23: How better understanding its students has transformed Victoria University

John O'Neill

John O’Neill: So today we’re at Melbourne’s Victoria University and it’s an institution which is undergoing a fairly remarkable transformation, and much of that is being driven by Naomi Dempsey who is focussed on reimagining the student experience. Naomi’s now the Pro Vice Chancellor for Students, and ah as I say she’s driving much of the change and joins me today. So Naomi welcome to Customers Matter.

Naomi Dempsey: Thanks John.

John O’Neill: First of all, many of your students are first in their family to study in a university and I think that’s something the University’s traditionally of course been very proud of. But how does that affect the way that Victoria University operates?

Naomi Dempsey: VU is very conscious of first in family. We have programmes and strategies around first in family and how it relates to us in our context particularly in the West of Melbourne. In the context of VU it’s really important for us to consider their journey and the journey they have from the point at which they’re interested in a course, they inquire and apply, and how we support them during that process. We may not know they’re first in family at that point in time. But into their enrolment and making sure that they have a really successful and enjoyable onboarding experience. So the journey, understanding that journey as customer and a student, as both, is really important, and then into their very early weeks and months of study which is really a point where we’re quite aware of the challenges they face through the work we’ve done around understanding the journeys that different people have. We understand with our first in family that their families are part of the journey as well. So we very intentionally run family information days now as part of our orientation. We carve out a weekend in the schedule and we invite all of those students and their families onto campus, their children and their sisters and brothers and friends, and we have kind of a bit of a carnival feel where we can also orientate families to what it’s like to be at university because they’ve never stepped foot usually on a campus as well.

John O’Neill: That’s amazing. So I hadn’t really thought about it but I guess it can be a celebration for everyone in the family to have a kid for the first time ever in your lineage go to a tertiary education.

Naomi Dempsey: That’s right.

John O’Neill: Yeah.

Naomi Dempsey: And for students to be successful when they’re studying higher education, and sometimes in TAFE, it’s really important that the family, and wider parts of the family not just parents, understand what the experience is going to be like, what the academic and teaching piece will be like, but also all the administration and support that exists within universities which can be quite large to navigate, particularly if you are first in family and you don’t have stories, experiences handed down to you from your family. So we make sure that families they sit in on the briefings and the orientations and they understand everything from who to go to if you need counselling, how to pay your fees and the supports that are available while you’re here.

John O’Neill: And I think probably emotionally the role that VU plays might be quite a different role to the role of you know a Group of Eight university might play for its cohort. So do you see that having the sort of almost the opportunity to introduce people to tertiary education to whole families, do you think that effects a different culture, is it a different style of organisation and institution because of the slightly different role that you might have from a traditional sandstone you know elite university?

Naomi Dempsey: Possibly. Those universities of course will also have first in family, but probably not to the levels that VU has first in family and also the fact that a lot of those people here have probably got other challenges as well as part of their background, and also cultural challenges about study preparedness and English and all the things that you need help with when you’re first starting academic.

John O’Neill: So in other words you’ve got a fair you know population of migrant kids and the Polytechnic I guess is also part of that picture is it? How does that all sit together?

Naomi Dempsey: Sure. And so the Polytechnic is a really important part of VU, and it’s now the VU Polytechnic, and it’s important in the way that we pathway people as well. So A it gives people a fantastic vocational education, and it also provides the opportunity and the access to university if that’s the path that they decide to take and we pathway many of our courses into the university side of VU.

John O’Neill: Now I think within the university sector in Australia there’s a bit of buzz around VU. You’ve had to take some radical steps to turn VU around and I know that’s been a you know a challenging but rewarding task. So can you tell us a bit about the challenges the University was facing, and what you’ve done to set about meeting those challenges?

Naomi Dempsey: Okay. So VU has had challenges on many many fronts, particularly around student load and a declining student load due to market changes and the funding landscape in the university sector, also in the TAFE sector over the recent years. That’s put a lot of impact, pressure on the business to reimagine itself, and to find innovative and transformative ways of doing things. So VU has been the most exciting place to be in terms of opportunity to be a part of something that is really unique and of a first of its kind in Australia. In particular we have changed our teaching model so we no longer teach first and second year in four units in higher education in parallel, we now teach them in sequential blocks of four weeks, but their deep immersive units of learning. So we’ve changed the rhythm of the semester mode in the university sector. And that has only just completed its first year and is about to move into second year of higher education. So we’ve got another couple of years of course and unit design development to do around the full undergraduate experience and then to consider other cohorts.

