Ewan has more than 15 years’ experience in higher education, working across Faculty and Central positions to deliver quality student outcomes. Previously, he led Academic Standards and Quality at The Australian National University (ANU), and subsequently oversaw the University’s student administration operations as Deputy Registrar. He also co-led a student-focussed alignment of admission, scholarships, and accommodation practices, emphasising equity and the recognition of co-curricular activities of secondary students. More recently, he has held responsibility for delivering a corporate and financial governance framework for the acceptance of philanthropic gifts at ANU.
Welcome to UNE and Armidale. Are you new to the region or local? What are your impressions so far?
Thanks very much for your warm welcome. I am new to the New England region, having moved here from Canberra just over a fortnight ago. It was a swirl of activity leading up to the move, so it has been fantastic to have some time in Armidale to get to know a little more about the town and its history before commencing in the role.
My memory from earlier visits had been one of overwhelming genuineness and generosity, and a town and university surrounded by natural beauty. And I am pleased to say that now that I’m here, that genuineness and generosity has been reaffirmed. People have gone out of their way to give advice on where to live and the best places to eat, and I now have a list as long as my arm of places to visit both within Armidale and in the surrounding regions. I am excited to start uncovering these places over the coming months.
UNE itself has such a proud history, and the many people I’ve had the pleasure to meet already obviously identify with and embody that pride. I recognise that these are difficult times at the moment, with the drought, bushfires, and COVID, but people have still been eager to describe, passionately, what UNE means to them. I’m looking forward to being part of this community.
Tell me a bit about what you do and how this led to a role at UNE?
My career over the last decade has been in compliance, regulation, and governance in universities – developing structures, frameworks, and processes in a way that ensures a university meets its legislative obligations and can continue to function, and that staff and teams can work most effectively.
That sounds like a lot. But really, it’s a whole lot of interpretation and translation, and being available to offer advice and support to help give colleagues the best chance of succeeding and excelling whether they are teaching, researching, or exploring new opportunities. It is about providing a range of resources that can be drawn on, be that through written guides, emails, discussions, and sometimes, healthy disagreements.
When I led Academic Standards and Quality at The Australian National University (ANU), in one of my first meetings with a senior member of executive they very, very clearly expressed that they didn’t want a dispassionate, removed team that came along at the end of various things and said ‘no’, and moved on to the next request and gave a similar response. They wanted a team that was enabled to be part of the development process, and engaged with the university community. This advice served me well in that role and also the ones subsequent, whether working with our fundraising team to prioritise student equity scholarships with donors, or considering how we ensured the ongoing university relevance of student evaluations and using these as opportunities to enhance our teaching and learning experience.
What are some of your professional highlights?
I have been lucky enough to work on some fantastic projects in my career. Several years ago, I led a team of staff from different service divisions to create a new way of thinking about undergraduate admission to the university, unifying admission with scholarships and residences to make one, combined offer, and putting the student experience and equity at the centre of our practices, rather than as something that was bolted on.
Shifting our approach allowed us to think about things differently and innovate. For example, rather than making prospective students hunt out scholarships, we would automatically consider them based on the information we already had. This meant that scholarships could be targeted towards students most in need, not towards those who wrote the best application. We also embarked on an ambitious fundraising plan to ensure that we had money to support those students most in need. And given what we were finding from reviewing data, at that particular university there was a strong link between co-curricular engagement and academic success, we embedded co-curricular as part of admission, to signal to prospective students the importance of being engaged beyond the classroom.
Working with 15 different teams and service divisions, each delivering their own pieces of the broader puzzle, reinforced for me that none of us can achieve great change individually, but when we work together, as cliché as it sounds, amazing things can happen.
I was also incredibly proud of my team in Academic Standards and Quality, and am thankful to have been able to work with them. Together we achieved many things that are too numerous to list, but some of them were bringing the university’s student policy and procedure suite into the current decade, and ensuring it was relevant, usable, and supported both students and staff, delivering a new approach to academic integrity, realising a timetabling system that worked for stakeholders, bringing in flexible double degrees where students could choose their own combination of degrees, rather than having a preset list, and even having a ‘policy nerd’ twitter handle with more than 120 followers to get information and advice out to our university community.
