The name Federation University evokes the birth of a nation, and the city which is home to its main campus (Ballarat) came of age in the gold rush era. But FedUni is an institution with its focus firmly set on the future. Under Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Helen Bartlett, it has continued to forge ties with the world of commerce and the broader communities it serves.
Helen came into the role in 2017 and says it’s been a productive start. “It’s been an extremely full 12 months, getting to know the organisation and all of the communities we are located in.
A new strategic direction
“We’ve been positioning ourselves for the next five years in a new strategic direction that takes us forward and recognises the multitude of challenges this sector is facing. It’s been fascinating, exciting, challenging and fully engaging all rolled up into one.”
FedUni is one of Australia’s leading regional tertiary institutions, with campuses in Ballarat, Berwick, Gippsland and the Wimmera in Victoria. A new campus in Brisbane city centre opened in 2018. It is also a dual-sector university, offering a range of technical education through its TAFE facility.
Helen says it is an institution determined to forge close bonds with the communities it serves. Much of her work involves engaging with local councils and business leaders.
“We have to communicate to them what our impact is, for example, on the employability of our graduates locally,” she explains. “67% of our undergraduates go on to work in the regions where our campuses are located, compared with 23% nationally. That is a tremendous statistic and it helps our local communities value having a university in their midst.”
The metrics make a compelling case for the university’s approach. “We’re focused on pushing out the figures on the contribution of our graduates to the economy and our contributions to research and innovation. It helps make the value of what we do much more tangible and that in turn enhances the relationships we form.”
Extending learning beyond traditional classroom
One such relationship is the ongoing collaboration FedUni has with Sovereign Hill, an open-air museum in Ballarat that introduces visitors to the city’s gold rush era. “Our students engage with Sovereign Hill in a number of cross-disciplinary ways,” Helen explains. “It is valuable for them to interact with a very significant business in our community.”
Among other things, this includes students from the university’s Arts Academy being involved as actors in the museum’s historic re-enactments. Business students have also used it as a case study of an operation that quickly grew from a small business to a world-class tourist attraction. “They are a supportive stakeholder of the university and, likewise, we support them. I think it’s been a very productive relationship.”
Another integral part of FedUni is how it has integrated technology into its student experience. “Technology is now part and parcel of how we teach,” Helen says. “The majority of our programs offer blended learning in some way, so technology is involved in most of our teaching.”
“Technology is now part and parcel of how we teach.”
This includes a Moodle platform for teaching materials and learning exchange. While this requires teaching staff to be constantly upskilling, the university is committed to ensuring its learning systems keep pace with technology.
FedUni also has a technology park on its Mt Helen campus in Ballarat. It has become one of the largest facilities of its type in Australia, employing around 1,500 people and contributing some A$300 million per annum in regional economic outputs. IBM has become one of the major firms in the park and second-year technology students at the university each do a work placement there.
In 2018, the university and IBM extended this partnership, with business students now also taking part in work-integrated learning. The arrangement has led to long-term employment in many cases, with more than 60% of IBM’s employees in the park being FedUni graduates.
Another vote of confidence in the university’s efforts to prepare its student body for the workplace came in the 2017 Employer Satisfaction Survey, which placed FedUni at number one in the country for employability. It achieved scores of 98.5% for technical skills and 93.9% for employability skills.
“I think that tells you the model we’re using, with placements, career advice and work-integrated learning, is working,” Helen says. “We will only continue to enhance that in every way we can.”
While the university has close ties with the local areas where it has campuses, it also has a strong foothold overseas, with 47% of its students being international. It has partnerships with several Asian institutions in place and a support centre in Malaysia. Helen says it is an institution with a strong international flavour. “What that does is provide a global experience for students. It opens up their world and brings great diversity to our campuses. Today, we’re in a global world and education is a global market. It strengthens us as a university and is very important to us.”
“We’re in a global world and education is a global market. It strengthens us as a university.”
As she steers FedUni into this new high-tech, global age of education, Helen may seem a natural fit for her role, but she says she had no inkling she would end up as Vice-Chancellor. “The journey has been full of twists and turns but it’s been a delightful one. I’ve ended up in a position that brings together everything I’m passionate about.
“I feel very fortunate that my career has taken me in this direction, but I could never have predicted it. I just followed my interests, worked really hard and took chances along the way.”