The Interview UK
Leeds Trinity University
Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and Experience

Catherine O'Connor

Catherine O’Connor, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and Experience at Leeds Trinity University focuses on student support and employment services in order to create a more inclusive university environment. 

GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews spoke to Catherine about the strides she has been making within her institution to ensure that all students received a fair chance at success, and how inclusivity is promoted not just in university but in the wider community too.

Catherine's Journey

Kira: What brought you to your current role?

I had been a journalist for 15 years and initially came to Leeds Trinity to teach journalism. Because of the industry work I had done, I was immediately interested in graduate employability, which evolved into an interest in learning and teaching. I became the acting Head of Department and my career progressed from there. 

From the minute I arrived I loved it; if you had an idea about something that could make a difference to students you could use your creativity to realise it. I loved watching transformations in students. I've also had a lot of chances to keep evolving and contributing, which is really exciting for me.

Kira: How did that creativity help you with student experience during Covid?

We had only just signed off on a plan to roll out Microsoft Teams over a period of 18 months and when the pandemic hit we did it in just 2 months. We focused on staff development, put together a teaching model to support online delivery, and got involved in what was going on in the sector too. We also looked at what was failing and succeeding in other institutions and worked from that.

We were really keen to protect practical courses and had to think a lot about how we could continue those off-site. One of the things we did was survey students to see what smartphone access they had, and rolled out mini tripods and microphones during January lockdowns. We trialled software that allowed us to do live broadcasts online so students everywhere could do that for journalism and media courses, for example.

Kira: What did your role in facilitating the key pillars of strategic planning look like in terms of initiatives?

One of the key pillars is that we are a career-led university and we have placements in every degree, and a lot of my role is working with other departments to look at what that embedded learning looks like. We want this to be connected to their studies so they can apply their learning in the university and in the workplace, which is key. 

We've also got a strong focus on making a difference in social justice and inclusivity, so we've made co-creation a key strand of learning, teaching and student experience. We want to have student voices at the centre, not just through surveys but by having them think about how assessment works, and whether they want to have a say in the content of the courses.

Kira: Why is this inclusivity so important to the university?

The need to make a difference is really reinforced right now due to the cost of living crisis and the current war in Europe — we want students to engage with the world and think of the impact they can have throughout their lives.  That connects with what happens here in Leeds as a city; the council has many inclusivity strategies that help everyone to thrive - we want that to begin in education and go on past it too.

The need to make a difference is really reinforced right now due to the cost of living crisis and the current war in Europe — we want students to engage with the world and think of the impact they can have throughout their lives.
Kira: How do you connect with students and foster a sense of belonging?

We are running a big campaign this year called LTU Belong, which aims to ground students in the opportunities we offer and the ways they can connect. We want to show them that university is not just your timetable — there’s so much more on offer. We also run broader events such as lecture series and a journalism and media week, as well as social equity events, to show that university is about discovering what your interests are, as well as your degree.

Kira: Can you tell us more about being a part of the Million Plus Learning and Teaching Network and Leeds Digital Steering Group?

Million Plus is about learning about what is going on in the sector, which is vital because we can speak collectively about what we are doing. The Steering Group is about promoting skills in the digital sector and helping students think of broader opportunities that can be available to students of all backgrounds who are willing to learn and develop critical thinking skills throughout university. I've run many initiatives in tandem with this such as a collaborative design project, to help embed digital skills in all degrees.

Kira: What initiative are you most proud of from your career?

The work we've done with our new learning, teaching and academic experience strategy. On the back of that, we are developing a curriculum for social justice to embed key initiatives across all programmes to ensure we are making a real difference. I'm very proud of how these initiatives are connecting with one another.

3 Quick-fire Questions

Kira: What is your top piece of advice for anyone coming into the HE space?

It’s challenging and always changing, but that allows you to be creative and think about how you can make a difference as a part of a team.

Kira: Who do you admire the most in HE or EDI?

Our Vice-Chancellor. The strategy we have now values inclusivity and belonging, and that has been really inspiring for me.  

Kira: What is the most important book you have read?

The one that has really stuck with me is Educated by Tara Westover. It made me reflect on the place of education and the importance of showing people its value. 

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kira Matthews
Community Engagement Lead
Kira leads our community outreach team working hand-in-hand with changemakers on both sides of the pond. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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