Universities really do care about their students – a case study on how RMIT University responded to their students’ crises during COVID-19

Presenters: Lara Rafferty, Anne Grahame
Authors and Affiliations:
Lara Rafferty, RMIT University; Anne Grahame, RMIT University; Melanie Duncan, RMIT University

COVID-19 required a coordinated, rapidly mobilised response from the RMIT Students Group to address the acute needs of our enrolled international students as the crisis unfolded. In a matter of weeks, our international students saw themselves unable to meet their basic living needs – accommodation; food; rent and utilities – through either not being able to secure employment after recent arrival in Australia or having lost their current employment as Melbourne businesses were locked down. In addition, students had multiple challenges transitioning to an online learning environment that limited their much-valued academic and peer networks. They no longer had access to in-person support services or on-campus library services; facilities; spaces and technology, exposing widespread issues with inappropriate or insecure accommodation and inadequate or no technology to support online learning. This paper explores RMIT University’s response to try to provide and sustain a positive experience for our students through the design and development of a grants scheme. 20,000 applications for financial assistance were received by RMIT students with $10.2M granted for either technology needs (data; hardware; laptops; and software) and/or emergency living needs. Such rich learnings for our support services and university teams came through our individual conversations with over 1100 students who expressed financial distress and emotional and wellbeing concerns about themselves and their families  in their application. A 50-strong application assessment panel referred these students for individual advice and support – support services teams mobilised; phone calls were made;  follow-up actions were taken;  and students thanked RMIT for their care time and time again. By the time of this conference, the presenters will have had time to reflect on this unprecedented time and will share their thoughts on delivering practical support at scale and across breadth to support students in a rapidly shifting global environment.

About Authors

Lara Rafferty

Affiliation/s: RMIT University
Email: lara.rafferty@rmit.edu.au

Ms Lara Rafferty is the Associate Director Student Diversity and Inclusion at RMIT University where she leads the development and implementation of RMIT strategy and programs. Lara has over 20 years’ experience in student services and equity and diversity strategy for staff and students in several tertiary education institutions. She has served on Boards for organisations engaged in service provision and advocacy related to gender equity, people with disabilities, and family violence. Lara has been Secretary of the Equity Practitioners in Higher Education for the last six years and is an Advisory Board member for the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.

Anne Grahame

Affiliation/s: RMIT University
Email: anne.grahame@rmit.edu.au

Anne Grahame is a senior leader and manager with over twenty years’ experience in professional roles within the tertiary and secondary education sectors in Australia and overseas. Her experience extends across all aspects of student administration, support, and academic services, and curriculum design and delivery. Anne has extensive experience in international education including as an accrediting team member for the Council of International Schools (CIS) and the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO). Her areas of interest include intercultural communication and organisational dynamics and she has presented papers at conferences on these topics, including “Intercultural understanding in a Third Culture setting” for IBAP (Singapore) and “Data driven change – using data and technology to provide high level customer service” for the Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM). Anne is currently the Associate Director, Student Services at RMIT University where she leads a large team to deliver RMIT’s student experience strategy.

Melanie Duncan

Affiliation/s: RMIT University
Email: melanie.duncan@rmit.edu.au

Melanie Duncan is the Associate Director Student Wellbeing at RMIT University. Melanie has worked in higher education for over twenty years, specialising in student wellbeing service delivery and international compliance. Much of her work has been in the international student space, working with the students to overcome their academic and personal hurdles. Her extensive experience working with students has seen her work broaden in recent years to design higher education policy and develop student-centred wellbeing programs to enable a physically and emotionally safe learning environment for enrolled tertiary students.

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