The Interview Australia
University of Newcastle
DVC Academic

Mark Hoffman

Helping a diverse range of students have an academically and socially successful experience at university poses various challenges that many university leaders are working on.

Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Professor Mark Hoffman, DVC Academic at the University of Newcastle, to discuss his journey in higher education leadership and the approach he and the institution take to engage and support their diverse student body.

Mark's Journey

Luke: Let’s start with an introduction to yourself and your institution.

Sure, I’m Mark Hoffman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic at the University of Newcastle, which means I look after all the academic programmes for all our students, as well as education quality and staff quality. I’m originally an engineer, though I don’t spend much time engineering these days. The University of Newcastle is the largest regional university — i.e. of those that aren’t based in any of the major cities — it’s a comprehensive university that was created to provide education for the city. That means half of our students are the first in their family to go to university, and about a quarter come from low socio-economic backgrounds. We also have the largest number of Aboriginal students, at 4% of our student body, which is higher than the proportion seen in the local area more broadly — something we’re really proud of.

Luke: What was your journey to your position today?

I worked in industry early on in my career, over in Europe, before returning to Australia to pursue a career in academia, which is where I’ve spent most of my time. Once here, I progressed through various leadership roles, with my main transition being from working in the research branches to focussing on helping improve the impact our graduates can have on the world — hence I became focused on the education experience.

Luke: Establishing a sense of inclusion and belonging is so critical to improving student outcomes. What’s important to get right in this pursuit?

A key thing is to set them up for academic success. Many of our students don’t come directly from school — they may have dropped out of school — so you’ve got to give them the academic foundations in a way that is support-led and empathetic. At the end of the day, if a student isn’t succeeding academically, then they become particularly disillusioned.

A lot of feeling comfortable in the environment comes from students engaging with the institution and with one another. An unusual thing we do, compared with the wider sector, is to require first-year students to come to a lot of their classes, which was a bit controversial when we first introduced it, but is so impactful from a cohort-building perspective. Particularly as we have a very diverse student body, and cohort-building doesn’t work unless everyone engages in it. This has been a big part of growing our student satisfaction in recent years.

You also need to identify students who are struggling, in the many forms that can take. The first two to four weeks are critical, as students are typically feeling unsure or a bit lost, and are in the midst of getting used to a new type of learning. Typically 5-10% of students are struggling at this point, which isn’t a huge number, but it does underscore the need to identify them and support them.

Luke: Another prevalent topic in the sector is regarding student safety and the prevention of harassment. What initiatives are you focussed on in this area?

First and foremost, we view this a whole-of-institution effort. With students, we’re focussed on primary intervention — education and culture change — starting with a module that all students have to do as part of the registration process with the institution. We also run lots of different events — Pride week, Respect week and others — and we do a lot of student consultation, including with survivors groups, to give us feedback on the activities we’re doing at the moment. Lastly, ensuring students know how and where to report things and get support is a big part of our approach — over the last 2 years of our annual survey, there’s been a 30% increase in the number of students who know and understand our reporting channels.

Luke: Given today’s students are busy, how do you keep these important topics front of mind across the academic year?

This is a really good point, as it’s not about just doing a module at the beginning of the year. We have continual messaging and events for students that roll out throughout the academic year, and we also encourage staff to talk openly about potential issues with other staff and with students. Though to do this effectively, a lot of it is about consultation — we talk with students, with survivors groups, and with various other groups — which then informs the activities that run throughout the year, enabling them to be tailored and nuanced to different groups of students.

Luke: How do you ensure a consistent organisation-wide approach?

Central communications is clearly a very important piece. It goes down to the schools who have direct interactions with students, and we do encourage people to develop their own activities, but having templated guidance and structure from central comms helps keep consistency.

Luke: To finish off, what is the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

Without a doubt: make sure you communicate with people, particularly within a university environment, where everyone has strong and well-formed opinions that they want to be heard. The corollary to that is to be comfortable with the conclusion of where the debate lands, and make a plan to see it through.

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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