02: How seeing the Student as a digital-savvy Customer is reshaping Higher Education


John: I’m sitting here in the Victoria University city campus in Melbourne with Teresa Tjia. Teresa’s the Academic Registrar and Executive Director of Student Services at the university. Really universities are going through a period of profound change and there’s a rapidly evolving education landscape and the business of learning and the business of teaching is dramatically different to what it has been and we’re going to talk with Teresa today about what the age of the customer and digital disruption means for the tertiary sector. Teresa I’d like to just start by sharing with the listeners a little bit about your own background, where you grew up, where you were educated and how you came to be in the role you’re currently in.

Teresa: Well John thank you for this opportunity. I think I’ve always been very passionate about education because I came as a migrant when I was 10 and the family came from Indonesia and were Chinese/Indonesians and they went to Perth, and it was very much instilled into us from day one that education was our pathway to essentially opportunity and success, and that it was very much seen in our family and in our community as very transformational. So we’ve always been focused on education and we’ve always seen it as a very important part of, you know, our lives. So I guess in some ways that’s what led me to obviously go to university and then to essentially stay in university, or in and out of university because the most amazing, you meet the most amazing students and staff who are equally passionate and who are equally going through the process of really transformation.

John: Now where did you study and what did you study?

Teresa: So interestingly I was in, I studied at University of Western Australia and I actually studied science. So I did science, not sure how well I did, but I did do both a Bachelor’s Degree with Honours and a Master’s Degree and I actually worked and taught in labs and in teaching and then moved more into management.

John: Now you’ve worked I know at other universities, can you tell me which universities you’ve worked at and how did you come to arrive at Victoria University in your current role?

Teresa: Okay so I’ve worked in probably very different roles as well so earlier I think I said I worked as a scientist, I worked as an educator and that was mainly in universities in Western Australia. I think I worked in most of them actually in Perth and then I actually came to Melbourne after I had a bit of a stint being the President, the elected National President of the Council of Australian Post Graduate Association and then actually came to Melbourne, Melbourne University to head up their post graduate association. And that was a real time of growth for post graduate students, for not only just research students, but also post graduate course work students. So it was a really interesting time to see that growth and obviously now, you see lots and lots more students doing post graduate study – whether it’s research or course work. And then from Melbourne I’ve ended up at Victoria University because Victoria University really represents a university that is there to help students who are mostly first in family, who come from very diverse backgrounds and many students have not had opportunities, or as many opportunities to study and to learn and Victoria University offers that in absolute spades.

John: So Theresa could you describe your current role and responsibilities here at the university?

Teresa: Okay. So I look after everything that’s to do I guess, or most things to do with the student lifecycle from admissions, so when students apply to come to university, through to graduations. But I do that in collaboration with so many parts of the university and obviously I have a team of people, you know in different areas whether it’s enrolments, fees, student life, student wellbeing, customer service but also we work very closely with other parts of the university, whether that’s students, the academic skill support, the colleges, the academics, you know the IT department, the library. So the great thing about the university is it’s a very collaborative network workplace and you see that in everything that we do, you know?

John: I think a lot of people outside the university sector don’t really appreciate just how big the businesses are. Can you describe the size of Victoria University and its niche within the Australian higher education marketplace.

Teresa: So one of the unique things about Victoria University is that it is a, what’s called a dual sector university and there are a number of those in Australia. So that means we offer everything from TAFE to PhD. So from certificate to a PhD and so the TAFE part of the business does that vocational kind of training and then there’s the higher education type part of the business. And obviously also there’s research. The only thing about Victoria University is that we have students who are both onshore and offshore. So there’s some students that work on, or study I should say, on our offshore sites where we teach them with our partners and they’re from everywhere from Singapore, Malaysia, China, Vietnam. So overall, and they are actually in Sydney, they’ve got a Sydney campus as well. So overall we have probably up to 50,000 students but if you’re looking at high education in Melbourne itself, it’s probably more like about 25,000 and then there is you know a number of other, thousands of the TAFE students and there’s another of others as well offshore.

John: In my introduction I described us as living the age of the customer, do you think of your students as customers and if so, what does that mean?

