The Interview UK
The Open University
Director (Students)

Sally Hayes

Many Higher Education (HE) institutions struggle with creating a culture of inclusion and fostering engagement, even when they have a central campus where students can physically come together. Still, when we take that campus away, these issues become even more challenging to navigate. This is especially true when the student population is as diverse as at The Open University (OU).

Co-host of The Interview Luke James sat down with Dr. Sally Hayes, Director (Students) at The Open University, to discuss how these issues are tackled and more.

Sally's Journey

Luke: Can we start with an introduction to your role and institution?

The role is about improving student outcomes, ensuring we remove inequality in those outcomes, and improving the experience of our students. The OU is very different from the rest of the sector. We are a part-time distance-learning university with over 200,000 students, so we operate on a massive scale. That’s about 1 in 20 undergraduates in the UK, so quite a lot. 70% of our students are in employment, and 25% live in the most deprived areas of the country, with 23% having a declared disability. Since we are open, there is no tariff, meaning previous educational attainment is not a barrier to coming here. That creates a very different feel in terms of our student body. 

Luke: How did you get to your current position?

My background is in nursing and public health. What drew me to HE was the recognition that education is transformational. It can unlock doors to better jobs, better health, enabling more sustainable and well communities. I passionately believe in working to enable individuals who would not normally have access to higher education to gain qualifications. I’m in this job after a long journey in higher ed because it’s all about improving the outcomes and the equality of outcomes of students — I'm passionate about that in particular. Previous experiences can put barriers up for students, and I love that we get to help them be successful both in their confidence and their formal qualifications.

Luke: How do you build a sense of inclusion and belonging at a distance-learning organisation?

It’s a big focus for us. Many of our students are very time-poor since they work or have caring responsibilities or different health needs. That means we have to help them navigate their studies in the most effective ways, but inclusion and belonging can be quite challenging. 

For me, inclusion and belonging is about holding students at the heart of our work. There are a number of ways students keep in touch with us, including online teaching and online communications. We need to ensure that we are helping students find the support that is right for them and added being as responsive and efficient as we possibly can be without wasting their time in any way. We want every student here to know they matter to us, so responsiveness is everything.

Luke: Regarding student engagement, what kinds of initiatives have you worked on?

The most important thing is that we listen. That sounds oversimplified, but ensuring we hear and value diverse experiences is very important. It’s about building trust and listening to lived experiences, valuing their voice. We also work closely with our Student Association, which is a great insight into our student body. We have a student charter within that which students and staff sign up to. We also have an executive team where the president and officers work beside us about policies we adopt, and decisions we make, both strategically and operationally.  We’ve done a lot of work with them on Covid responses, the marking boycott, and currently, we are looking at sustainability too.

Luke: How do you navigate student safety and well-being without a physical campus?

There has been a big focus on health and well-being over the last couple of years, and it is hard from a distance as we aren’t interacting with students in a physical space. We put into place other ways of enabling students to work on wellbeing and manage stress. We have an app that students can use and a student homepage where students can click through and find relevant information. We also use Report and Support, which students can access and seek help if something has happened to them. We needed this because we didn’t have a singular safe space where students could come and seek support. We still want to create a safe space, even without a campus. 

Luke: How do you foster safe spaces for discussion of complex topics among students?

Since we aren’t campus-based, this isn’t a physical safe space. We aim to give students as many opportunities as possible to attend online events and whether that’s within their tutor groups or with wider groups of other students. For tutorials, we give students the chance to attend in any way they feel more comfortable online, and we feel that the online space is very democratic for that; you can have your camera on or off and decide how you exist in that space.  

It all comes down to making sure we hear and value everyone’s voice and everyone’s experience across the whole OU community. It’s about building trust across the space and being proactive rather than building support from a deficit perspective. We believe diversity in all of its forms benefits us all, and that underpins everything we do here.

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Luke James
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