While universities often strive to create safe, welcoming environments for students, not all actually involve students in the process of developing belonging and inclusion initiatives. In order to truly represent what they need and desire, however, there is no better way to address the issues that students are actually experiencing and to allow them to feel truly represented. Furthermore, it allows university leadership to understand how to communicate with students and provide information in a way that they will best receive and retain.
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Kylie Austin, Associate Director of Student Equity and Success at University of Wollongong (UOW), about bringing students along in the process of creating university culture that truly works for and with them.
This is an area I’ve always been really passionate about because I have lived experience. Growing up, I was the first in my family to graduate from university. We had a history of living in government housing, and Mum and Dad working a number of jobs. I wanted to go to university myself as well but I didn’t get the marks I needed to get into the course I’d planned on so I ended up working in a stockbroking company. After two years, however, I decided I needed to do everything I could to get in. After finally doing so, I remember getting my first mark at uni and not doing very well. But thankfully I had an amazing lecturer who sent me an email asking if we could have a coffee and a chat, and that was really the start of it. I wasn’t someone who was typically going to go to uni, and I would’ve been someone who would’ve fallen through the cracks had I not had this incredible, supportive teacher to show me the ropes of higher education (HE).
Since then, I did my Bachelor of Arts in Education at UOW and started running our peer-assisted study programs here after I graduated. Then I went on to a whole range of equity-focused initiatives across UOW including outreach into local schools and co-curricular programs for students, and have headed up our accessibility and inclusion team, our transitions team, and our living support team. And this year, I took on my current role.
We’re a very diverse university with students that fall under the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) banner accounting for 96% of our cohort. And so that consideration forms one of the main pillars of our student success strategy. We ran a whole bunch of labs this year to co-design this strategy with students, and belonging and inclusion consistently came up as a key theme. The first thing to get right is acknowledging that, as staff, we don’t know all the answers. We have the concept here of ‘Nothing for us without us’, which means involving students in the co-design of any programs, initiatives, services, or institution-wide changes. Inclusion and belonging isn’t a one-time act that just happens at the start of orientation and then all of a sudden it’s fine. It needs to continue across the student lifecycle, inside and outside the classroom. Things like mentoring programs, ensuring you celebrate the diverse achievements and unique identity of students, and fostering a vibrant environment of clubs and societies. Meanwhile, in the classroom, staff need EDI training to understand how to work with diverse students, and to make sure they’re facilitating opportunities for connection within the classroom.
We often talk about cutting through the noise and it’s a key part of our communications strategy to students. We don’t always get it right, but one of our key goals last year was bundling all of our orientation into an overarching campaign. Our orientation goes for eight weeks instead of one, meaning that rather than overwhelming students with a whole heap of information in one week, we take a scaffolded approach. We’ve been fortunate in that we’re a very student-facing campus, with 80 to 90 percent of students attending our student engagement activities. At other unis, attendance is usually only 40 to 50 percent. We also strive to bundle student communications together in ways that are personalised and relevant to the students as individuals, so they’re contextualised to each one’s specific needs.
Post-COVID, HE is in a regeneration-type space. We have the opportunity to rebuild and reimagine ways we provide student support. It’s been really important for us to have our faculties on board and have input into the design of student support. We’ve had policy teams, IT systems, and data teams involved. It’s looking at student support as everyone’s business across the university. Everyone has a role to play. Our students are paying a lot of money for HE and we have a responsibility to ensure we give them every opportunity to succeed.
If you put the students at the centre of your decision-making, you’ll never make a wrong decision. If the decisions benefit students and are based on their needs, that’s the guiding light.
One of the really important things for us is students as partners. It underpins everything we do. We’ve had students co-lead our working groups. We make sure we have equal staff and student representation on governance. We include in our budget funding to employ students as partners in co-design initiatives, and that payment is important to make sure we’re getting a diverse student body engaging in that space. And listening is crucial. Always asking students how well we did, and what we can improve in the future.