HE & me
Sarah Cordiner is head of the University of Notre Dame Australia’s Broome campus in Western Australia’s remote north. Thought to be the youngest university director in Australian history, she is also a best-selling author who has run education and training businesses in Devon, Malta and Perth. Until recently she ran online workforce development business MainTraining. In 2017 she was named one of The Huffington Post’s “50 MustFollow Women Entrepreneurs” Where and when were you born?
South London in 1985; my mother’s side from traditional gypsy culture and my father from a typical working-class family. My grandfather’s birth certificate says “occupation: Traveller”.
How has this shaped you?
I grew up with a leg either side of two very different cultures that didn’t fully understand one another’s ways and didn’t agree with each other’s norms and values. It taught me to see life, relationships and communities from different angles. That underpinning ideology of being open – seeing the world through the lens of any person you are with – will teach you something you don’t know. When you put those lessons from others with the experiences you’ve gained for yourself, that’s when magic can happen.
Did insights from your Traveller background help you to understand Indigenous Australia?
Success in this space comes from having the willingness to understand. That means asking questions. By showing people that you want to see the world through their eyes, you create a safe space to be frank and blunt. When you show people that you are genuinely interested in them, they delight in being able to share the world from their perspective.
How did you become an educator?
I almost dropped out of school. I was led to believe that knowledge is fixed, that I was not one of those academic people and never would be. I hid away in the art room, waiting for the day I could leave education forever, and met this art teacher who kept encouraging me to do more. By the end of the year I’d completed enough pieces of artwork for an A level. He encouraged me to retake the exams I hadn’t bothered going to. I came out with top scores in 13 GCSEs and A levels. I saw that learning, growth and development can come in many forms. I vowed there and then, with a paintbrush in one hand and grade papers in the other, that I would dedicate the rest of my life to passing on that gift of self-efficacy through education.
The global recession claimed your third business in Perth. How did you pull through?
We had a contract with the Remote Jobs and Communities programme across Western Australia. [Former Australian prime minister] Tony Abbott decided he wasn’t going to keep that programme running. On one day I lost A$2.7 million [£1.6 million] and 21 of my 23 staff. I’ll never forget lying on the concrete floor at about 2am, having had to tell the news to my staff one by one, and thinking, now what? I’d started again a couple of times before. Why couldn’t I do the same again? I decided to put everything online. I essentially turned 10 years’ worth of training, education and consultancy services into online programmes. That opened me up from a locally dependent education economy to a global one. I put my education programmes on autopilot, where people could buy their own training without my being physically involved in the transaction. By the end of 2016 I had more than 12,000 students in 146 countries.
How did you end up in Broome?
My husband is a police officer. In Western Australia all police officers have to conduct a minimum of two years’ country service. We pulled Broome out of a hat. We were given six weeks’ notice to pack up our lives, close the business and get ourselves to Broome. We had no idea where we were going to live because the police arrange your accommodation for you. We arrived and heard the
removal men laughing. There were chickens in our kitchen.
The Kimberley region around Broome has less than a thousandth of the UK’s population, in an area almost twice as big. How does that affect your work?
In Broome, our university offers vocational education and training as well as higher education and research opportunities. We tailor every programme to each community. Instead of expecting our students to come to us, we deliver our training by going out to them. It’s about providing that opportunity by taking it to their doorstep, convincing them they have the ability and providing handson support to maintain their commitment and get them through to graduation – which creates a ripple effect in their communities. They become role models. We might go out to a community that
I vowed there and then that I would dedicate the rest of my life to passing on that gift of selfefficacy through education
takes us four and a half days to get to. There might be one student waiting for us. We commit to that provision of service because it is socially transformative.
What educational policy or practice would you like to change?
What we recognise within the curriculum overlooks incredible skills and talents. It makes people feel that they have nothing. It doesn’t recognise that we have people who can speak four to 10 languages; who have a knowledge of culture that could transform Australia; who have knowledge of flora, fauna and land management that we couldn’t possibly begin to fathom unless they could teach us. They understand kinship systems that are so complex. Our curriculum limits what we recognise, accredit and measure. That needs to go back to the drawing board.