Scotland”. Support for Welsh and Irish members is more peripatetic.

Strategy starter – John’s 2025 strategic plan

Johns’ current focus is the creation of a 2025 strategic plan for the sector. “Last year, we were moving, consolidating, we had a new membership model, big, big consultation, which has been informing our strategic thinking. So we’ve got a new strategic framework. And we are now wanting to translate that framework into a longer-term strategic planning document. What we’ve got at the moment are four thematic areas within it: transformative leadership, professionalising governance, excellence in education and advancing equality, diversity and inclusion. But we also have four strategic pillars, which are about accrediting and recognising success, building individual capability, building organisational capacity, and providing insight with knowledge, good practice and those kinds of things.

“We’ve kind of got it, but I want to now consult the sector on it, because we haven’t had the space or time to do that. And we will then produce that next year.”

This strategic umbrella will need to be broad enough to cover a brief that takes in governance, executive leadership, widening participation, diversity, gender equality, cultural change, confidence and networking – internationally.

And, as Johns points out, “the rules of the game have changed completely. We commissioned a piece of work earlier this year, which was actually led by Madeleine [Atkins, former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)] and she said, ‘Look, why don’t we run some roundtables with senior people and map out what’s going on and think about the future.’ There was a beautiful quote in there, which I use a lot, which is ‘the ratio of challenge to change is the greatest higher education has seen’.

“We need to ensure all the areas we focus on add up to be greater than the sum of the parts. And we need to be very clear about how we support the student experience, and there is a huge range of issues around the quality and diversity of staff and students. And staff provide the role models for students to aspire to. We’re really quite focused on the work we need to do, and I think it’s really important that these agencies work together and collaborate, not get into that competitive frame of mind.”

Pushing herself out of her comfort zone

As so often with sector leadership, Johns’ direct experience of education is behind this drive. “Interestingly, I didn’t go to university and do an undergraduate degree,” she admits. “It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable telling people in this world [education] that that’s my route.”

Growing up in a council house in Plymouth with her car mechanic father and disabled mother, Johns went to the local primary school. She was, by her own admission, “a bright kid”. Yet the departure of her “Victorian-style headmistress” and replacement in the form of a “a very trendy 1960s guy” saw her taken off the fast-track process that had been keeping boredom at bay.

“So I stayed an extra year and I did exactly the same curriculum. I got bored out of my box, as you can imagine, and very turned off by the whole educational experience.” Not only that, but school workbooks for the top grade had “cowboys and Indians and lassoes and horses” while the middle grade (“clearly the girls”) got pink dolls. “Not only was it sexist, it was completely boring.”

She got into the grammar school where “the teaching was appalling”.

“Eventually I did do some A-levels and I started to apply for university, but I just thought ‘I can’t take any more of this’. I found education really boring and really uninteresting. So I joined the civil service.”

Johns was again fast-tracked, and was being trained up for joining “the mandarins bit” when, in the late 1980s, a private management consultancy came calling. “I have to say it’s pretty shallow, but they offered me a car, two credit cards and international travel. And I just thought, ‘Yeah, sounds good to me’.”

Learning design

“So I joined this company and I spent three years there. Bloody fantastic: I learned so much because I was young but I went in working at the top level. The chief executive herself was a woman, who was formidable, a really tough boss, but we’d stay up all night writing management reports, we’d post them in the box, go and shower, come back, have breakfast together, you know, go off on another day’s work.

“And I remember her saying to me, ‘There’s only one thing you need to get your head around, Alison, and it’s learning design: how people learn and designing a really good experience,’ and that was my passion because I had such a not good experience of learning myself.”

After three years, Johns took at job at what is now the University of Plymouth, where she was able to study for a master’s in management learning, in which she learned about management and leadership.

“It’s always got to be about making a change, making a difference. But every single thing that I do I think about it from a learning perspective. And what do I want these people to go away and do, what do I want them to go away thinking, how can I help move them on in some way in their lives? And every single presentation that I do, I always start with people. I got asked to do something for Liverpool John Moores and I said what do you want out of me this time and they said just your normal: come and and inspire us, motivate us all. I mean, it’s like pulling rabbits out of a hat. But that’s my passion. And it came out of that awful experience at school that stopped me going to university.” Johns reflects, sitting back in one of the new office chairs and letting out a rueful sigh, “My mother was furious with me.”

