In the aftermath of the pandemic, it’s becoming increasingly clear that remote learning is here to stay. Though many institutions have long since returned to the classroom, there are many more who are embracing the new paradigm of online study, whether due to its flexibility or its ease of access. Few understand this phenomenon better than Mark Erickson, Academic Registrar for the University of Southern Queensland (UniSQ), an institution which has been delivering flexible study options for over 40 years.
Mark sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss topics including his journey in higher education, the importance of student safety on campus, and the challenge of engagement for online learning communities.
I’m currently the Academic Registrar at the University of Southern Queensland. I arrived in January of 2023, so I’m still newly minted, although I’ve been in the sector for some time. UniSQ is a leading regional university in Australia with three campuses spread across the State of Queensland. When compared to metropolitan universities, UniSQ has quite a distinctive student profile. Most of our students are people who have returned to study later in life, and many of them are juggling families and careers and are engaging with tertiary education for the first time. In addition, the majority of our students attend online: we were a large online education provider even before Covid, so we were well-placed to make the transition. As a regional university, remote learning gives us a broader footprint in the number of students we can attract to our institution. We have a strong commitment to helping students advance their learning, no matter what stage of life they find themselves in.
It was something I fell into. I don’t think many people really grow up thinking they will become an academic registrar! After completing my studies in Sydney, I took on a job in the English Department at my university as an assistant while I planned my next steps. At the time, I didn’t have any intention of staying on in higher education. I was interested in working for the public good, but I’d always assumed that would be in a government role. But I soon realised that education is one of the transformative forms of public service. It certainly changed my life: I grew up in a rural part of New South Wales, and I was the first person in my family to go to university. From that assistant role, my career progressed through several different roles until I moved into central administration, serving as Academic Registrar at the Australian National University and the University of Queensland before arriving in my current role. It shows that you don’t always realise where you’re supposed to be until you find yourself there.
At UniSQ, there is a dedicated organisational structure for student safety, but I was more closely involved at my previous institutions. In Australia, there is some consistency between institutions around the response to this issue; there have been national surveys which have shed light on the scale of the problem, and universities have been collaborating closely to come up with best practices. Like most Australian institutions, UniSQ subscribes to a Safer Communities Framework, which focuses on prevention, reporting, and response. So we do a lot of work around improving awareness and education, designing modules for commencing students about respect and consent. We also carry out active bystander training, encouraging people to safely intervene if they see or hear something inappropriate. Though we are mostly an online institution, we do have some students staying on campus, so we make sure to deliver those messages in residential halls, too. In terms of reporting and response, our aim is to remove all barriers which might make people hesitant to come forward. We want to minimise harm, help people feel supported, and make them feel empowered to report incidents. We also work with internal and external support services to provide accommodations and adjustments to students who have been affected to help them continue on their journey.
It’s a huge challenge, and there’s no silver bullet. Many universities have seen compulsory training as the solution, and have entrenched it as part of orientation. At UniSQ we strongly encourage our students to complete our training modules. I think the key is relating these issues to student’s lives: they need to understand that even if it’s not something they have experienced personally, it might affect their family or friends. It’s also important to reach students as early as possible so they can take the key messages on board. We’ve found that a peer-to-peer approach is the most effective: if we can get students to advocate for each other, then it can drive change.
That’s the Holy Grail of higher education! Covid caused a lot of disconnect among students, and many didn’t set foot on campus for years. For me, the transition period into university is the most crucial time to establish belonging. Those few weeks can determine whether or not students will feel connected to the learning community. So we spent a lot of time and resources on that orientation period, and we’ve invested a lot into online resources for our remote students. We also make sure to personally connect with every individual commencing student, making sure they have everything they need to get started. But it’s not enough to just do that once, so we carry out regular follow-ups throughout the semester. We want students to feel like part of a cohort; mentoring programs, support groups, and clubs and societies really help to build a sense of community.
Leave things better than you found them. That’s the way to leave a legacy. Always be thinking about learning and growing so you can leave something meaningful behind.