Brenda Gourley, vice-chancellor of the University of Natal in South Africa, will become vice-chancellor of the Open University.
Professor Gourley believes that universities have social responsibilities in promoting access to education and was attracted to the OU by its mission.
She said: "I like the idea of having a commitment to social justice. It is open to people and open to places. Education plays an enormous role in social justice and distance learning makes it possible for people for whom it would not otherwise be possible."
Professor Gourley, 58, has steered the University of Natal through profound post-apartheid changes and brought stability to its campuses. The university has grown to more than 23,000 students and has transformed its formerly predominantly white student body to one with 41 per cent African, 33 per cent Indian and 23 per cent white students. Professor Gourley also established Natal as South Africa's leading centre for HIV-Aids research, enhanced its international profile and raised millions of rand for the institution.
She said: "It has been quite a wrench for me to move, but I don't feel as if I am relocating - rather I am moving on to a bigger canvas." Professor Gourley hinted that she would maintain links with her homeland through partnerships between the Open University and overseas institutions.
Professor Gourley was South Africa's first female vice-chancellor. Her appointment to the OU brings the total of female vice-chancellors in Britain to 13.
Her predecessor, Sir John Daniel, was the fifth highest-paid vice-chancellor in the latest THES pay survey. He earned £153,000 in the year to July 31 2000.