I am that widening access kid. I know what it feels like to be at a grammar school, too embarrassed to ask what the UCCA form is

The ‘widening access’ kid

Does she regret the path she took? “No, I don’t regret it, not really. A lot of people from my generation didn’t go to university – because the participation rate was 20% – and got on anyway. Maybe the stigma was if you didn’t go, you weren’t part of an elite group. I find it amazing if you look at the latest application figures, they’ve gone up again, and they’ve gone up for the lowest socio-economic group. Fantastic. I think widening participation, widening access is great.

“I don’t buy into this people shouldn’t be doing degrees or too many people are doing degrees. For me, it’s good for the individuals, it’s good for the country, no matter where you go in, what level, intellectually, it transforms people’s lives, for goodness sake. And that’s got to be a good thing.

“So, nowadays, yes, I’m probably in the minority. I don’t think it matters too much in other sectors, but working in academia, I’m not part of the group, I’m not part of the club.”

For Johns, who has worked in the sector for nearly three decades, it is only the the past five or six years she has turned her discomfort to her advantage. “Now I talk about it as a way of saying, I am that widening access kid. I really get what it feels like to be at a grammar school too embarrassed to ask what the UCCA form is. It just wasn’t part of the landscape.

“It’s not something I’ve worked on in policy terms – a lot of the policy stuff makes it all seem terribly complicated – but there are fantastic initiatives going on in universities now making kids feel okay. Lighting up their lives. Universities have transformed themselves, they make kids excited and comfortable, and really want to study and, god, I wish that had happened to me.

“Still,” Johns laughs, “I haven’t done too badly.”

Promoting women in HE

It’s no secret that sector leadership is not as diverse as it could be. Does the Advance HE chief executive feel that being a woman was another obstacle she had to overcome?

“You need to see one to be one,” she says, perhaps harking back to her experiences working for a woman at the management consultancy.

“If you look at the facts, is it hard to get on as a woman? Only 25% of the vice-chancellors in the UK are women, roughly speaking. When I worked at HEFCE I had the equality and diversity policy brief from 2003 and for the next 10 years worked on this solidly and nothing changed really. It stayed about an average of 18 vice-chancellors during that period. But we were doing lots of initiatives and research to understand what the problem was. In 2005, the Athena SWAN charter came into place, which was driven by female STEM academics saying we need to do something about this.

“At some stage – I think it was about 2010 or 2011 – we at HEFCE decided to bring together a gender equality forum for all the chief executives and chairs of the major agencies and we said we’re all working on this, let’s cut out the overlaps. Let’s really focus. And that was a great coordinated national effect.

So there was that and Aurora [a women’s development programme] came into being, and suddenly we saw probably from about 2010 the numbers suddenly going up from 18 to 24, and then to 28, and 32, 34, 40, 45. We’re now at 50 female vice-chancellors. And we’ve got the first black female – the first female vice-chancellor at Oxford – Valerie Amos, the Soas director. That only took eight-hundred-and-something years. We had the first president of Universities UK, Julia Goodfellow, in 2015 (nearly 100 years of UUK to get the first one), then we’ve had Janet Beer as well and then we’ve got [incoming UUK president] Julia Buckingham, so that’s three in a row. The first female vice-chancellor, I think, at the University of London, Wendy Thompson.

So it is changing. Suddenly it’s like taking the stoppers out the dam and it’s beginning to flow through but I had a dinner last night with a pro-vice-provost, a senior woman in the sector really struggling I think about where she goes next and the support that she gets. So there’s a lot more work to be done.”

Johns points again to the Athena SWAN charter and the Aurora programme as the building blocks of this success, developing women’s confidence, leadership skills, networking and individual growth, before summing up the work before her: “Fix the person, fix the organisation, fix the knowledge.”

Leadership isn’t about being a great academic. It’s about creating a distinctive strategy, mission, vision and values

What is good governance?

We need to talk about governance. Several recent examples of poor governance highlight the importance of bringing this vital institutional role up to date. How has governance changed?

“I spoke in Hong Kong last week at the Times Higher [Education] leadership summit and I was asked to speak about global trends in governance. So part of my presentation was on how governance has changed from something which was really quite ceremonial and fiduciary – we have a nice dinner, get the robes on for graduation, we check the money, we all go away – through to something which became a bit more liberal and strategic, when governing bodies became more engaged with and more concerned about strategy, academic character of the institution, and wanting to become more responsible for that.

