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Challenges in higher education from a university leadership perspective – an interview with Professor Cobie Rudd

Professor Cobie Rudd is one of less than 35 per cent of women to reach the highest ranks in academia in Australia.

As the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategic Partnerships), and Vice-President of the Edith Cowan University (ECU), she is committed to create and enhance the university’s external relations, continuously devising strategies, which aim to address government, industry and community-identified needs with far-reaching and sustained impact. As DVC of ECU, Professor Rudd strives to remove barriers to gender equity, and in particular, to attract and retain those who have chosen a pathway in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). In this interview she shares her leadership experience, underlines the challenges that lie in higher education, and specifically the STEMM field, and provides insights into what her team could offer to potential partners.

Before we start, could you share some information on your organisation?

ECU, located in Western Australia, provides its staff and students with a supportive and industry-relevant teaching and research environment. The university courses are developed in consultation with industry, and teaching staff have extensive industry experience and networks. Over the past eight years, we have been rewarded with five-star ratings for teaching quality, along with consistently receiving high ratings for overall education experience and skills development, as reported in the Good Universities Guide. In addition, ECU has also been named in the Times Higher Education (THE) “150 Under 50” rankings of universities in the world under the age of 50 and has a strong international focus, rated in THE’s top 200 list of the Most International Universities in the world.

The university research prioritises translation of evidence that makes a positive impact and by focusing on working with our communities, business and government organisations to solve real-world problems. We are very much committed to equality in the workplace for people of all genders so they feel enabled, and are supported, to pursue careers in their chosen fields. ECU was selected to participate in the first Australian pilot of Athena SWAN, an international accreditation program to achieve gender equality in academia, and particularly to attract and retain more women in science.

What are the main challenges that you foresee for higher education?

The ongoing gender imbalance that currently exists is weakening the higher education system. In Australia alone, women comprise just 16 per cent of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) professorships in universities, according to statistics collected by the national Education Department. With three-quarters of Australia’s fastest growing occupations requiring STEM skills, there will be considerable losses in our workforce if we don’t address the situation.

The challenge that lies ahead will be the building of a culture that promotes equality and diversity, increasing opportunities for women and gender diverse groups and providing opportunities for growth and progression. This is not an easy feat with the many stereotypes so deeply embedded in today’s society. We are all prone to unconscious biases and Universities need to step up to their purpose and promote women academic leaders much more in order to challenge the status quo.

And beyond the higher education sector, the need to redress gender inequities society-wide cannot be diluted. For example, in 2016, Western Australia has the biggest pay gap of any Australian state or territory, with women earning on average 30.9 per cent less than men. Universities, as thought leaders, have a key role to affect positive change.

As one of less than 35 per cent of women to reach the highest ranks in academia in Australia, I consider it even more important that I use my role to harness diversity and provide transformational opportunities for others, especially women and gender diverse people. As the most senior woman in the only university in Australia that is named after a woman, I feel I have a uniquely influential position to pursue greater gender equity in academia and science.

How do you and your team aim to overcome the challenges and what are you particularly successful at?

The integration of positive social and community-based impact with real life student learning opportunities are a key skill set in the teams I lead, partner and consult with at ECU.

In my leadership role to steer the university’s participation in Australia’s first pilot of the International Athena SWAN Charter, I am supported by a committee of ECU senior leaders that champion the gender equality cause (both men and women). Collectively, we strategize and guide ECU’s demonstration of measurable differences through improved work practices and increased opportunities for women and gender diverse groups in academia.

I have established a three-year partnership between ECU and The Good Foundation to deliver Jamie’s Ministry of Food in Western Australia. I work with an extremely passionate team in spreading good health strategies throughout the State’s communities, via improved identification, sourcing and cooking of nutritious foods. Benefits include the prevention of chronic disease through healthier eating as well as fostering social connections and achieving social inclusion that builds individuals’ confidence, and in turn, strengthens communities. As part of the arrangement with The Good Foundation, ECU’s nutrition and dietetics students are given a unique opportunity to work as interns in the Jamie’s Ministry of Food Mobile Kitchen; the first Jamie’s Ministry of Food Australia interns in the world.

I have also led one of the six streams within ECU’s $17.8m Collaborative Research Network program (2011-2016) that concentrated on developing evidence-based models of health care and the subsequent educational approaches required. My staff were front-runners in the field of simulation-related research, with a sizeable number of projects being externally funded through competitive processes. Over the past six years, following successful open-tender/ grant submissions, we have attracted over $29.5m of external investment generated for simulation-based education and research for projects.

In addressing the identified needs and service gaps in a key northern region of Perth, Western Australia, I established the $22m ECU Health Centre – a state-of-the-art, primary healthcare facility offering a wide range of health service providers, an integrated ‘one-stop shop’ for patients, their families and careers, and health promotion services for the general public. Intrinsic to this Center is the provision of clinical training and research opportunities for ECU students and academics in the one building. I am fortunate to work with many health practitioners and support staff who oversee the day to day operation of this great facility.

As the Vice-Chancellor’s Delegate on Accreditation, I oversee the national and international external accreditation of all ECU courses over some 52 separate discipline areas at ECU. This covers an array of fields, such as Civil & Environmental Engineering and Maritime Engineering, Mathematics and Planning, to Security Management and Digital Forensics.  This cross-disciplinary accreditation role provides me with an in-depth knowledge of blended learning and online learning and I work with many members of ECU’s key discipline areas on course requirements and standards.

I am privileged to be working with engaged and proactive staff at ECU who are prepared to ‘call it’ when significant changes are necessary for the University to thrive and excel. We place great importance on the quality of our curricula and the impact of our external partnerships.

What kind of networking activities are you currently involved in, and who should reach out to you?

Being part of the Athena SWAN initiative has enabled collaboration across 40 Australian education and research-based institutions in one common shared purpose – achieving gender equality. I have enjoyed meeting with fellow participating members in the local region to exchange knowledge, ideas and strategies.  Further to this we also have an international buddying program with two UK Athena SWAN member institutions and I look forward to an ongoing mutually beneficial relationship in working towards our goals. Ultimately fora of best practice and lessons learnt in working towards gender equality is extremely insightful.  Networking with the aim of advancing equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education and research based settings would be beneficial.

Having worked on a range of significant projects that build health learning and teaching and research capacity, I would be happy to connect with individuals that have provided leadership on similar projects.


UIIN Members can find all necessary information and contact DVC Cobie Rudd via UIIN Connect.


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