The Interview Australia
University of New South Wales
Director of Access, Equity and Inclusion

Mary Teague

In the rapidly evolving landscape of higher education, the imperative for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is not only a moral obligation but a strategic necessity. In her role as Director of Access, Equity and Inclusion for the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Mary Teague has played a pivotal role in guiding her institution’s efforts to foster a more inclusive future for all. 

In today’s conversation, Mary sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing Australian Higher Education today, from the need for personalised intervention and continuous support to the challenge of securing student safety on campus. 

Mary's Journey

Luke: Can we start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution?

I’m the Director of Access, Equity and Inclusion at UNSW. I started working in Student Equity in 2007 at the University of Sydney, one of Australia’s largest universities. I joined at the time of the Bradley Review, which aimed to widen participation and access to higher education for students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. So I was responsible for implementing a whole range of projects based around that, including targeting increased access for students from Indigenous groups. I worked on that for many years before I moved over to UNSW in 2019. I was drawn by the dedicated division for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which was recently expanded to include societal impact and engagement. DEI has been at the forefront of the university’s strategy since 2015, and it’s one of the few universities in Australia which has made that a central commitment. It’s a very exciting place to work and it makes a monumental difference to be part of an institution which views DEI as a strategic priority.

Luke: I’d like to hear more about your role. What initiatives have you been working on recently? 

After launching a whole new program around access, we’ve been thinking about what happens when students from disadvantaged backgrounds arrive at university. Though we aren’t responsible for direct support, we provide subject matter expertise to help evaluate those programs and their outcomes. I also oversee staff and student equity, and as part of that, I manage our Athena Swan scheme and our new gender equity strategy. We work closely with our faculty and our HR department to develop programs which can be incorporated into that strategy. For example, we’ve just brought in a DEI-based training module for staff and students, emphasising things like cultural inclusion, safety, belonging, and well-being. Through those initiatives, we try to spark action elsewhere in the organisation instead of trying to do everything ourselves.

Luke: What are the key things to remember when trying to embed a culture of inclusion and belonging across such a large university? 

As part of our institutional commitments, we have developed a flagship scheme called Our Values in Action, which is based on the principles of inclusivity and respect. Those values have laid down solid foundations to help us build a range of equity-based projects. We’re now trying to deliver more specific EDI-based training for staff: it’s optional instead of mandatory and is designed to encourage people to think about how they can live those principles on a day-to-day basis. We’re also promoting diverse representation in leadership, and making sure that our senior leadership represents our values. 

Luke: In higher education, people are busier than ever, and they often struggle to find the time to get involved in new things. How do you ensure people engage consistently on topics like diversity and inclusion?

There are a lot of different mechanisms you can use, especially in a large institution. Here at UNSW, we have around 70,000 students and a huge number of staff. Part of DEI is having an excellent communication strategy: you need to create clear channels and make sure your key messages are prioritised. The visibility of your work is critical, and you need to cultivate relationships within an organisation to increase that visibility as much as possible. From a practical standpoint, we’re looking at workload models which can support staff getting involved in DEI initiatives. There’s still some work to do, and policies aren’t yet consistently applied across all faculties, but we’ve made a lot of progress.

Luke: Safety is a key concern for many students. Issues such as harassment disproportionately affect people from diverse backgrounds. How can you address this problem from an intersectional perspective?

At UNSW, instead of approaching it as a separate topic within DEI, we’ve tried to embed it into every aspect of our approach to safety. We need to make sure people feel empowered to come forward. If there’s an increase in the number of complaints, that means our education efforts have been successful. It doesn’t necessarily mean more incidents are occurring, but that more people feel able to speak out. We’ve held some training programs around being an active bystander, navigating the complaints process, and practising respectful behaviours. We also run a large pre-tertiary educational program for underrepresented students: we’ve found that if we build a sense of belonging early on, it can make a real difference. One thing we make sure to do is to personalise our contact: for example, every student from our equity cohort will receive a call before they arrive to see if they need support, and then they will get a follow-up call after they enrol to see how they are settling in. It really makes students feel like they are seen and heard. 

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

There are a couple of things. But most of all, you just need to have a go! Try things out without worrying about the roadblocks you might hit. I’m a bit fan of initiatives like pilot projects, as that helps us overcome those barriers to change. People are generally reluctant to shake the boat, so it’s really important to make change seem less intimidating. 

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