“So we see some institutions holding joint meetings with the academic senate or the academic board, and also in terms of of the student voice and understanding student needs, join meetings with the student unions, and being much more engaged on specific projects. So being very careful not to cross the governance-executive line, but becoming much more engaged.

“And I think there are a series of tensions. To what extent should the relationship be more arm’s length, which is what we’re seeing with OfS and the sector [versus HEFCE, which made governors accountable for the academic quality of institutions] or should they be more intimate and connected and engaged?

To what extent are governing bodies as skilled up as they need to be in terms of the data requirements, for future financial scenarios, future business and everything? Where does the appetite for risk sit nowadays?

The nature of governance has changed quite considerably. We have seen a trend in governing bodies becoming more assertive with the executive teams and holding them to account to the extent where we’ve seen a number of vice-chancellors actually moved on.

“I think what you see with governors, chairs, or even people on governing bodies, is these are serious players, and they’re investing their social capital in being part of an institution. The pressures on the institutions are so much greater now, the competition is so intense. They can’t afford to be associated with failure.

And therefore I think the relationship between particularly the chair and the vice-chancellor is absolutely crucial in all this. And both of those players have a choice about how they run their relationship. You have to ask when you see serious failures in governance, how did it get to that? Go back to the governance failures in the corporate sector, it comes down largely to relationships and communication, and – I would say – a disrespect for the governance process. An effective governance process has to offer respect from both sides for each other. And both sides need to recognise their responsibility in making that work.

“I’ve got a great governing body, I see them as a huge source of skills, advice and experience. Jokingly, my chair says we wouldn’t have anybody on our governing body unless we were prepared to pay £3,000 a day for their consultancy fee. And, boy, do they challenge me sometimes, but that’s great.  And I also think they’re really supportive. So I just think governance has made it into a different league.”

Building leaders

And leadership? “I think the leadership of institutions has changed quite dramatically since I started.  My job was to develop a leadership development strategy, a culture change. All the polytechnics were under local government control until 1989, there was a set of rule books – the pink book, the purple book, the silver book. My vice-chancellor was very smart because he said, ‘We’re going to need to develop leadership skills and management skills to do this for ourselves.’ And I was the first one appointed to do leadership development in an institution. So I did a load of stuff like psychometric testing and action learning sets and I think they all thought I was bonkers. But we absolutely demonstrated behavioural and organisational change.

“So that’s in 1991. When I got into HEFCE, to my great joy I found everyone was doing psychometric testing and all kinds of common leadership stuff. And if you look today at what’s required in leaders, it’s not about being a great academic, and leading the academic enterprise, it’s about the funding and the resources. It’s about creating a distinctive strategy, mission, vision and values.”

Johns has noticed a drive towards differentiation in university strategies, and vice-chancellors wanting to understand how to borrow money.

“Managing all these things, and leading these things, is a different ball game to what it was 25 years ago.”

Those broad strategic approaches span a spectrum of “bold, brave, entrepreneurial” to “a much more cautious approach” of creating headroom for change in the era of Brexit and a government in a state of flux.

“So I had one vice-chancellor saying to me, ‘We know what we’re doing, we stick with it. And we don’t talk about Brexit, we don’t talk about this, that or the other, we just say this is what we’re doing. And we make sure we’re the absolute best we can be.’”

Strategy plus

Isn’t that just normal strategic planning, regardless of sector or industry? “I don’t dispute that, but this is a new conversation for the sector. We’re becoming more like other businesses in that sense. These conversations were not being held in the same way 10, 15 or 20 years ago. So that’s what’s changed. It’s much more like other businesses in terms of the language, the conversations, the business skills needed to run them.

“Institutions are borrowing big, investing in the student experience, the campus and all that sort of stuff because they have to, but that puts them at greater risk.”

And what of the future? Should domestic universities be learning more from global institutional approaches?

“Could they do more? Should they be looking further afield in a post-Brexit world? I think quite possibly, because if you look at what’s happening in the far east, if you look at Taiwan, China, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, you look at those countries and what they are doing in terms of investing in higher education, and if you look at the kind of level of relationships, particularly, say, research that we as a country have with those very far-flung places compared to what we have in Europe, in a post-Brexit world, we need to be looking much more internationally. And it’s a small world, it’s not difficult.

“I’ve always worked internationally in higher education. And I never come back without having learned something. We have to operate in a global marketplace, and so we need to do it because we need to find the right opportunities for our students. Because they are our future.”


You might also like: Advance HE announces CATE winners