Open University chief heads Down Under

Martin Bean is a rarity among vice-chancellors in the English-speaking world: he does not hold a masters or a PhD, only a bachelor degree, in education, from the long ago past.

But that has not stopped Bean from being appointed to and leading Britain’s largest higher education institution, the Open University, for the past five years. Or, from 4 February, taking over as vice-chancellor of Australia’s biggest technological university: RMIT in Melbourne.

Formally greeted by an indigenous elder in a ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony on the university’s campus in Melbourne, Bean said he was delighted to be back in the city where he had lived up until he was 20. He was honoured to take the reins at RMIT, “a university with a great past and an even greater future”.

Before joining the Open University, Bean was general manager of Microsoft’s worldwide education products group. This followed executive leadership roles at Novell and other IT companies integrating technology and learning systems.


After joining the Open University in 2009, Bean was invited by the UK government to develop and launch FutureLearn in December 2012. This was Britain’s response to the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, movement.

Under his leadership the university made its award-winning course materials available to more than 200,000 enrolled students via tablets and smartphones.

Bean has won numerous awards in the US and UK for his contribution to education, including an honorary doctor of laws from the University of London in 2013 and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, or CBE, in this year’s New Year’s honours list for services to British higher education.

In his opening speech at RMIT, Bean said he had come “pre-wired with a strong belief in the importance of providing the best possible student experience, enabling students to apply their skills and launch successful careers, and in ensuring RMIT's research continues on a trajectory of excellence”.

“I’m also passionate about leveraging the power of technology, the built environment, and innovative learning and teaching to achieve our goals,” he said.

RMIT: A multi-national organisation

Although it is now a A$1billion (US$780 million) multi-national operation, RMIT has its origins as the Working Men’s College of Melbourne in 1887. It has grown to become a giant multi-campus institution with three sites in Melbourne enrolling 82,000 students – 40% from overseas – and the largest offshore branch campus in Vietnam with more than 7,000 enrolments in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

The university also delivers its courses through partners in Singapore, Hong Kong, mainland China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Laos, Spain, Belgium and Germany.

Its 300,000+ alumni include News Corporation chief executive Robert Thomson; chair of the huge BHP Billiton mining company, Jacques Nasser; New York-based founder of The Fetch and CloudPeeps, Kate Kendall; and composer and former Edinburgh International Festival Director, Sir Jonathan Mills.

RMIT chancellor, Dr Ziggy Switkowski, a former head of Australia’s biggest telecommunications company, Telstra, said Bean’s focus on the student experience and understanding of how technology enabled better learning and teaching outcomes would “drive a new era in quality education for students attending RMIT”.

“He is an executive with strong international relationships within the higher education sector and industry built over many years and will bring a wealth of commercial and operational experience to the RMIT community,” Switkowski said.

“In addition, having successfully managed higher education reform amid the widespread regulatory changes within the UK system in recent years, he is perfectly positioned to lead RMIT through the changing regulatory landscape currently being shaped by the federal government.”