The Interview UK
The Open University
Pro Vice-Chancellor (Students)

Ian Pickup

When it comes to empowering diverse learners, flexible pathways and student engagement are key to equitable access. By remaining agile to the changing needs of students, Higher Education can design programs and initiatives that set all students up for success.

Chris Mansfield, GoodCourse’s Client Services Lead, met with Professor Ian Pickup, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Students (PVCS) at The Open University, to discuss the impact of early student engagement on positive learning outcomes.

Ian's Journey

Chris: Let's start with a brief introduction to yourself and The Open University.

I’ve been the Pro Vice-Chancellor Students (PVCS) at The Open University (OU) since April 2023. I stepped into Higher Education (HE) as an academic following a teaching and sports career, and have progressively moved into leadership roles – The OU is the fifth higher education institution I’ve worked with throughout my career.  

The OU is very different from traditional, face-to-face, HE institutions. Our distance learning provision and Open Access mission means we welcome students with diverse backgrounds and experiences. In line with this, my role as PVCS is very much focused on supporting student success, equitable student outcomes and facilitating positive student experiences for our 200,000 learners.

Chris: How do you engage and support students, particularly those who may not have an academic background?

Much of my focus as PVCS so far has been on the early experience of our students; we need to help students understand what it's like to be an OU student before they start. To do this, we prioritise communication during the enrollment phase and encourage early access to our virtual learning environment (VLE). We have recently piloted a new approach to induction, which is focused on supporting readiness to study - we aim to roll this out to all new starters this autumn.

We know that three key areas matter when it comes to students beginning their studies with us – their motivation to study, confidence levels, and readiness for HE studies. These factors vary for all our learners, so it’s vital they receive tailored advice to begin their learning journey at the right place. A great example is our Access course, which has been available at The OU for ten years; it’s an academic launching point for students planning to transition into their first undergraduate-level course. We know that some students who start with the access course and then progress to the first level of undergraduate study can have significantly improved outcomes.

Chris: What are the key indicators for student success?

We have large data sets and a powerful predictive analytics platform, which we’ve developed in-house and used for about a decade. Amongst other things, we’ve found that the earlier students engage with our VLE, the more successful they are in their studies. Another early engagement metric is the first Tutor-Marked Assignment (TMA) submission. TMAs are part of each module’s assessment strategy and provide a regular pulse of engagement between the student and the tutor throughout each module. This is particularly important for us as a distance learning institution. TMA submission is a key milestone in the student journey; it helps us identify students at risk of falling behind and enables our tutors to make timely interventions using an ‘early alerts dashboard’ to track student progress. We’ve also found that students who download tutor feedback after submitting their TMA tend to have better outcomes on future assignments.

In addition to TMA submission and module pass rates, we also track return and withdrawal rates at regular intervals. Our students complete their studies in modules, whether towards a set qualification in a standard qualification structure or as part of an open degree. High return rates to the next module are therefore an indication of progress and, ultimately, student success.

Chris: What have you found most effective in engaging students in their studies?

The majority of our students are working and have other commitments they need to fit their part-time studies around. This means time management is essential. We provide simple online tools for timetabling study planning and offer a range of learning times and formats to ensure equity of access for all students.

We also focus our efforts on building a sense of connection and belonging – the distance learning modality can make it challenging to foster tangible connections. Our Student Hub Live platform brings community members together, particularly at key times of the student journey like freshers’ week and the start of each module. Similarly, if we’re running live events, we plan them carefully so that students can extract real value that supports their learning, personal development and employment opportunities. 

We work in strong partnership with the OU Students’ Association (OUSA) and have a focus on listening carefully and responding to the student voice in a variety of ways. We are about to commence a 2-week student voice festival, for example, which includes online and face-to-face consultation events across the UK.  

Chris: How do you prepare your teams for the ever-changing HE landscape?

A great question, particularly for Distance Learning University We are also a very large organisation, so there is an obvious scale challenge; we tend to view the university and its various component parts as a connected system. Across departments, we use task-and-finish groups, student panels and service-led approaches so that the student voice remains at the centre of our decision-making and program design.

As a Four Nations provider (meaning we have learners in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), we also need to consider the broader UK context. We have practices in place to listen and respond to policy, regulatory, and political changes; ensuring we’re well-briefed allows us to be proactive in navigating the changing HE landscape and evolving needs of students in today's world.

Chris: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received across the course of your career?

Say yes to new things, with the caveat that the next step is just as important – in saying yes to new things, commit to learning how to do those new things well.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Chris Mansfield
Client Services
Chris is one of the Client Service leads at GoodCourse, dedicated to helping institutions better engage their audience to create a more inclusive, safer, and more successful environment. To request to be featured on the series, get in touch at

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