HE & me

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - John Ross

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.

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