The Interview Australia
The University of South Australia
Registrar and Director of Student and Academic Service

Richard Irons

Whilst communication between a university and its students is important, it’s equally crucial for the university to understand their students and how they want to be communicated with, in order to get their attention. This can range from the method (phone vs email vs text vs in-person) to the manner in which the information is presented. Contemporary communication norms never stop evolving, so this process also requires regular reviews and changing course if a certain tactic has stopped working. 

Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Richard Irons, Registrar and Director of Student and Academic Services at the University of South Australia (UniSA), about how to work in concert with the students and people you’re serving and communicating with in order to attain the goals you’re aiming for.

Richard’s Journey

Luke: What drew you to the work you do today and out to Australia from the UK?

Education, equity, and supporting others to become successful have always been strong in my family and influenced my career path quite significantly. Both of my parents are teachers and my brother is a psychologist. My grandfather was Britain’s first Black magistrate and has an OBE for his work towards race relations. I began my career working with targeted groups of students who were largely disaffected, disenfranchised and had struggled with traditional education due to behavioural issues, drug abuse, and social or family problems. My mission was to help them back into education, employment, or something positive from the trajectory they were currently on, and that whet my appetite for transforming lives through education. From there, I went on to work in a number of schools and colleges in similar supportive roles. The next logical step was higher education (HE) so I began working at Nottingham Trent University, leading their enquiry management and student services centre. Eventually, I took on other roles that supported international students and student finance. That took me to the University of Derby as the Head of Student Services, which was quite quickly followed by becoming their Academic Registrar. Then, one day on LinkedIn, I got an enquiry from South Australia, which was a whole different and potentially life-changing opportunity, and I kind of went all in. The next thing I knew, my family and I had moved across the world, and here I am!

Luke: What are some of the key things to get right when embedding a sense of inclusion and belonging across a whole institution?

We have benefited in recent years from much more research to help inform practice. And we have a plethora of information now that shows the significance that a sense of inclusion and belonging has in terms of student retention and success. So not only is being inclusive the right thing to do anyway but even from a business perspective, it helps both the university and the students achieve success. A lot of universities talk about being global institutions, but if you really are, then that sense of community and understanding of different backgrounds has to be embedded in the student journey. To that end, we run some specific targeted initiatives. We have peer support for students to connect with each other. We have one called G’Day Mate for international students. We also have breakfast bars and key cultural events we hold across the university. We just celebrated Diwali and had 400 students and staff attend. It was a terrific time.

Luke: How do you best keep students engaged on these topics?

I don’t think there’s a way to guarantee this because students aren’t predictable or mechanical, but there are some sensible things that you can do. A starting place for me is speaking to and co-designing with students. It can be quite easy to fall into habits and think you’re the expert and know what’s best. Don’t do that. Talk to students about important subjects and how they think they would best respond to information and want to have it communicated to them to ensure you’re not patronising or condescending or giving information in a way that’s not digestible.

Luke: How do you best go about keeping people at your uni open to new ideas and ways of looking at things?

Generally, people working in universities are inquisitive, innovative, driven people who want to support students and are very passionate about what they do, so I haven't found inertia to be too much of an issue. The only area where a sense of inertia can set in is when people feel blocked, or unable to navigate political or resource-based barriers. My advice tends to be around persistence, political savviness, gaining momentum, and getting students on your side. The support of the student voice is really powerful. If students passionately advocate for change or movement, that’s part of the battle won. 

Luke: How do you go about keeping important topics at the forefront of students’ minds on an ongoing basis?

Talking to students and reviewing. You have to keep going back to them, and ask them about what things have and haven’t worked. Thanks to this, we’ve completely reset our methods of timing communications for students. Historically there’s a tendency in HE to bombard students at the start of the year with all the information they need. Clearly, that’s too much at once. It’s not going to resonate, or be digested if the amount of information is overwhelming. Now we try to release the information they need when it’s right and appropriate for that stage in their journey. Even with that, a lot of students don’t read the comms and we have to accept that, as well. So we also let them know they can contact our student centre, Campus Central with any question they have about anything, at any time. We tell them, “If you remember nothing else, remember that!’ Those two approaches help to cover most things.

Luke: What is the best piece of advice that you have received over your career?

The more you can surround yourself with excellence, with people who push you outside of your comfort zone and challenge your thinking, people who will debate with you and say no to you, the better. The more you’re around those kind of inquisitive, excellent minds, the more it shapes you as a person.

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