An exciting Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) funded project is underway at the University of New England aiming to ensure students have an engaging and inclusive experience at UNE. This project is led by Associate Professor Jennifer Charteris and is titled ‘Enabling student access, participation and retention through support for mental health and well-being’. The project’s various collaborators include the Schools of Education and Psychology, the Oorala Aboriginal Centre, and the Student Accessibility and Wellbeing Centre, all of whom bring various expertise and perspectives.

The Project team comprises Associate Professor Jennifer Charteris, Professor Sue Gregory, Dr Joanna Anderson, Dr Genevieve Thraves, Associate Professor Navjot Bhullar, Ms Donna Moodie, Mr Guido Posthausen, Ms Caroline Pflaumer-Winter, Ms Julie Kryger, Ms Richelle Roberts, Ms Julie-Ann Barker, and Ms Harriet Ridolfo.

In more detailed terms, the aim of this project looks to improve access, retention, completion rates and well-being of undergraduate students from low socio-economic, Indigenous, and regional/rural backgrounds. 

The motivations behind such an enormously beneficial project are obvious, but it is worth considering the timeliness of student wellbeing during a global pandemic. With COVID-19, there is a need to focus on students’ sense of connectedness as part of our pedagogy at UNE. Through this HEPPP project, lecturers support the engagement and retention of students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds, those who identify as Indigenous, and students living in regional/rural areas.

The project aligns with the Australian University Mental Health framework, which was released in December 2020. This framework aims to guide staff in Australian universities to address the needs of students who experience mental health issues.

One of the key outputs of this project will be a signature pedagogy, designed by various members of the team. The pedagogical approach of the project combines Universal Design for Learning, Trauma Informed Pedagogy, and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. The development process is described by one of the staff members who helped design it – Dr Joanna Anderson:

I worked alongside Associate Professor Charteris, Dr Thraves, Mr Guido Posthausen, and Ms Donna Moodie to conceptualise, design and socialise our signature pedagogy. Advice and feedback were sought during this process from a Student Advisory Group and an Indigenous Advisory Group. This proved to be incredibly insightful, and I believe the work we have done in this space is much richer for having had input from the very generous students and community members who committed to being part of these groups.

A pillar of the signature pedagogy is the foregrounding of knowledge of Indigenous Australians. It was developed in consultation with a visiting academic from the University of Melbourne, Associate Professor Nikki Moodie. Associate Professor Moodie raised important points regarding incorporating reading material that privileges Aboriginal peoples’ experiences. She stated that when teachers do not engage with the ‘why’, there can be a tokenistic indigenisation of the curriculum. Moreover, there may be no process of curriculum mapping and the material may not align with the assessment. This means that students won’t translate what they have read into application. The key is to make sure there is good scope and sequence.

When discussing this project, Dr Genevieve Thraves noted how important it is to consider the way pedagogies impact students. She went on to say:

The beauty of this project is that it encourages unit coordinators to incorporate established practices into their teaching that are known to support student wellbeing. This works in tandem with broader initiatives that provide students resources that will enable them to manage their own wellbeing, and/or access services when needed.

Associate Professor Navjot Bhullar from the School of Psychology who provides a vital lens on the project noted the importance of student wellbeing during the pedagogical development. On this topic Associate Professor Bhullar noted:

What stood out for me is the well-considered systematic approach to support our students’ wellbeing so that they not only survive but also thrive while achieving their study goals. Indeed, it takes a community of the university staff (e.g., educators, unit coordinators, professional staff) to support our students’ learning journeys.

There are various steps in building the project’s goals – below is a brief overview of some of the immediate goals in the project’s development:

  • The project team has undertaken database research, participated in sub-working groups, created and implemented pre and post surveys, analysed survey results, engaged with a Student Advisory group and an Indigenous Reference Group as well as unit coordinators.
  • Four specifically created professional development training videos were developed by the project team to support the embedding of the signature pedagogy.
  • Students in the pilot units have been provided an opportunity to use the ‘TalkCampus’ app and benefited by the additional professional development provided to unit coordinators within the pilot units.

‘TalkCampus’ is a mobile app designed to increase student connectedness both locally and globally. It provides students with access to various wellbeing resources and networks, allowing them to be proactive in monitoring and nurturing their own mental health and wellness. The app also provides a professional safety team to moderate and escalate at risk presentations 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The UNE Wellness Centre has implemented ‘TalkCampus’, and it is being piloted in 12 units at UNE as part of the project.

Subject matter experts from the Oorala Aboriginal Centre also make up the project team and have co-designed the program and materials. Oorala facilitated engagement with an Indigenous Reference Group which has provided incredible support. The feedback this group gave the project was truly invaluable.

Mr Guido Posthausen, Acting Director of the Oorala Aboriginal Centre, described how the goals of project also have strong importance for UNE’s Reconciliation Action Plan:

Supporting student wellbeing is an essential part of Oorala’s engagement with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. It is also something all of us at UNE are all responsible for. The ‘Enabling student access’ project makes an important contribution to UNE’s commitments, particularly under our Reconciliation Action Plan, by providing guidance to unit coordinators to consider the inclusion of culturally appropriate pedagogies and content, while giving students access to a suit of well-being tools.

Representatives and counsellors from the Wellness Centres, Student Experience Division, also joined the project team to ensure alignment of the project outputs with UNE’s Wellbeing Strategy and the Australian University Mental Health Framework (Orygen, 2020). The Wellness Centre provided the project with information and access for the ‘TalkCampus’ app.

While this project incorporates many disciplines across the university, it is not constrained to these alone as it has been developed and designed for future scaling up across the university.

If you are interested in seeing some of the outcomes of the project, its signature pedagogy was presented by Dr Genevieve Thraves and Dr Joanna Anderson at the Learning and Teaching Symposium (July 2021). If you would like to see the pedagogy presented follow the link here: