The ultimate goal of Higher Education is not just the acquisition of knowledge; on a more fundamental level, it’s about helping people become empathetic, open-minded contributors to the greater good of society. This mission is at the heart of the work done by Dr Diane Barker, General Counsel and Director, Assurance and Governance at Australian Catholic University (ACU).
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, met with Diane to discuss topics including her institution’s mission-based approach, striking a balance between remote and in-person learning, and the need to create a welcoming environment for students from diverse backgrounds.
I serve as General Counsel and Director of Governance for Australian Catholic University. I was also recently appointed as Lead of the Assurance Unit, so I have plenty to keep me busy! I was originally a lawyer in private practice before I moved to ACU in 2011. I was really drawn here by the university’s mission: at the time, I was undertaking a PhD, and that opened up the possibility of aligning my academic activities with a professional role in higher education. After I arrived, I was responsible for setting up the Legal and Governance Units, and I’m currently in the process of building up the Assurance Unit.
ACU is a large, multi-jurisdictional university with eight campuses, including seven in Australia and one in Rome. That’s something which really sets ACU apart from other Australian universities. Our institution also has traditional focuses on education, nursing, and allied health, and we’ve diversified into other fields, including literacy and STEM. We also have a highly distinctive law program which has a focus on social justice and pro bono legal work. In addition, we have an institutional commitment to supporting veterans. We understand that members of the armed forces need to deal with difficult challenges, such as mental health, so we are dedicated to providing them with pathways and support. We also have a strong research agenda: for example, at our Melbourne campus, we are currently building a state-of-the-art metabolic chamber. Although we have a significant reach, we’re small enough to have a more intimate relationship with our local communities so we can provide the best possible support to students.
At ACU, the mission ties everything together. As a Catholic institution, our mission is focused primarily on the dignity of the human person and the common good. That runs through everything like a thread: it’s embedded into our courses, our activities on campus, and our engagement with students. Tied into that, we have a number of core values, including equity, diversity, accessibility, wellbeing and sustainability. All of these values are being codified into our new strategic plan, which is set to be launched next year. Our current strategic message is “impact through empathy” — we don’t just want our students to be good scholars, but individuals with strong values and open minds. We’re also committed to creating a welcoming environment, ensuring that all students feel like they are welcomed for their diversity. It’s sometimes assumed that as a Catholic university, we must only welcome Catholic students and staff. But that couldn’t be further from the truth: we’re dedicated to serving people from all backgrounds. We have students from all faiths and none, and also international students from a range of countries. We also provide support to students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and offer ongoing assistance to any student who may be struggling. However, we understand that we need to do more to sustain the local cultures and communities around our campuses: our strategy is to build a unified national university that doesn’t lose sight of the cultures which develop around each of our locations.
Like all institutions, the pandemic changed the way we engage with our students. That shift happened almost overnight. But that gave us the knowledge that we could be agile in how we communicate with students. We’ve discovered there is a huge appetite for online resources, and many of our students are completely remote. But on the other hand, there is a large cohort of students that prefers a face-to-face learning experience. So we’ve had a lot of success in creating hybrid models of teaching and learning. The key is to have a student-centred approach: you need to listen to their needs, understand their expectations, and provide them with what they need to thrive. As a public university, ACU is largely funded through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, which allows students to access a ‘Commonwealth Supported Place’ and defer their tuition payments through the taxation system until they earn above a certain threshold. That has allowed many students from a range of backgrounds, including those of low socio-economic status, to attend university. I believe that education creates opportunity: if not for that scheme, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Once students arrive, we need to work hard to make sure the right support is available. That includes advocacy services, counselling resources, accommodation assistance, and more. We also offer scholarship opportunities and exchange programs, including various programs at our campus in Rome. We have a key focus on our Indigenous and Torres Islander students, who traditionally have higher attrition rates than their peers. There are all kinds of barriers facing Indigenous and Torres Islander people in Australia, from lower life expectancy to higher incarceration rates. So we have a very well-developed Reconciliation Action Plan and Indigenous Strategy, which we are integrating into our courses, processes, and supports.
Always own your mistakes. When you work in my field, mistakes can have serious consequences. But if you try to avoid them, you’ll only make things worse. Owning up to mistakes is a strength, not a weakness, and it creates opportunities for learning while setting a positive example.