Disability Practitioner in the Spotlight
Sharon Kerr of Global Access Project speaks with Ellen Brackenreg of Western Sydney University
Few universities in Australia could claim to have done more with regard to facilitating equity of access to Higher Education for the youth of working class families than Western Sydney University. Western Sydney University is proud of its history and success in providing tertiary education opportunities for students who are the first in their families to pass through the hallowed halls of a fine university. They have seen their graduates access life opportunities that come from holding a University degree and progress as community and thought leaders in our society. Western Sydney University came into existence during the Dawkins Revolution in the late 1980’s when the labor government undertook changes to amalgamate Colleges of Advanced Education with Universities. 1 Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with Ellen Brackenreg who has held a number of positions at the University. For the past seven years she has served as Director of Student Support and is now Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor (Students).
Below are excerpts from that interview which provide insight into some of the issues being faced by universities today and the response of Western Sydney University in meeting these.
What challenges do you feel that you are facing with your position (Director Student Support)?
Ellen : The University has a multi campus environment. Each of our campuses are quite unique and the student population quite diverse, so that in itself can be a challenge. From my perspective the biggest challenge however is making sure that whatever we are doing we are doing in a co-ordinated and collaborative manner both within my portfolios and across the University.
What is an example of an area where you have achieved this type of collaboration?
Ellen: We now have what is called a cultural competency plan and we have tools which sit under that so we can measure how we are going. So for example it includes such things as: do we have cultural responsiveness in terms of our strategic planning? Is the language we use culturally inclusive in terms of things we are developing or policies ?
Have you found that staff are open and receptive to this?
Ellen: They are, yes we went through a whole process. We had someone come in who just simply worked across the board, with all teams around cultural competence, using a bottom up, top down approach … rather than one or the other. You plant the seed, you water it, you make your strategic alliances, you get your stakeholders in place, then you have enthused people, get them involved, get them having discussions and when all of these elements come together, they usually come together really well.
It is the same approach we used when we introduced inherent requirements. We now have a group of champions within our service for cultural competencies.
The other thing I am trying to embed within the services is evidence and outcomes based evaluation. Not just satisfaction … but asking (did the service) actually make a difference. We’re hoping to work with academic staff to also get research underway in different areas, and one of those is looking at the whole issue of international students and of course our domestic students and finding out what their experience is in terms of coming to the university, coming to Australia, and what are the barriers to help seeking behaviours.
I think that what you are saying too is, that teaching is not just for the teachers, and student support is not just for support staff, but the teaching and support roles are dovetailed together, shoulder to shoulder to serve the students.
Ellen: The student experience is everyone’s responsibility. And that is why from my perspective making sure that we do have these collaborations and partnerships and some sense of how we have a shared vision, is very, very important, I do think that there is a lot of good work going on at Western Sydney University by a lot of good people.
Are you seeing changes in the number and composition of students presenting with a disability?
Ellen: Certainly we have seen a trend of an increasing number of students actually coming to disability services for support and educational adjustments. …the gap is widening in terms of the growth rate – of the University’s’ growth rate and the growth rate in numbers for those students accessing all support services, with a larger growth rate in the latter. There are more and more students coming in who have a disability or require an adjustment or who sometimes don’t come for an adjustment, but might be accessing another service such as counselling or student welfare.
The other thing we have noticed is that there used to be a disjuncture between those students who would identify at enrolment as “yes I have a disability” and those students who came along to the service.. they weren’t the same students, now more students are ticking “yes I have a disability” and coming to the disability service … so all in all if you put those groups together it is about 4.4 – 4.5% of the student population and we have 44,000 students.
The 2 largest groups are those students with mental health issues and those with a physical disability. But in terms of those with mental health issues … probably we have seen a 75% increase in the number of people coming to the disability support service for adjustments relating to mental health between 2011 – 2015 – this makes up over 30% of the students attending the Disability service for support and adjustments – and makes up about 29% of students who seek support from counselling, so we’ve got a growing number of students that are presenting with mental health issues and seeking support and assistance for those issues. In response to that we have developed the mental health and wellbeing strategy (for students and staff). Not only do we have the strategy, but we have a small mental health and wellbeing team, which includes a mental health co-ordinator, a mental health adviser, and a mental health and wellbeing promotions coordinator.
What about students with a sensory disability? How has the University responded to their needs?
Ellen: I think the number of students in the learning disability category is one of the smaller numbers. But certainly in terms of sensory disabilities, our new head of disabilities is an Auslan speaker and is actually focussing on live captioning for online lecturers when it is required for a student.
One of the things we are now doing is asking- how can we introduce principles of universal design into curriculum? – that has been quite a robust discussion, but from that discussion a working group was set up and they started to look at that whole principle of universal design and also captioning . That group will build a plan with some stages around it … because there are some things that can be done quite easily that don’t have big resource implications. Again we do have staff in the academic area who have become champions of this.
Do you have many international students?
Ellen: Our international student population is not as large as that of other universities.. So currently our international student population is about 10 or 11% of the total student population.
Is the strategic direction of your university focussed on increasing that?
Ellen: Yes, yes, but more than that, one of our strategic directions is internationalisation, so it is not just about increasing the number of international students. It’s about having internationalisation introduced into the curriculum. We have 160 different languages spoken at home by our students. It is about getting those students to experience something perhaps overseas on exchange. It is also about developing strategic international partnerships. So the internationalisation focus is not just about getting increasing numbers of international students studying at the University, it is about a much broader agenda.
I always say that students with disabilities are like the canaries in the coal mine, but your international students are too. Going to a university in a foreign land is very difficult; if you are making it hospitable for international students then it is a very good for all students. I have always found Western Sydney to be a university that believes in the power of education to provide social mobility, to build hope and provide opportunity for a future, it has always been determined to serve the students in the best way possible, to ensure that they have the best possible life opportunities …
Ellen: My two children went on cultural exchange. While they were overseas they were taught in a school where they didn’t speak English. I remember how difficult it was for them to translate little things into English and then try to respond in the host country’s language, (by the time the translation was done) the conversation had moved on, which led to social isolation. Then I thought of our international students and thought how difficult it is to learn in a different language, in a different manner to what they are accustomed to in their home country, and what a challenge it is to people and how courageous they are to come and experience that. It really did give me an appreciation of that. I think that what often happens is that we get so caught up in our day to day work that sometimes we forget to stop and reflect.