The Interview Australia
Flinders University
Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Students

Romy Lawson

For a modern university, prioritising a safe and inclusive learning environment is not just a preference; it's a necessity. In her role as Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Students at Flinders University, Romy Lawson is responsible for cultivating a culture which not only values academic excellence but also the holistic well-being of every student.

Romy met with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to talk about current needs for the higher education sector, exploring the challenges of creating a safe and inclusive learning environment, and the duty of universities to cultivate open minds and diversity of thought. 

Romy's Journey

Luke: Can we start with a quick introduction to your current role and institution?

I’m the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Students at Flinders University. We’re based just south of Adelaide, and we’re currently in the process of relocating to the city centre. We have about 25,000 people studying with us. As Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Students, I’m responsible for looking after academic matters for the university.

Luke: What inspired you to pursue a career in student affairs? And how did you arrive at Flinders University?

I spent nearly twenty years in the UK, where I worked as an academic developer, running courses for academics to make sure they were proficient in educational practice. Over time, we expanded that course and toured between five different Welsh universities. But eventually, I felt like I was ready for a change, so I moved over to Australia. That was almost sixteen years ago now. I found a lot of opportunities here, working on several national projects before leading my own. As I grew as an educational specialist,  I received a National Teaching Fellowship, which opened the door to more opportunities. I have moved across roles at several institutions and  I see myself as a change agent, promoting reform instead of business as usual. Ultimately, I worked my way up to being a Deputy Vice-Chancellor. The thing I love the most about my job is making a difference in people’s lives. 

Luke: Student safety and harassment are key concerns for students. What are the most important things to get right when fostering a safe and inclusive environment?

It’s a hugely important issue, and it’s an area where the Australian Government is very keen to see progress. For me, there are three aspects: first, building a safe environment; second, cultivating a culture which values safety; and third, educating students and staff about issues such as harassment and consent. As a university, that education piece is really important, so our institution has put several programs in place to help keep students safe. For example, we teach safety and consent as part of student orientation, and we deliver an active bystander program to help encourage people to speak up against harassment.

Luke: Students have many competing demands for their attention. When it comes to issues like safety and harassment, how do you cut through the noise to get your key messages across?

It’s about embedding your messages at the heart of everything. For example, our module on consent isn’t a standalone offering, it's an integral part of the orientation process. Students can’t opt out of that without missing everything else. Our residential students also go through an orientation process which has safety enshrined at its heart. Our active bystander training is voluntary, but we encourage it as much as possible. 

Luke: What are the key things to get right when establishing a sense of inclusion and belonging for students from a wide range of backgrounds? 

After the pandemic, it’s more important than ever. We have many students who spent their formative school years in online classes, and mature students who were working from home, and suddenly we’re expecting them to integrate into a campus environment. You can’t expect that engagement to always happen naturally: you need to be proactive. Students need to feel safe to come back on campus, and we need to create a sense of belonging so they can build connections. At some institutions, I’ve seen people sitting in their cars between lectures, and that feels quite sad. You need to make sure your campus has places where people can sit, relax, and chat. That informal learning environment is just as important as classroom space because it makes people feel they want to be in the community. It’s also crucial to hold activities on campus: for example, we hold four weeks of events at the start of each semester for incoming students. As a learning community, we all need to play a part in welcoming our students and helping them to feel at home. 

Luke: Free speech has become a contentious issue on many campuses. How do you encourage your students to keep open minds and build dialogue across difference?

That’s what university is all about. As educators, we need to encourage people to think critically and consider all perspectives. I think it would be quite sad if someone came here and only learned what was in the curriculum. Everything we do is about giving people a licence to question, challenge, and explore. If we aren’t doing that, then we aren’t doing our jobs properly. 

Luke: How do ensure that students stay engaged and motivated throughout the whole academic year?

It’s about having prompts to remind students about what is happening. That could be putting notices up around campus, sending out reminders, or having weeks themed about areas such as well-being. When we communicate with students, we think hard about how they talk to each other and what kind of content they engage with. So we’ve veered away from long emails towards platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Personally, I like to make video updates. They aren’t fancy or scripted, it’s just me walking around with my phone — I like to call them my “Blair Witch Videos!” We also try to thread well-being throughout students’ classroom learning. For example, we know some professions have higher rates of anxiety, so we make sure to address that as part of the course content.

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

If you want to be a leader, you need to accept that you won’t know everything. I like the phrase, “incomplete leader, complete team.” You need to trust in the people around you to fill in the gaps. You need to empower people. You will never succeed alone, so you need to lift up the people around you too. 

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