John O’Neill: So just to tease out these block learning as I think it’s called. What would be the experience that a student would have now doing that block learning compared with what it was previously and can just explain a little bit more about why that’s been so important to the changes that you’re making here at the University?

Naomi Dempsey: So we found when we looked at the experiences and retention challenges we had in higher ed and undergrad in particular that if you looked at a twelve week average cycle of a semester there’s a rhythm about that where you’re learning four units of study, you can chop and change between types of content and all those sorts of things that go with it, but there’s a point really it’s probably not until week eight to week ten that you’re getting more constructive feedback via an assessment piece, but you’re getting it about four units at one time because of the way the rhythm as we say works with teaching four units in parallel. The timetabling and the management of all things life, study, work, has to be juggled around a compressed timetable around those four units. So students have found that they’re traditionally always on campus and on campus for longer to manage the demands of four units. So we’ve taken that twelve week, we have staggered the blocks one at a time, and now students are required three times per week on campus for around three hours, and then they have a whole other series of learning and develop what they do with their peers and teachers through other channels and activities that go on but there’s actually only three hours of face to face three times a week in the current model for first year. And that has given people flexibility around their work arrangements, their caring responsibilities, and just as I say all those matters of other things in life than study.

John O’Neill: I mean in many respects it sounds to me like you’ve made it more efficient and more accessible?

Naomi Dempsey: More efficient, I hope so more efficient. It’s still early days, we’ve only just delivered the first year. There’s a lot of learnings that have come out of that and refinement that’s going into second year and we’re about to see what will happen now as that first year progress into the second year into that same mode of study. We have students who are, because of the units they’re in, are in some mixed modes. So we’re seeing and learning different things from that. It is early days. What we have seen is our retention rates are up, our pass rates are up, our participation rates are up. So all indicators for us are telling us this is the right model for us.

John O’Neill: And is VU the first university in Australia to introduce this model and is it done anywhere else in the world?

Naomi Dempsey: Yeah so we’re the first in Australia to, what we call the VU block model, implement it in higher education. It is done overseas and we spent a lot of time with people overseas talking about how they do it there and how it could be contextualised to our cohort and our organisation. So the way that we do it is slightly different to everybody else overseas. But it’s very exciting to see it roll out through our undergrad and potentially into postgrad.

John O’Neill: So you’ve transformed by getting to know the students and being able to empathise with them the onboarding experience, you’ve transformed the learning experience.

Naomi Dempsey: Yeah.

John O’Neill: These are pretty big shifts. What else is happening in the university world that’s part of I guess responding to the challenges in a way that’s you know yielding good results?

Naomi Dempsey: So you’re right we have understood the customer journey and the student journey in different cohorts over many years and with yourself and through the journey mapping that work isn’t set and forget so it has to continue because the demographic of people coming to the university constantly changes what their expectations are and all other sorts of factors. We’re getting better now at understanding the journey that people have in the first year of study because we’ve really focussed all of our efforts on that in higher education last year and that’s new for us in really understanding not just teaching and learning outcomes but so much more about a student. What we learnt from our journey mapping was we needed a whole heap of other enablers and so the last few years have been spent on directing and investing resources to what we understood from a student perspective to be an issue for VU. And those were the way that our CRM performs for us, it’s connectedness across an organisation from marketing to sales to service and engagement. Our digital platforms and technology that engage students, welcome them, and now when they’re coming from offshore they can actually enrol by mobile phone and arrive here and previously they had to enrol when they got here. So that technology around the engagement, information and the general knowing of who a person is from the minute they first call you and say I think I’m interested in doing a course, that could be in our TAFE or our University, to then understanding that person all the way through and to their point which they’re commencing their study. So we have directed a lot of time and effort into those key areas, and also the capability of our staff who over this time have had to learn new and different skills based on the changing organisational environment and the student demographic.

John O’Neill: So there’s been a transformation of the digital experience as well?

Naomi Dempsey: Absolutely.

John O’Neill: And what about the physical experience of being on campus, how have you adjusted that and why have you done what you’ve done?

Naomi Dempsey: So our campuses are built for the previous model of higher education. They’re built for you know large lectures and things like that. So because we have a small class model going now for block we have to make our spaces fit for purpose. So there’s been a lot of remodelling of existing spaces to accommodate that. It means we need a lot more spaces because we’re making our class sizes quite small, twenty to thirty students. So that’s been a pretty big challenge for VU and of course the fact that we’re now eight campuses in Melbourne so there’s a lot to do. Also the fact that we’ve thought about, from a student centred design perspective, we’ve thought about how they move through our services and our touchpoints whilst their on campuses, the experiences they have, the duplication they have. So we started to think about more co-location and in the last year we’ve built a number of spaces or started building a number of spaces on campuses where students have partnered with us in the design of those, but we’ve also considered our journey mapping work and how the physical aligns to the digital. And for me moving forward that’s really important because students are here less on campus in higher education because of the teaching model. So more of what we provision to them in learning and teaching and in our central services are digital, and that experience must be replicated and as simplified digital as it should be in the physical.

