Creating a rich, impactful, and inclusive experience for students from all backgrounds is a goal that many university leaders are working on, and yet can prove increasingly difficult with finite resources and a variety of pressures.
Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Michelle Gillespie, Chief Student Officer at Victoria University, to discuss her extensive experience leading student services teams and her approach to building a safer, more inclusive campus.
Sure! I’m Michelle Gillespie, Chief Student Officer at Victoria University (VU), and I’ve only been at VU for six months now. Prior to that, I had over 30 years of experience in the sector, mostly around student services and student administration, including being a registrar at a couple of places. My passion is in making a difference — knowing what I’m doing is having a positive impact on students is what gets me out of bed in the morning — which makes this the perfect job for me. In terms of my remit, I look after everything across the student lifecycle — from the call centre to student life to graduation, and also our variety of wellbeing and academic support services. VU has around 42,000 students in total, based in the Western suburbs, and with a large portion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds.
To be totally honest, that area’s been cut financially over the last few years, so now we’re assessing our current service provision to identify any gaps that need bolstering. I’m about to make an offer to a new Director of Safety, Accessibility, and Wellbeing, which is a broader remit than the role we used to have in this place, which was just focused on wellbeing and was more siloed than it will be moving forward. The safety element is absolutely an area of focus with this new hire.
Awareness is key, as often students don’t know about all the support services available. If you can get it so that students know how and where to access the right services at the right time, then that can have a huge impact. We’re always looking for better ways to communicate with students in a way that they can hear us and that we can successfully cut through the noise to reach them.
We run what’s called the Block Model. Students don’t do a standard semester — they do a subject one at a time, in four-week blocks consecutively, rather than concurrently. That’s unique in Australia. It means students come in to do three hours in a classroom three times a week, focusing on one subject area. The advantage that gives us is a much greater connection between students and teachers, given the consistency of what they’re doing and who they’re working with for a block. However, the flip side is that they’ll tend to come in, do their three hour block, and then head home — they won’t stay on campus. So we’re now trying to find ways to activate our campus to encourage students to stay around for longer; to engage with each other.
There are also tactical initiatives, like rolling out a Chosen Name programme which then automatically adds your pronouns and chosen name to emails and other communications, as well as the sunflower hidden disability support programme. These are small things that all add up to create a more inclusive environment.
This is definitely a challenging area, and one that we’re actively working on. We’ve tried to move away from mass emails to a more personal, one-to-one approach. We’re using SMS a lot more to personally interact with students, given most students won’t answer a phone call from an unknown number.. This helps us create a more tailored experience and personalise interaction with students.
For me, I always try to link it to a real-life story that people can relate to. For example, we just launched a new piece of software centred on academic credit, to make it a more streamlined process for students to apply. The best way to embed the new system is via a story, to highlight the impact. Here, if a student now applies for credit using the new system, they can get it really quickly, and they’re not chasing us or the academic staff for information or sign-off, as it’s already set up and approved in the system. You’ve got to sell the student and staff experience benefits.
A good question to finish on! For me, the piece of advice that has struck me the most is: once you stop caring, you need to move on. Care and passion for what you do is everything.