Interview with Martin Bean

Vice-Chancellor, RMIT

For readers who may not be familiar with Open University, how would you describe its educational offering in your own words?

Our founding mission is to be open to people, places, methods and ideas. The Open University is about breaking down barriers to learning. The UK's Sunday Times University Guide 2011 called us the "granddaddy" of widening participation. Opening access to higher education is the heart of our mission.

We have no formal entry requirements for most of our study programs and we are opening access to people from backgrounds where participation in higher education has traditionally been low. We can be more inclusive because we are innovative. Our flexible part-time learning system and our innovative learning technology enables students to study when and where suits them.

How important is the ability to connect students who may be anywhere in the world in an "open" classroom? Is the classroom today truly becoming global?

Today everyone in the world who has the use of a mobile phone is potentially a member of a global classroom. Web-based technology enables people to study where, when and how they want. This fits with the expectations and lives of students today. An important part of this is access to informal learning using free open educational resources. Many people engage with The Open University informally before they take up formal study.

OpenLearn, our free learning resources website, has almost 8000 hours taken from undergraduate and postgraduate courses. It has had 21 million visits since its launch in 2006. The number of downloads of Open University material from iTunes U has passed 50 million, and more than 90% of visitors to our iTunes U site come from outside the UK. Our dedicated channel on YouTube is the largest UK university channel.

Our partnership with the BBC enables many people to start or continue their education journey, and BBC programming extends worldwide. Viewers of the recent OU/BBC series Frozen Planet (which was screened in Australia on the Nine network) went on to access free learning material and some signed up for our short Frozen Planet course.

What attracted you to taking on the role of VC at The Open University?

The potential is enormously exciting. The Open University is a truly unique organisation that has harnessed the power of technology and transformed the way people access high quality educational opportunities. Since 1971, the OU has taught more than 1.7 million students.

Our mission and approach are more relevant today than ever, given the needs of society for skilled workers, and the potential offered by technology. Very close to my heart is our commitment to widening participation in education. We have a particular focus on disabled students, students who are socio-economically disadvantaged (and ethnic minorities within this group), and carers.

Our open access policy and our flexible part-time model make us particularly well placed to support these groups. But we also have in place targeted support systems for particular groups, such as our new Access to Success program to provide a route into undergraduate studies for students on low incomes and with low levels of confidence.

What is the key thing you would like to have achieved when looking back on your tenure at the Open University?

That the Open University continues its mission to be open to people, places, methods and ideas. That it still provides the highest quality student experience in the UK, intensely focussing on helping students achieve their goals and learning outcomes. That the Open University is renowned for its appropriate use of innovative technologies and teaching, challenging the higher education sector as a whole to innovate and better serve the ever-changing needs of their students.

To what extent are open universities revolutionising the education sector, via the ability to overcome geographical barriers and connect students who may not have had an opportunity to gain a qualification otherwise?

There is a growing gap between an increasingly knowledge-driven world economy and the numbers of people with the skills to succeed in it. Traditional universities cannot offer the dramatic increase in scale needed to cater for all these people. Open universities, making use of all kinds of media platforms to reach their students, are the key to widening access to higher education in both the developed economies and the developing world. This is particularly true in the developing world, where the scope is enormous. We are leaders of a consortium called TESSA (Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa) which is extending access to university-led primary school teacher education in a number of African countries, using internet-based open educational resources.

To date more than 430,000 teachers have benefited from TESSA resources and lessons. Last year in collaboration with African partners, NGOs and funding organisations we launched Health Education and Training (HEAT), which uses a similar model to train health workers based mainly in rural areas.

What does a typical day involve?

Having the privilege of being the Vice-Chancellor of what many describe as a national treasure and certainly an iconic brand, leads to an incredible diversity of day. One minute I could be engaged with broad public policy in the UK, next minute chatting to students. From thinking deeply around technology and how it can be used to drive access, to poring over the financial health of the institution and what we can do to position ourselves in the changing HE environment.

What is the greatest challenge for The Open University?

The Open University is widely known for its teaching but what many people overlook is that we do world-class research as well. In the UK's most recent Research Assessment Exercise in 2008, we were ranked in the top third of UK higher education institutions. More than half our research was assessed as internationally excellent, with 14% as world leading. This research feeds into our teaching and our learning resources. We need to do more to make people aware of our amazing research and how it drives our fantastic teaching.

And the greatest opportunity?

As the world of higher education continues to grow at an exponential rate, the traditional brick and mortar model cannot keep pace with the social need for quality provision. The Open University model is a natural solution to capacity building and providing a high quality learning experience at scale. I like to think of it as moving from brick and mortar to click and mortar.

What trends are you seeing in terms of student geographic data? Is there a particular country leading the charge?

We have seen a universal trend towards mass higher education. The rapidly growing demand for a highly skilled workforce in post-industrial economies, has led to a massive growth in the provision of university level education.

There were 150 million students globally in 2007 – a 50% increase over 2000 and a five-fold increase over 1970. The percentage of the age cohort enrolled in tertiary education grew from 19% in 2000 to 26% in 2007.

As you might expect, the most dramatic gains have been in upper income countries – the USA, Western Europe and Japan, followed by the developed countries of East Asia and Latin America. China and India are coming up fast. But in low-income countries, tertiary-level participation has improved only marginally, from 5% in 2000 to 7% in 2007.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest participation rate in the world – just 5%. And, in many countries, expansion has not solved persistent social inequalities. It seems to me that open and distance-learning universities can play a role here. Through initiatives linked to open educational resources, we can make some of our teaching materials available to partner institutions overseas – to help build capacity within their countries.

What is the greatest attraction for students participating in Open University courses?

Our flexibility combined with our quality. We offer a study experience that maximises students' chance of success in achieving their study goals, while at the same time maintaining high academic standards. The Open University's students can fit their study around work, home and social life. More than 70% of our students are employed. And we offer excellent value. Our tuition fees for 2012/13 are among the lowest in England.

The OU recently came third for student satisfaction in the UK – to what do you attribute the high level of satisfaction?

All of the above, plus our focus on providing an outstanding student experience. For more than 40 years we've been at the forefront of open and distance learning and during that time we've developed outstanding learning resources combined with robust and responsive support systems and our dedicated Associate Lecturer community, whose encouragement and guidance are so vital to the experience of every single OU student.

What is the most rewarding thing about working at The Open University?

It is remarkable for me to wake up every day knowing that I work at an institution where we are helping people realise their potential and change their lives for the better, both in the UK and around the world. That is the best gift in a job that anyone can ask for.