Former Vice-President (International and Students)
Words by Ian Munro. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 20 seconds
Years before he arrived at Swinburne, good timing launched Jeffrey Smart, then a new honours graduate in history with no particular career direction, into a vocation in international education and student welfare. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time, but Jeffrey’s innate intuition and empathy were to stand him in good stead.
Initially he was an assistant to the University of Melbourne’s vice-chancellor, David Penington AC, the prominent professor of medicine and public health expert in the 1980s and ’90s. Unknown to Jeffrey, he had begun work at The University of Melbourne just as the city’s tertiary sector was beginning to seek out international students in a deliberate, purposeful way.
Early university life
Jeffrey had recognised that universities needed to change their ways. ‘When I was trying to work out which university I wanted to study at, I was writing letters to each one. They would send you back a course catalogue that was about this big,’ he recalls, holding his palms several centimetres apart, ‘and a whole bunch of stuff about student accommodation. It was a truly dreadful, old, impersonal process.’
‘So I was lucky to have started a career at a time when universities were realising they had to treat students as customers, essentially, and shake up everything. From the way you communicate with students, the point at which you communicate with them, from generating awareness all the way through to recruitment,’ Jeffrey says. ‘You’re selling them something that is intangible – they are putting a lot on the line to commit to you – and along the way you’re meeting their needs and queries.’
‘I was lucky to have started a career at a time when universities were realising they had to treat students as customers.’
While he was still at The University of Melbourne, Jeffrey began writing for the gay and lesbian community newspaper Brother Sister. He had grown up in Ballarat sensing he was different from others without fully grasping how or why: ‘You kind of know, but that sense of categories doesn’t make any sense to you.’
Writing for the paper was less a second job than a form of self-expression and self-discovery. Jeffrey spread his wings with two columns: ‘In Bed With’ was a weekly interview with a figure from the queer community, including performers, writers and other creatives; ‘Smartarse’ was a commentary on whatever he chose to write about, everything from social observation, to current affairs, to the arts. Being a member of a minority community, albeit one growing in confidence and prominence, gave him an understanding of some of the pressures felt by the burgeoning numbers of foreign students studying in Melbourne.
Attracting international students
Attracting international students became an increasing priority for universities through the 1990s. Jeffrey moved from Melbourne to Monash University and then to Swinburne, which like Monash had been quick to see the potential of international recruitment at a time of growing competition for students.
‘Acquisition of students, whether they’re from Brazil or Bangladesh or Boronia is highly competitive. Students have enormous numbers of choices nowadays,’ Jeffrey says. ‘They can study online. They can study at TAFE. They can go to whatever university they like, so all my career at Swinburne was around acquiring new students, and, in the last couple of years, keeping them within the university, making sure enrolment processes were simplified and customer-focused.’
A new level of support
It was Ian Young (vice-chancellor from 2003 to 2011) who set the target of Swinburne becoming one of the top 500 research institutions globally, and who recognised the potential international students offered in terms of generating resources to achieve that aim. Yet if Swinburne was quick to see the need to attract students from overseas, it was not quite at the cutting-edge of caring for them when Jeffrey arrived in 2005, he says.
But the turnaround, he adds, came quickly. International student support became a high priority. ‘We always took the view that international students arriving here don’t have the same family and social supports that a local student has. So we would try to replicate, not family connections, but community connections so students knew how to keep safe, where to go to the bank, how to do their banking, how to negotiate public transport, even how to swim,’ Jeffrey says.
‘When things go wrong the institution really naturally brings that caring element to the fore and wraps its arms around the student.’
‘There is really an amazing staff that provides this support. Students might have problems here or dreadful things might happen to their family back home, so providing a safety net that picks the student back up and puts them back on a path to recovery when they get into trouble is always a central part of international work at Swinburne,’ he says.
‘The university takes an innate and easy pride in the achievements of its students. But when things go wrong the institution really naturally brings that caring element to the fore and wraps its arms around the student, their family, their friends.’
Fostering interest in Australian education
Jeffrey quips that in the 11 years he worked at Swinburne he acquired a new role every 18 months. But it is probably testament to his versatility. He served as a director of Swinburne College, of Swinburne Online and on the board of the student amenities association. He was also member at large in the United States on the board of the international English language test ETS TOEFL.
‘You hear much more Spanish being spoken around the Swinburne campus than you would have even a few years ago.’
He regularly travelled overseas to Asia, Europe and the Americas. In an overseeing role, Jeffrey says he had it much easier than international education officials who had to return repeatedly to the same region, up to 10 times a year for several weeks each time. In Latin America in 2015, he accompanied Victorian government officials to finalise agreements with a number of national governments and institutions, and to settle scholarship arrangements. It was the culmination of lasting efforts fostering interest in Australian education.
‘You hear much more Spanish being spoken around the Swinburne campus than you would have even a few years ago,’ he says. ‘That’s taken decades of work on the part of the international education sector working in Latin America to lift the profile of Australian education … and it’s been a really hard slog. I was first doing stuff in Latin America when I was at Monash in the very early 2000s and it’s really only since 2014 that large numbers of students have been coming into Melbourne universities on the back of that work.’
Equally satisfying is witnessing the adoption of socially inclusive policies towards Indigenous students, women and the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) community. Jeffrey says Vice-Chancellor Professor Linda Kristjanson has urged a stronger, more visible commitment to LGBTI staff, alumni and students, culminating in Swinburne’s first official Pride Day in 2014, which he and a keen team of LGBTI staff and students relished organising.
Life after Swinburne
Jeffrey left Swinburne in December 2016 and now, reflecting on the changes he witnessed, says the international team’s achievements in ensuring the university’s distinctive profile and attributes are widely recognised.
‘Working with a whole bunch of people to renovate our partnerships and networks where we are a significant international player counts, but also helping the institution understand that part of its DNA is an absolute delight in the achievements of its students. Refining that characteristic and making it our brand, that is something really exciting.’
‘Deep discipline expertise is fantastic, but it’s even better when this depth of knowledge is complemented by synergies and insights at the connection points between disciplines.’
Where to now? ‘I haven’t finished here. I’ve done the architecture, I’ve put the pieces in place and now I need a bit of time to actually draw the benefit from that and get the alignment across the faculty. You can have the structure but unless you have everybody working towards the strategy it’s not going to realise itself.’ In saying so, Michael sounds not unlike the many entrepreneurs and business leaders he has interviewed and studied over the years. Does he ever miss being hands-on with research and teaching?
‘I miss them both,’ he says. ‘Just today, I was sitting near some of our new first-year lecturers in the place where I was having lunch. They were talking so enthusiastically, I actually did feel an ache in my heart. We have recruited some very impressive people and they do a great job but yes, I like to revisit both research and teaching whenever I can.’