Teresa: So and I think that’s the change, you know the significant change that we’ve seen in
universities in the last definitely fifteen you know years, or the last couple of decades, is that
we’ve seen students as much more multi-faceted. Yes they are customers in that they’ve
got all the expectations that they want out of whether out of our banks or out of a you know shop, out of retail or other, their Telco, they expect the same sorts of service. But they’re also learners you know? They actually have to invest their own effort and their own time to getting the outcome. You know it’s not just we spoon feed, they actually have to engage in the learning process and the learning experience. So in that sense they’re not just customers but they’re actually actively engaging as learners and in other ways also, they’re members cause they’re joining a community. They
become lifelong members of the university community. They become alumni, graduates and you know they stay in touch and we encourage them to stay in touch with the university and with each other throughout their whole lives and of course often a lot of them make life long friends and connections and mentors and all those sorts of things. So it you know the student has become so multi-faceted and we’ve got to address each part of those in different ways and we’ve got to be cognisant and aware of all those identities and all the different ways we need to help, support service our students.

John: So thinking about students in that more complex manner, what’s it meant for I guess how students are provided for now? What’s changed in the way this university and other universities provide for students these days?

Teresa: Yeah. We definitely have to put students and I think, you know I know of at least two if not more universities that have, have had some project or have a project now – for example called Student First. So it’s amazing the number of them. And why is that? Because everyone is putting the student, the customer at the centre you know? We’ve got to put them first, we’ve got to look at their journey. We’ve got to know what their expectations are, what their experiences are and how we’re going to meet them, how we’re going to exceed them. So I think that’s a real change. There’s also a change in the way, you know again like all other businesses, we’ve got to look at them as digital customers, you know their digital experience and a very mobile one. You know they’re expecting exactly the same things, you know to be able to do everything in a very convenient, easy kind of way. The other thing is that the students now have very different lives. You know they often have one if not more jobs. They’ve got, obviously if they’re mature age students or they’ve come to university later they have family commitments. They, some of them if they are coming as a post graduate student, they’ll only study part time, they’ve actually got careers that they’re actually managing and development and study’s obviously augmenting that and supporting that but it’s now part of their life, not necessarily their whole life. So we really have to think about that in how we deliver our services so not only just their digital needs and just the expectations they have because of everything else that they’re experiencing, but also the fact that their lives are much more multi-faceted.

John: So what are you doing to understand the needs and experiences of your students as customers and what’s that translating to in terms of both the physical and digital environment that you’re creating for them?

Teresa: So I think you know our university like a lot of others are really engaging in the student journey, in the student experience and you know doing it through all the traditional ways that universities have always done things, universities are lucky that they’ve always had very engaged students in particularly leadership type roles or in the formal sort of student representative sort of type structures – unions, councils, those sorts of things – so we’ve got those sorts of traditional ways of getting feedback from our students so, but more and more universities are having to do much more vigorous? ways of finding out that not only those students but all students, so undertaking things like you know customer journey mapping, obviously ongoing sort of focus groups, surveys, all those sorts of things to actually continually find out what students are expecting. Not only what are they expecting after an event, but before and during so also the nature of the feed that we’re seeking is much more immediate and timely so we’re not just doing you know the annual survey, we’re not just doing the okay we’re going to have a meeting every three months, but we’re wanting that
more timely, targeted, just in time feedback so we can actually respond in the same way, in just in time, timely and immediate and very targeted.

John: You mentioned before the nature of the student body here, many first in family students, students from poor backgrounds or migrant backgrounds, what can Victoria University offer these sort of students that’s unique and different to what other established universities may offer?

Teresa: Universities like Victoria University, really that’s been their primary focus. Victoria University sits in the west of Melbourne and one of its mission’s is very much about
supporting the community of the west and in the west and traditionally the communities in the west have been perhaps more disadvantaged in Melbourne but nevertheless you know it obviously is aspirational and ambitious. So Victoria University has got a great tradition of being very much focused on the needs of more traditional students. Not only that, we’re very focused in ensuring we provide that individual warm targeted, tailored personalised kind of service experience and really wanting to care for the student as an individual. That’s probably the things that we bring, the experience, the understanding and the warmth.

John: What does the explosion in some of the online learning tools and systems mean to the way education is delivered, has it changed?

