The Interview Australia
Edith Cowan University
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students, Equity and Indigenous)

Braden Hill

As the conversation around Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) gains momentum, it's crucial to recognise that addressing these issues cannot be solved by quick fixes, but only through ongoing, intentional commitment. This intentionality is central to the work done by Braden Hill, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students, Equity and Indigenous) at Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University. 

In today’s conversation, Braden met with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss issues ranging from the challenge of building a culture of inclusion and belonging to the need to put students at the heart of the decision-making process. 

Braden's Journey

Luke: Let’s start with a brief introduction to yourself and your organisation.

I’m the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students, Equity and Indigenous) at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. We have three campuses across the state, but our main campus is about 25 minutes north of Perth. We serve a huge area, and our student body comes from a diverse range of backgrounds. Our mission is to transform people’s lives and enrich our society.

Luke: I’d like to hear more about your journey. How did you arrive in your current role?

I was originally a high school teacher, but I graduated at a time when there were few opportunities in Western Australia. So I fell into academia, getting involved in curriculum design before transitioning to become a lecturer. I’ve moved from academia into professional work, and then into management: at my previous institution, I was head of the Indigenous Center, which was really like its own mini-university. That was a foundational experience for developing my skill set, dealing with everything from recruitment to alumni to research. After serving in a Director role overseeing health and counselling, disability support, and indigenous education, I moved over to ECU to take up my current role. 

Luke: Safety and harassment are key concerns for many students. What’s the best way to establish a safe and inclusive learning environment? 

You need to respond as a whole institution, whether it’s to do with prevention, reporting, or support. Issues of sexual harm cut across the student, staff, and community domains, but universities often deal with those three things independently. So it’s important to have a unified approach and provide support in a trauma-informed way. To bring things together in practice, you need to have a reporting system which has a joined-up approach from beginning to end and a sense of responsibility for seeing things through. 

Luke: Communication is key to delivering change. How do you cut through the noise and make sure your key messages get across to students?

That question is best answered by the students themselves, so we need to make sure their voices are heard. ECU is the number one public university for student experience, and that’s because we put students at the heart of everything we do. For example, our Student Advisory Forum brings representatives from various schools to discuss everything from student safety to parking provision. We’ve also set up a new steering group where students can participate in co-creating our mental health support offerings. 

Luke: What are the key things to get right when establishing a sense of inclusion and belonging across a large institution?

People need to understand that inclusion takes action. It’s not enough to say the right things — you need to actually do them. The higher education sector has a highly diverse student cohort, but our leadership doesn’t always reflect that diversity. So the first step is acknowledging that lack of diversity. But in Australia, one of the problems is that our data on that is quite poor. Though we might know if a student is Indigenous or disabled, we might not have a record of whether a student is from a refugee background or the foster system. So we’ve expanded our understanding of our students beyond what the government mandates. That gives us a better understanding of the kind of support students might need. 

Luke: The field of EDI is advancing quickly, but institutions can be slow to change. What’s the best approach to keeping people’s minds open to new ideas? 

Since I began at ECU, we’ve been on an incredible journey. We’re a progressive university and we’ve pushed many boundaries, but we still have a lot of work to do. Our strategy is informed by the need to give voice to the lived experience of people who might otherwise stay unheard. We need to be authentic when modelling conversations about these challenging issues and encouraging people to open their minds. 

Luke: Students have many competing demands for their time. How do you make sure they stay consistently engaged? 

We do all the usual stuff, from the onboarding process to mandatory modules on our code of conduct. As part of our orientation, we also bring in performers to roleplay scenes about which behaviours are appropriate. We also have a dedicated onboarding process for our international students, helping them to learn about life in Australia. That’s part of a 10-week rolling orientation campaign: in week one, students might learn about library resources, while in the second week, it might be student finance. We also try to tailor it to students’ needs: for example, we have childcare resources for students with children and safe spaces for LGBT+ students on campus.

Luke: What’s your approach to communicating progress on student safety and equity?

We have an extremely robust process to report on student retention and success. Anyone at the university can pull up our dashboard to find that information. That data not only helps to inform our professional services but also helps academics think about how to design their curriculums around the students in their cohort. We produce an annual report on the rates of retention and completion among key demographics of students. That gives us key insights into where we need to improve.

Luke: You’ve spoken out about the Voice Referendum, which has been a divisive issue in Australian politics. How can we encourage people to talk across difference and engage in respectful debate? 

I was quite open about my view on the referendum. As an educator, above all I want people to know what they are saying yes or no to. As academics, we have a duty to reflect on the privileged positions we find ourselves in. Our role is not only to teach within our institutions but also to make a contribution to wider society. There’s this idea now that we can’t have debates anymore, but I don’t buy it. I think we’re hearing voices that just weren’t heard before, and that can cause some people to feel uncomfortable. But those tensions have always been present. 

Luke: What’s your top tip for anyone starting a career in your field?

When someone shows you who they are, believe them. That might sound negative, but it goes both ways: you should value people based on their actions, not their words. Ultimately, this work is all about people and building relationships. 

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Luke James
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