What are some of the biggest regulatory and quality assurance challenges facing Australian universities at the moment?
The Higher Education sector in Australia is an absolutely interesting sector to work in, as it is always in a constant state of development and change. This means that there is always new information to absorb, and new challenges, but that also means that there are always opportunities.
The biggest challenge for Australian universities right now in the quality space won’t come as a surprise to anyone; it’s the shift in delivery of teaching and learning due to COVID. This shift has meant extensive work on how to assure that students are meeting learning outcomes, how assessment can be moved from physical to online, and how to ensure students are receiving a quality of education comparable to what they would have previously received. UNE may have a number of these practices embedded, whereas other universities are scrambling to try and play catch up on how they ensure these things. It does, however, mean that all universities are now playing in the online sandpit.
One of the things that was present previously but absolutely has the potential to exacerbate in the current environment is academic integrity and contract cheating. As universities, we must be absolutely aware that this is happening, and be prepared to work not just in terms of punishments, but also in providing our students with an understanding of what academic integrity is, why it is important, and how to avoid breaching it. Only by working in both educating our students and having penalties can we create a respect for academic integrity in our community. I also find this space incredibly interesting, given the recently passed federal legislation that makes it an offence to promote or provide cheating services, and will be watching closely how this will play out in practice.
The other thing that I’m hearing from colleagues in the sector is a strong focus from the regulator on whether written rules, policies, procedures and guidelines are being followed in practice in an institution. I think this is a really important reminder for all of us that the policy lifecycle doesn’t just stop on approval, and we need to be considering how we ensure ongoing relevance and also training around these documents.
You are passionate about access to education and using quality and governance tools as foundations on which universities can develop and thrive. How will this passion influence what you do in your new role at UNE?
I am indeed passionate about access to education. My parents were both high school teachers who met while teaching at Cowra High School, and got married soon after. Their commitment to the importance of education, not just for their own kids but for all kids, is something that has really carried through for me. This has only been strengthened during my years working in higher education.
I think that UNE is at the forefront of realising access to the transformative power of education. About 45% of UNE students are first in family, and the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments is twice the national average. In both of these metrics, and others related to social equity such socio-economic status and regional, rural, and remote students, the education UNE delivers is opening doors for a whole new generation of students.
How will this impact how I’ll work at UNE? Well, I’ll have to do a whole lot of listening first, but I am excited to explore within UNE, and also with some of our peers, how we can use quality to enhance the outcomes for our students to help their path to successful graduation and beyond.
What’s the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume alone?
I always struggle with ‘most’ or ‘favourite’ questions because there’s so much I want to say! It’s hard to reduce it to a single thing. But I will try…
One thing that you wouldn’t learn from my resume is that last year, I was lucky enough to spend several months travelling Australia in an old, beat up Ford Transit motorhome. It had a bed, a tiny kitchen, and hot water, which I’ve discovered I can’t live without.
As part of this trip I got to see so much of Australia – and understand that there’s so much more yet to see – and it really reaffirmed for me that so much of magnificence of Australia lies not in the cities, but in the regions. I was lucky enough to feel tiny snorkelling alongside a 7-metre long whaleshark, be absolutely surprised hiking through fertile canyons in the middle of the desert in the Kimberley’s, experience the playfulness of dolphins while kayaking, and spend many nights appreciating the Milky Way while staying in the remote wilderness.
What sticks out for me though is less the activities, and more the sense of being open to adventure. What would happen each day would be crafted from conversations with strangers the night before, perhaps some background googling, and a general attitude of being open to what the day would bring. It was a fantastic break for someone who works primarily in compliance, and as a reminder of the value of being open and flexible.
Anything else that you would like to share with staff?
Ah nothing specific! We’ve already talked about a lot. Just that if staff see me around, please do say hi, and give me feedback on what is working well in the quality space, and how we can do even better. Or to tell me about some fantastic places to see or hikes to go on in the region that I definitely should not miss. Or, more than anything, I’d really love to hear what they’re proud of about UNE.