Teresa: It’s really amazing if I you know think back even when I was at the university and now, and obviously you know I’m sure many people have got you know if they have children of their own they can see what young kids do now. I mean you know you’ve got two year olds on an iPad learning how to speak, learning how to spell, learning the meaning of words on an iPad at two. You know words like “invention” which I saw recently actually of a two year old doing that and I thought wow! You know I’m not sure I knew even what a word like invention was when I was two when I was growing up. So you kind of realise you know that the experience has changed at all sorts of, at a very young age and that’s obviously translating to what’s happening at universities because the expectations are changing you know? People are able to access their own information a lot more. So in some ways the role of the academic or the role of universities or teaching institutions and learning institutions now are really about facilitating learning, facilitating and inspiring learning and knowledge and those sorts of things, because in some ways you can actually do it yourself. You can Google anything you know? How many of us when we have a question think oh well I’ll just Google that and get an answer immediately. So you know you’ve got to think about well if you can get access to information, what is it that we provide? Well we don’t just provide information at universities – we never have. It’s always been about that love of learning, that love of knowledge and being able to expand the knowledge and apply knowledge and getting those higher level skills and being able to analyse, being able to think, being able to then apply it and grow that knowledge. So I think the nature of you know universities in some ways are still doing what they’ve always done, but the way they have to do it and the emphasis has changed.

Definitely with digital you’ve got to provide things again much more in, obviously through every digital channel but much more interactive, much more sometimes very visual but also much more collaborate where you know in some universities where they actually are co-creating some of the content with students. At Victoria University we have a lot of mentors, student mentors who are actually supporting fellow students, supporting their peers because again that peer to peer interaction’s absolutely vital.

John: We’ve touched quite a bit on new technologies and I think one of the anxieties for you know any person managing a business these days is my goodness, how do I even get my head around new technologies let alone implement it in my business. How do you stay in touch with what’s possible and how does the university orient itself for this new world and new way of learning and teaching?

Teresa: It is challenging. It is challenging because also the speed is amazing. I mean well, you know we all know things that we used to, you know when people say oh Facebook is going to be dead or it is dead, in fact it’s only the you know older people using Facebook, you kind of go like really? You know some universities I think are still just working out whether we can use Facebook in order to get students to, you know, basically go get them online so you know so I think you’re right. Universities are really challenged to move quicker in adopting a lot of these technologies and keeping up and knowing what’s the next, you know what’s the next thing that we should switch on while at the same time it’s hard to kind of maintain some of the other things that we do. So it is, I think it is difficult, it is challenging but it’s also a great opportunity for lots of us to actually do something with this. On a personal level, you know how do I, you know I keep up like everyone else. It’s just you know scanning, scanning and hoping for the best but I have to say there are some things that you know I keep thinking I just hope I can leap frog over that because maybe it’ll pass and I don’t have to learn it. So you know there’s some moments like that. But we, at the university definitely we have to keep going and we have to keep catching up and we’ve got to find new ways of doing things smartly and obviously things like cloud, more software on demand is helping with that, so it’s less about hard infrastructure, but much more about, you know, differences of cloud services.

John: Excellent. What keeps you awake at night?

Teresa: You know probably… [laughing] … you know I’m a pretty good sleeper. But I think is really, what keeps me motivated I guess more than what keeps me awake, is really trying to really understand and really be able to respond in this sort of tailored targeted personalised way for our students throughout their whole time, throughout their whole journey as a student and beyond at our university. How do I find out about a perspective Victoria University student, how do I know what their need at different points of their certificate or their degree and then how do we keep in touch with them when they’re alumni, you know? Whatever they’ve done with us. I think that’s, I don’t think any of us have mastered that at university level and that you know keeps me interested and motivated.

John: Finally in terms of surviving in the age of the customer, an age of disruption, have you got three top tips? What are the things that you think are essential to being able to navigate and survive in this world of rapid change?

Teresa: Oh I think we have to accept, the first thing is you’ve got to accept you won’t know
everything and that you really have to work with others. Okay? Got to accept the day of you are the front of all knowledge and you’re going to be the master is gone in this era of disruption and digital because you just won’t, you won’t be able to. So then the second thing, important thing, is you’ve got to learn to collaborate, got to find good partners, internally, externally whatever it is and there might be, in fact some of your best partners might be your own customers or your students, you’ve got to learn to work with them and learn from them to create whatever it is that is of value, okay? So the third thing is you’ve got to be able to do that in a fast agile way and be able to, you know, fail a bit but then recover and be very resilient and just keep bouncing back. So they’re my sort of tips really is – you don’t know everything, work with others and if you fail, get up and keep going.

John: Teresa thank you very much for sharing your very considerable font of wisdom and knowledge with us this afternoon, thank you.

Teresa: A pleasure.