The Interview UK
The University of Brighton
Director of Education and Students

Joanna MacDonnell

The most perceptive Higher Education (HE) leaders understand that there are not quick fixes to complex, systemic issues like degree awarding gaps. Instead, these challenges need thought, collaboration and flexibility from all involved to tackle it.

Joanna MacDonnell, Director of Education and Students at the University of Brighton, sat down with GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews, to discuss her journey into the universities space and the initiatives she is proudest of to date.

Joanna's Journey

Kira: What brought you into Higher Education (HE)?

I went to the University of Brighton to give one lecture and didn’t leave! It was a complete mistake — or serendipity, if you will. I come from a TV industry background, so I came to lecture on television and broadcasting at the Hastings campus back in 2006. One lecture led to another, which led to a full-time contract. I stayed, and in the latter part of my career I focused on student success, engagement and achievement. So it was never intended — but  fortuitous, but I’m really happy the way things have turned out and I get to work with an amazing team at Brighton.

Kira: How has the university changed in your time?

It’s changed massively. When I started, the campus in Hastings was actually the University Centre Hastings, which brought together different universities from around the South East to improve educational outcomes in an area of deprivation. The campus in Hastings closed a few years ago when we consolidated our provision and I moved over to work at the main campus of the the University of Brighton. Currently our provision is in Brighton and Eastbourne and we have just opened a number of new buildings at our Moulsecoomb campus in Brighton which is really exciting.

The infrastructure of the University has changed over the years I’ve been at Brighton, but our dedication, ethos and culture have remained, which is why I love working here.

Kira: What initiatives are you most proud of?

There’s quite a few! Before my current role, I started focusing on the student experience for those from non-traditional backgrounds with in initiative which enabled students in their first term to retake an assessment. This built their confidence and meant that failure didn’t lead to non-continuation. Seven years on, the approaches piloted back then are now part of our normal practice.

The infrastructure of the University has changed over the years I’ve been at Brighton, but our dedication, ethos and culture have remained, which is why I love working here.  

More recently, I’m proud of our course level transition, welcome and induction framework ‘Belong At Brighton’, which has been evolving for the past four years. It enables students to feel prepared, connected to the University, confident, inspired and engaged with Brighton.

We’ve also been diversifying and decolonising our curriculum in partnership with the students across the whole institution, through our Inclusive Practice Partnerships Scheme. The scheme aims to improve the representation of racial, ethnic and cultural identities in the curriculum, and has been running for two full years in its current format (with a prior pilot). In the first year we paid 53 students to work with us as partners and in the last year we employed 64 students. It has been very successful with a number of modules being developed to be more inclusive, the result of fantastic partnership working between our academic staff and students.

Kira: Post-Covid, many of our conversations revolve around student confidence. Can you tell me more about ‘Belong At Brighton’?

We gathered a lot of feedback from our students through surveys during the pandemic — they told us that they felt isolated and lacked connection to their peers and the university. After lockdown, we thought about how we could bring the students together — so the Belong at Brighton transition, welcome and induction programme focuses on social connections at a course level, ensuring that students have opportunities to talk to one another and form the friendships which are an essential part of the student experience.

Kira: What is your approach to making cohorts from different backgrounds feel included?

Inclusivity is one of the four values of our university. It runs through the core of everything we do at Brighton.

We developed an online learning module for students around EDI, so they can develop their knowledge and build their confidence and understand more about creating an inclusive and respectful university environment, this is available from the very start of the transition period. We also have a campaign called ‘It’s Never Okay…’ that runs throughout the year. Any form of harassment, abuse or discrimination is #NeverOK. We have a dedicated website should students need to seek support or report an incident. We want to make sure that every student feels included and supported, whatever background they are from.

Kira: How does your work with student experience link to the work you’re doing around the awarding gap?

It all comes together. There’s not one quick fix for degree awarding gaps. At Brighton, we have five targets in our Access and Participation Plan, 4 of those focus on the awarding gaps between different groups of students, two of these are ethnicity degree awarding gaps.

At Brighton we ensure we don’t take a deficit approach, by trying to fix the students. We have to look at the environment at the university, which is where our inclusive partnership scheme comes in, so students can see themselves reflected in their curricula and achieve that sense of belonging.

We also need to create safe spaces for our staff to understand more about race and ethnicity, so we have a monthly speaker series where we have the opportunity to reflect and discuss different aspects of race equality following a presentation. The sessions are recorded, so we have a repository. We also have training for White allies to be an active bystander, these are just some of the ways we are working towards eliminating the ethnicity degree awarding gaps.

We have achieved the Race Equality Charter (REC) bronze award and have a robust action plan that we’re working towards. Collaborative work on curricula, learning environments and the structure of the university itself all to help solve the awarding gap and foster inclusion.

Kira: How was your work as an assessor with Advance HE informed your work in your current role?

Having that wider sector context is really important. I’m an assessor and also now a chair for the REC and also a member of the Advance HE REC Governance Committee so I’ve been really involved in the outcomes of the charter review and how it’ll be revised. Looking at the impact other institutions have had with their initiatives helps me constantly learn — we get inspired by good practice at other institutions and tailor them to our own students, staff and university. It has given me insight into the practices elsewhere as well as how we too can share with the sector.

Contact Kitty Hadaway to hear about how GoodCourse is helping universities.

3 Quick-fire Questions

Kira: What advice would you give to someone entering the HE industry right now?

Don’t stop learning. Take advantage of every opportunity, go on training courses, and learn more about the student experience and yourself through that learning.

Kira: Is there a person who you most admire in HE?

Prof. Liz Thomas. She’s a widening participation expert; I first came across her work sixteen years ago when I started in HE. Then and now, her work is very influential for understanding students from non-traditional widening participation backgrounds. I still draw on her work to inform my own knowledge.

Kira: What is the most important book you've read?

The Diary of Anne Frank. I first read it when I was twelve or thirteen — it was the first time I had understood the impact of racism and the holocaust. But seeing it through Anne’s eyes, from the perspective of someone who was also a teenager, had a lot of impact on me. She was so inspirational and perceptive, there’s so much to draw on from her writing. It has really shaped my thinking and understanding, ever since that age.

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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