The Interview Australia
Southern Cross University
Vice President of Students and Registrar

Brendon Nelson

Creating a university experience that is safe, enjoyable, and successful for students from all backgrounds is a challenge that many sector leaders are working on. In this exclusive conversation, Brendon Nelson, Vice President Students and Registrar at Southern Cross University, speaks with Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, about the different approaches taken across the sector and how he is building a culture of progress and support.

Brendon's Journey

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

Of course, I’m the Vice President of Students and Registrar at Southern Cross University, which is a regional university in Australia with three main campuses. What I love about it is that we have a significant role to play in the regions that we serve, such as training the next generation of key professionals. Personally — I’ve been here for two years, and my portfolio includes student administration alongside student support, which isn’t the case at all universities — where sometimes the support side might sit under the DVC Education or elsewhere. That’s great because my teams are all connected to the student experience, meaning that if a student does something administratively that might indicate a support need, the team is very coordinated in its ability to respond.

Luke: How do you establish a sense of inclusion and belonging across the institution?

I used to be at Sydney University for eight years, where we had 75,000 enrolled students. The biggest learning for me in coming to Southern Cross was the need to understand your people. Assuming that all your students are cut from the same cloth and committed to success really doesn’t work in regional universities. For example, two-thirds of our students are women, a lot of whom are returning to study after breaks and have other responsibilities. How you help them belong in a higher education setting is very different to the traditional school leaver profile.

We also have a relatively high participation rate for First Nations people, and 49% of our undergraduate students are classified under government guidelines as starting higher education with a barrier, which brings a range of challenges that affect our students. This means that your pitch has to be quite different to accommodate this range of circumstances. We have to build on supporting aspiration and success, particularly as a lot of our students have made a big call to come back to university at this stage in their lives.

We used to have an issue with retention and success. We’ve now moved to the block model — six weeks of teaching on a particular unit at a time. This enables students to build a deeper connection with peers and teachers, and are better able to succeed academically. This was a big call for the institution, to break from the norm and change many of the processes across the institution. This change, alongside a adopting much more proactive model of support and outreach, has really helped build a strong sense of inclusion and belonging.

Luke: A big topic in the industry currently is student safety and the prevention of harassment. What are some of the key things to get right in this area?

Like all universities, we certainly haven’t got this entirely right. One thing that always surprises me is how difficult we universities often make it for students to access various support teams and resources — such as having different phone numbers and email addresses for each department, or even for each campus’ security team. So a simple change we’ve made is we created a centralised number that students can contact for any support needs, as ease of access is central to the support a student actually ends up using. You’ve then also got to mesh the knowledge of the teams together, so they know what their service catalogue is and also what other teams can help with. 

Luke: Given how busy today’s students are, how do you successfully engage them on these important topics?

Repetition is important. The results from the national survey in 2021 showed that half of our respondents didn’t know where to ask for help, or where to report issues. Hence it’s important to repeat key messages beyond the noisy induction period where students are bombarded with information. We’re now bringing regularity into the promotion work we do with students, and using a variety of channels to reach and engage students, including things like adding popup reminders in our VLE regarding support that’s on offer at a few points throughout each term. Purposeful repetition is key.

Luke: How do you keep people and teams open-minded to trying — and embracing — new approaches?

The biggest thing for me is building a culture with psychological safety — it’s got to be safe to try, to fail, and to challenge things. Encouraging the testing and trialling of new ideas, which can then be scaled up once proven successful, helps reduce the fear of what happens if it goes wrong. ‘Let’s give it a go and see’.

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

Perfection is the enemy of progress. If you think you’ve got to do it perfectly, you just won’t do it. Embracing the growth mindset of continuous learning and improvement is the best advice I’ve received.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Luke James
Luke works hand-in-hand with leaders and changemakers in our professional services markets. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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