The Interview Australia
University of Queensland
Director of Student Services

Andrea Strachan

Today’s universities have become integral parts of their communities, creating an ever greater need for cohesion and effective leadership. But with this comes a solemn responsibility to promote equitable opportunities for students and staff of diverse backgrounds, ensuring that all voices can be heard and valued.

Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Andrea Strachan, Director of Student Services at the University of Queensland, to discuss her journey into leadership at one of Australia’s biggest institutions, what universities can learn from student unions, and her approach to student safety and awareness — to ensure a cohesive community.

Andrea's Journey

Luke: Could we start with an introduction to yourself and your institution?

I’m joining you today from sunny Brisbane, where I’ve been based for the past eight years, currently as the Director of Student Services at the University of Queensland. My role is to lead the suite of services and activities that support the success of over 56,000 students, so not a small job! And one that relies on a team of amazing staff and an engaged student body.

Luke: What did your journey to your current position look like?

It certainly wasn’t a pre-planned roadmap to get here, however I’ve always been driven by working in value-led organisations — I really love working with people who are motivated to do positive things to help others learn and grow. I’ve done all the usual jobs you do when you’re younger — working in care homes, call centres, selling gas; all great skills you need to work well in any field, which also taught me a lot about working in high pressure environments and managing large teams of people.

Having been elected as president of my own Students’ Union when I was at university, I learnt more about how universities work and the great people helping students get the most out of their time at university. I embarked upon a decade of managing and stewarding student unions in the UK, where I was incredibly fortunate to work with a great staff team who were really passionate about the impact of education on a student’s future. After a few cold winters in the UK, I was then tempted to move here, joining the University of Queensland.

Luke: What are the top one or two takeaways from your time working at student unions that you apply in your role today?

Firstly — we all work bloody hard as a community. So, we’ve got to set expectations as to what’s acceptable when you’re working, leading, and supporting a community to succeed. Student unions do this really well, given they have thousands of volunteers who work really hard to deliver for their peers and their local communities. They’re incredible organisations — their community spiritedness is what I take away from that time there.

Luke: One of the big topics at the moment is student safety. What are you focusing on in this area?

It’s a broad topic, as safety can range from online safety to physical safety to psychological safety. The most topical one is safety from sexual misconduct — be that assault or harassment, which has been in sharp focus for a few years now. This isn’t a new challenge — we know this is a societal issue that continues to impact our entire community. Being open and transparent about both the challenges and our role in the wider community is important, as we can’t act alone in the prevention of harassment or sexual misconduct.

Setting behavioural expectations of students and staff is important. The behaviours that breach societal expectations or policy won’t be tolerated, and that is a trend that’s only intensifying this year and next. We’ve got a strategic framework that sets out our approach, including health strategy and promotion to our students, led by a specialist team here at the university.

Luke: What are some of the key learnings from work in this space that other institutions might benefit from hearing about?

At our size — 56,000 students and 20,000 odd staff — you have to involve your people, particularly our students. Focus on educating them about the broader societal issues, especially around inclusion and safety, but allow them to create the space whilst they’re here to develop into being their whole selves and embrace the power of diversity. So that they don’t just graduate, but grow to be great citizens of Australia and our global society.

Luke: How do you go about engaging busy students on these important topics?

You’ve got to recognise the diversity of your community, meaning it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. You need to differentiate your messages and channels to engage students. For us, sometimes we’re looking at residential colleges where a partner is providing the resident experience, other times, we’re working with sports clubs and societies, or student unions. We use some broad brush methods, like compulsory training for some groups, but really we want to empower the community to be active bystanders — so we’re having the right conversations and behaviours across the community. We’ve got over 150 student ambassadors working to prevent sexual misconduct — not an easy topic, but one that needs community buy-in to achieve.

Luke: When you have students from a range of backgrounds and walks of life, what do you find effective to embed a sense of inclusion and belonging?

That’s certainly not a small question! There’s lots of research in this space, too. At Queensland, around 40% of our new students are international, coming from over 140 countries. Even our domestic student cohorts are very diverse; Queensland alone is a geographically huge state. There isn’t one approach that is agreed upon, but we have key principles within our learning, teaching, and student support areas — to ensure that students are connected with their experience with us; they feel relevant, seen, and heard.

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to work on similar sorts of challenges as yourself?

Advice should always be context-specific, but to name one thing: be kind. To yourself, and to others.

Luke: And lastly, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received over your career?

A piece of advice that came to me when I was a Student Officer, and repeated later in my career: pick your battles. Energy is important and situations can be complex, so be sure to decide when something is worth fighting.

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