UEA formally installed alumna and business executive Karen Jones as chancellor on October 6th. Ahead of her speech and installation dinner at the Sainsbury Centre, the Café Rouge founder and former Spirit Pub Group chief executive made time to chat to Concrete about her business values and the importance of entrepreneurship
Karen Jones is running late. The restaurant owner and now UEA Chancellor, for want of a better word, ‘legs it’ into our meeting room, with UEA’s press officers in hot pursuit, carrying her briefcase. I have 15 minutes with her.
UEA is consistently amongst the top 15 UK universities. We’re renowned for our literary and creative writing courses and situated in a UNESCO city of literature. Jones’ three-year ceremonial role, which she is taking over from novelist and alumna, Rose Tremaine, will allow her to shape the institution’s priorities. What does she want UEA students to be proudest of about their university?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, enterprise, is the word that springs into the English and American Literature graduate’s mind, adding that “the feeling that the University encourages and supports them to find their passion, to find what it is that they really love, and to be the best that they can be at it, and gives them both encouragement and support to do that,” is what she wants students to gain from her chancellorship, “whatever their passions might be.”
Despite the rapidly ticking clock, Jones is verbose, polite and effortlessly friendly, as she discusses the challenges faced by the higher education sector. “I think that education is an area that must evolve and change very rapidly, because you – millennial students – require that.” Her business philosophy appears to be well-suited to the university sector, encompassing “a very strong set of values in whatever it is that you do.”
“When I talk about ‘good universities’ or good businesses’, it’s not just the obvious measures of success: money, more employees.”
Tactfully, she declines to suggest specific improvements she’d like to see at UEA, claiming that this would be “very arrogant of me.” This statement is slightly undercut, however, by the assertion that “given that all businesses and all organisations have to constantly evolve and get better, I’m sure that there are things, UEA is no exception to that rule.”
It’s when I ask whether universities should be modelling themselves as businesses that Jones really hits her stride, exclaiming: “Great question! Not business in that it’s the profit motive at all costs, I don’t think that at all.”
“Education and profit just for profit’s sake are very uncomfortable bedfellows. But I do think [universities] need to become more standalone, and be able to stand on their own feet.” She describes the entrepreneurship she’d like to see in terms of “backing student enterprises, taking shares in student companies and making sure that students, whether it’s a new form of theatre or a nutritional drink or a tech innovation, can come to university and be encouraged,” and calls this approach a “virtuous circle” of value realisation.
Corporate speak aside, Jones has a real warmth about her – and seems passionate about students succeeding – as she discusses the difference between what she sees as “skill” and “value,” stating: “people sometimes think in business that there’s a license given to them to tell lies and not do the right thing and I don’t agree with that at all.”
“There’s technical skill, which for UEA is our core educational purpose, and then there’s the value set which is how good we are at creating students who are happy, who can find what they’re best at and who can go out very well equipped to lead fulfilled and happy work lives.” And despite her roots being in the cut-throat world of business, she’s an advocate of scholarships insisting, rising tuition fees aside, “you have to make it possible for people to come to university.”
Moving on to a more personal topic; Jones founded her businesses when her three children were young. Are there issues facing women in the workplace? “Absolutely! I don’t know if I’d call myself a feminist. I’ve never identified with that particular term; I suppose I tend to think more about doing than being called something. But I think it is shameful and extraordinary that we still have to say that there should be equal numbers of women at every level in every organisation and business – but we do have to say it.”
She’s equally engaged with issues facing graduates, saying: “you guys have a tough time… I think it’s a tough world out there and the more we can equip you guys with confidence and techniques to go out there and fight with a full hand of tools… I think that’s UEA’s job and it’s a job it does very well and very willingly.”
Brexit appears to be another bone of contention for the former restaurant executive, who described “our colleagues from the EU” as “an enormous and vital part of the hospitality industry.” Jones also described international students as providing “a whole host of tangible and intangible benefits that would be a great sadness and a great mistake to stop.”
Jones’ installation came just a few weeks ahead of the inaugaration of the Aurora foundation. The community of nine European universities was launched in Amsterdam on October 21st. Vice Chancellor David Richardson and SU Campaigns Officer Amy Rust were present. Alongside Jones, it looks like UEA will continue to have a bright future.