The Interview UK
Ulster University
Pro Vice Chancellor for Academic Quality and Student Experience

Odette Hutchinson

Universities are not just institutions of learning; they are also vital in driving social mobility and civic engagement. This understanding is key to the work of Odette Hutchinson, Pro Vice Chancellor for Academic Quality and Student Experience at Ulster University.

Odette sat down with Chris Mansfield, GoodCourse’s Client Services Lead, to share her insights on topics including the challenge of student engagement and the proactive steps taken by Ulster University to create a safe campus environment.

Odette's Journey

Chris: Can we start with a quick introduction to yourself and your institution?

I'm the Pro Vice Chancellor for Academic Quality and Student Experience at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. Ulster University is an extraordinary and unique multi-campus institution. We've got locations in Belfast, Colerain, and Derry-Londonderry, as well as our sports village in Jordanstown and branches in Birmingham and London. It’s a rich and diverse environment both for students and staff. We are a dual-focused institution, prioritising high-quality, impactful international research and excellent learning and teaching as part of an outstanding student experience. We also actively drive social mobility and are actively involved in civic engagement as an institution. We are recognised for our socio-economic contribution; we’re Northern Ireland's largest university with around 30,000 students. Our mission is to educate, inspire lifelong learning, and transform the lives of students and their families.

Chris: What inspired you to start a career in higher education?

I need to be quite honest here and say that I wasn’t initially drawn by a desire to help people. Like many senior leaders in higher education, my career started as a junior member of academic staff. I was primarily interested in my discipline and in my subject, and I was really passionate about sharing that discipline with others. I had experienced a rather traditional legal education and I was really keen to demystify the law and make it more accessible to different demographics of people. I was driven by a desire to make legal education more diverse in the hope that would help students and wider society. I'm incredibly fortunate to be doing what I’m doing – every day, I see the tremendous diversity and energy on our campuses. We’re not only committed to building an institution that is better, stronger, and more exciting, but also building a society in which things are more inclusive, more accessible, and more diverse.

Chris: What’s your approach to creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for students of all backgrounds? 

I'm going to approach this slightly differently and say that I think that a sense of belonging has utility in and of itself. There's something valuable in feeling a sense of belonging – it doesn't need to lead to anything else. It's valuable in its own right. Creating an inclusive and welcoming environment is just the right thing to do, and these are values that our institution holds very dearly. Ultimately, we are a values-led institution; they inform everything we do and the decisions that we make. So we run initiatives around belonging, building it into the very fabric of our institution, from our programme design to our assessment. To build belonging, you need meaningful relationships, so we prioritise creating opportunities through which students can connect with their peers, with staff, and with the wider university community. 

Chris: Recent guests have talked about the importance of creating a safe and inclusive campus environment. What measures have you taken in this regard – especially when it comes to issues like tackling harassment?

It’s important to remember that all forms of harassment – whether that’s sexual misconduct, racial hatred, or harassment on the basis of disability – isn’t just an issue within universities. It’s a problem for the whole of society. So it's not something that universities can solve alone, though it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. As someone with a legal background, my starting position is making sure that expectations are clear. So we have a Student Charter that sets clear standards of behaviour, and like every other institution, we have a set of conduct ordinances. That can’t just be a piece of paper; we need to focus on making it approachable for students, and something that is constantly referred to and engaged with. I believe that education has to be part and parcel of the solution. Having conversations, offering training, building awareness – all of those things are important, but it's equally necessary to create spaces and mechanisms for individuals to report unacceptable behaviour. But it’s not enough to just have somewhere to report – students need to have confidence in the fact that the university will treat that complaint seriously, and that we have appropriate mechanisms to hear the complaint and adjudicate. Ultimately, there need to be appropriate sanctions to deal with behaviour in order to really tackle it.

Chris: Some students can be difficult to reach. How do you make sure that your key messages are heard by all students?

There’s a lot of research that shows that information is much more impactful on students if it comes from their peers, instead of a member of staff. So our Student’s Union and wider learning community play a really important role. But not every student is a member of the union, so we also need mechanisms to reach those students, too. Leveraging technology is key, but we need to be cognisant of the fact that students these days are overloaded with information. So we need to find ways to connect with students that are impactful and meaningful, and understand that they may be very different from the tools that we used in the past. We also need to position as much of the content in a way that does not alienate students. We're interested in providing factual, non-judgemental information, and we need to provide mechanisms through which when somebody does something that isn’t consistent with the university's values, or is potentially problematic, then there are opportunities for that person to reconnect. That requires us to be agile and to listen to our students about how they want to be communicated with.

Chris: What's the best piece of advice you've received in your career?

Support your colleagues. Right now, we’re going through a time of uncertainty in higher education. So it’s important to invest in the people around you and let them know that whether you succeed or fail, you will do it together.

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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