John O’Neill: Now in terms of your own personal background, I know you had some time in Sports Administration and again I imagine maybe you know a rounded education is both intellectual and physical as well. I’d love to know a bit about you know and share with the listeners a little bit more about your background and your personal and professional pathway to being in this role. So how did this all come about?

Naomi Dempsey: So I had a not very straightforward pathway I suppose. I celebrate often and just yesterday I celebrate that I am an Alumni of Victoria University. I took a very indirect pathway in over many years and I only met with our Pathways Team yesterday and I spoke to them about what a fabulous thing that is about VU. And we have to really get that right here. We have the opportunity. We have a dual sector organisation. And so my pathway came I suppose more indirectly. I worked in vocational education for a long time in different spaces from teaching to apprenticeship management and stuff like that. And I had some RTO management as well over the years, but that led me to sport and the community recreation sector. That was a really important time for me because in sport and recreation I learnt a lot about facilities and venues and all those things that come in really handy in a institutional environment like Victoria University, but also in that space you learn a lot about people and your customers and membership environments, and that’s the learnings I’ve taken from the work that I had there about what we should be doing with students, particularly here at VU. So when I started it was a very different culture about students. VU has really transformed itself over the years that I’ve been here and with other people who are like minded about what it means to be a student and what that experience is that we should be delivering for them. So I’ve taken a lot of what I learnt about membership and membership communities and starting to apply that here around [inaudible].

John O’Neill: So in lay terms what was the kind of experience students would have been having versus what they have now? What would it feel like? What would the difference be if I was a student back then versus today?

Naomi Dempsey: Yeah. It’s only five years. We started a pretty rigorous transformation agenda. We say that we’re doing it now but we were doing it for a long time. We had to completely reimagine ourselves, and that meant a centralised University, it meant changes to the way the services were delivered, the digital offering and our digital services. So at the time I joined until that point it had been about what the institution felt was best for the student, when it was best and how it was best. And our work has been around student centred design and considering the value of what they get from us, and what they will say about us when they leave. So keeping that in mind we kind of work back from there and say have we done everything that we need to do. And we call it a student focussed approach here and I say student first. So always trying to think of the many lenses, not just the one lens, of what a student may need from us, because our demographic and our cohort is so diverse between not just the dual sector but within the different disciplines and the different campuses, there’s completely different tribes everywhere that you go.

John O’Neill: Yeah maybe just paint that picture a bit. You mentioned eight campuses but so how many students and can you just give us a bit of a feel for the diversity that you’re talking about there?

Naomi Dempsey: So we are a very culturally diverse University, eight campuses in Melbourne. We also have the Sydney operation which is related to international students. And we have our offshore operation as well. So VU has around forty thousand students on and offshore. And in 2018 we launched our online VU Online entity that’s focused on a select group of qualifications at this point in time, but that is now our new emerging cohort that will grow into the future. So we have a new shift in thinking about who we need to cater for. So with the work with staff it’s always thinking about you need to think about a student not being in front of you, you need to think about a student learning in an online space, and how we will continue to evolve our digital services.

John O’Neill: So you mentioned before you actually studied, did some postgrad study here at VU. Did that shape you’re thinking in relation to the student experience at all now that you’re in a position to be shaking it and if so in what way?

Naomi Dempsey: In two ways it shaped it. At the time when I was studying at VU I wasn’t working at VU. I had worked at VU before. And so I came here from a personal interest of study and doing my Masters in Education. But what it did was reinforce some things for me personally and professionally which is that education is where I want to be, and it’s where my passion is, and I feel that I can make a difference, but from many perspectives having had the professional experience that I’ve had. So it shaped , at that particular time VU had challenges around the way that it serviced students or didn’t service them or serviced them in limited ways and channels, and so that was a really big driver for me when I started because I was still completing my postgrad in that year. I was the person everyone couldn’t stand and said well that’s not true that’s not how it happens because I was still a student studying here. So at the time we met Komosion and we started our customer journey mapping and that was really important to me because it wasn’t me saying that this is what happens and where we can improve it was actually a whole heap of students that we’d got together across different cohorts to say this was the experience. So that was a very powerful piece that set really the course of our transformation of everything from students being in focus to you know customer orientated design and services. So, but also thinking more broadly not just about services but the person as a whole, so what people needed particularly in our cohort what they need to be successful in study and to have a rich and meaningful experience when they’re at VU which goes beyond their academic experience into the people that they meet, the opportunities that they get for their careers and the networks that they build.

John O’Neill: We spoke briefly also about your sport background. Is sport something that is a feature of this University and is it something that you think is important in the overall experience in any way shape or form?

Naomi Dempsey: Absolutely. So I now as I’ve observed sport I suppose from a distance, mad sports fan, but VU recently launched a sports strategy from grass roots to elite, and that strategy is not only important for what they are trying to achieve in terms of their academic programmes but also because our heartland is in the West of Melbourne. There’s a really nice piece there about the connection to community and the objectives that we need to work with community and other key stakeholders on about the health and wellbeing of people from grass roots to elite.

John O’Neill: So your role, your current role is relatively new as Pro Vice Chancellor and in brackets Students. What’s this role, what are its functions and why is it being created and what excites you most about it?

Naomi Dempsey: Okay. So I talked a little bit before about the ease and simplification of doing things and from a student centred approach. So the role of PVC Students brings together a whole heap of services and programmes, activities and infrastructure that is in the heart of what students do and need outside of the classroom. So that includes libraries, informal learning spaces, frontline services for inquiry and support, counselling, accessibility, advocacy, the whole engine room of student administration, all the systems that drive the University in terms of student management, and also work around academic support and development which we now frame up in a term called our learning hubs and essential programmes that we have around study support, pathways, careers and working to greater learning.

John O’Neill: So bringing all that together obviously you can much more holistically influence the student experience?

Naomi Dempsey: Yeah.

John O’Neill: What excites you most about this role?

Naomi Dempsey: Yeah so step one is bringing everyone together. We’re already here, but in these big organisations making that seem like it’s altogether from a student perspective is very different to us being here working together. So step one is done, we’re altogether and we have a road map now of what we want to achieve. We’ve set some priorities that are from student feedback that we know that we need to do around the experience, it’s driven by data. There are other pieces around transformation. And it’s about where we want to be and the University needs us to be, and our students need to be in the coming years. And that is around making sure that we do it with value for our students and that experience is contemporary and hopefully one day we’ll be number one.

John O’Neill: I think it’s a good Segway to my last question which is really how would you hope Victoria University will be perceived in five or ten years as a consequence of the changes that are currently underway and not only how would it be perceived but you know what would it feel like to be a student here would you hope in five or ten years?

Naomi Dempsey: So I think, talking on behalf of VU, I think, well we certainly are innovative, but we absolutely will always want to be perceived as innovative. Sometimes we’re innovative without knowing it and we are doing things that are completely transformational in the Australian higher education landscape. And our Polytechnic is doing amazing things in vocational education and particularly in their industry work here in the West of Melbourne. So we’d like to be thought of as being transformative, but I think most of all I think VU would like to be thought of as having designed and delivered a student centred approach to learning and teaching and the experience itself that ensures success, engagement and participation, but lives up to our mantra of being a University of opportunity and success.

John O’Neill: I think there’s a nice connection there you touched on industry and obviously ultimately while it’s great to be equipped with thinking skills it’s also great to be equipped with an employability outcome.

Naomi Dempsey: Yeah, that’s right. So there is a large focus in my area this year around employability and we have a strategy around that but we would like to redefine that a little bit. And also graduate outcomes and understanding from that point of when we first meet a person and they start to study here what is that they want to do. We now have introduced a new thing called Success Planning, success planning all of you from your financial management of being able to afford university to your study readiness to your career outcome. So we understand that via a digital tool from day one someone starts and the idea now is that we will continue to help them achieve that through the years that they’re here with us.

John O’Neill: So when and how would you know that you’re job’s done? When would you sit back and say mission accomplished?

Naomi Dempsey: Ah I don’t think the job is ever done because the student cohort it changes all the time, generations change so what they want this year they didn’t want two years ago. I can’t believe in the five or six years I’ve been back just how rapidly expectations have changed of universities and I think that’s a good thing of students to expect more as I did as a student. The generational changes that are occurring, the technology changes that are occurring, but in Australia of course our landscape around funding and priorities. So I don’t believe my work would be ever be done and it’s driven by students and what they need.

John O’Neill: Naomi thank you very much.

Naomi Dempsey: Thanks John.