Updated: Oct 8
by Dr Renee Ralph, Co-Founder, The Brilliant Foundation
Dedicated to Professor Richard Ladyshewsky, Curtin Fellow, Graduate School of Business, Curtin University - you are a fabulous supervisor, professional mentor and compassionate guide.
Australia – More than 340,000 higher education students graduate each year in Australia, with international students accounting for more than a third of those enrolled at universities. Australian borders have been closed to all non-citizens and permanent residents since March 2020. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in November 2020 that foreign students will not be allowed to return. Priority is given to the return of locals stranded overseas.
With international students worth about A$35 billion (US$25.3 billion) annually to the Australian economy, Canberra hoped to gradually allow overseas students to return in 2021. The education industry faces a crisis level of staff cutbacks and redundancies across the nation with buildings, lecture theatres and classes are left vacant without foreign students.
In Western Australia, Curtin University postponed the graduation ceremony twice due to the COVID19 State of Emergency lockdown in earlier February 2021. Graduands have been experiencing anticipation fatigue, hoping to finalise their undergraduate and postgraduate achievements with a celebration of this significant milestone.
Setting the Scene
Two weeks ago, Curtin University started preparations where the stage was set up at The Forum - truckloads of chairs and lighting equipment were being set up by tradies without wearing masks on. It was unbelievable to see the activity – where workers were busy setting up the marquees for photography, food and regalia hire.
Being mindful of the COVID19 restrictions, some regalia hire and tickets were to be picked up a week earlier. A sensible compromise so that crowd anticipation were minimised and physical distancing was adhered to. Every graduand had to either check in via the SafeWA App or sign in on a hardcopy sheet provided.
Graduands on Campus
Finally, on Monday evening, 22 February 2021, the School of Management and Marketing graduands from the Faculty of Business and Law, starting streaming in onto Curtin campus at Bentley, Western Australia with their regalia, mortarboards and Phd Bonnets. It was a sight to behold with all the young and old faces smiling from ear to ear looking forward to the graduation ceremony with their families and loved ones. Families and relatives who were unable to attend physically, joined in the celebrations online via live-streaming.
At the VIP Chamber Council, the doctoral students adorned their Phd Bonnets and regalia, ready for the stage party. As they walked down the winding stairs, they lined along the corridors for the procession to begin. The smoking welcome was initiated by Ingrid Cummings, Noongar Cultural Advisor, Curtin University, followed by her acknowledgement to Country (Boodjar). Ingrid addressed the gusty Cohort 2020, wishing the Curtin mob a "strong, deadly successful and bright journey ahead."
Reflections of 2020 – Learning, Challenges, COVID19, Resilience
Professor John Cordery, Vice-Chancellor acknowledged the graduation ceremony was even more significant due to COVID19 lockdown in Semester 1, 2020. Face-to-face lecturers, seminars, workshops and tutorials had to go online for physical distancing and safety measures. Academic and professional staff had a steep learning curve, up-skilling in video-conferencing training via Blackboard, Collaborate Ultra and Zoom to provide lessons and services to the students.
Working From Home (WFH)
The students had to do the same, some borrowing, hiring or buying laptops to attend online classes from home. The untold stories of several students losing their jobs, paying rent, buying books or paying for university courses during this period added the challenge of completing a degree even more admirable. For international students, who were unable to return home, they found themselves in a dislocated space, not being able to see their parents and loved ones. Foreign students living in a different culture, communicating, trying to make new friends and learning in a new environment showed new heights of resilience and focus.
It isn’t an equal playing field for students, when broadband or internet access is limited for those who live in the country or for those who cannot afford the fast speed connection. Communication online would be patchy and classes were interrupted with some students some dropping in and out of connection. Yet, the online students persevered, there were moments of engagement, frustration, humour and a sense of respect, patience and kindness when using technology.
At the end of the semester, everyone agreed that face-to-face classes were missed – the interaction and communication on campus with other students and educators were vital. A university is not a university, if the building is not filled with life and laughter. As one teacher said: “A school is not a school, without the students’ pitter-patter of feet running through the corridors. Teachers cannot be teachers without the chitter-chatter of the children’s voices.”
In Western Australia, Curtin Chancellor Dr Andrew Crane was given the honourary role of presenting the testamurs to the graduating Cohort 2020. The students have been blessed to be able to graduate without masks and to proceed with their graduation compared to their interstate counterparts based in Melbourne or Sydney.
In accordance with state-specific bans on large gatherings, universities have been postponing mid-year graduation ceremonies since March 2020, with many students graduating ‘in absentia’ - meaning they will still receive their qualifications, without attending a ceremony. The graduation certificate will be sent through the post office to be delivered to student’s residence. The University of Sydney says on its website:
“Despite our most optimistic wishes, unfortunately we will be not be able to host any replacement ceremonies on campus for students who graduated in 2020. While we are aware that there are changing health guidelines regarding gatherings in New South Wales, replacing all events that have been cancelled due to COVID-19 will not be possible. We share your disappointment about not being able to celebrate at a traditional graduation ceremony in the Great Hall.”
In Japan, due to COVID19 restrictions, universities in Japan have cancelled all face-to-face graduation ceremonies. In an innovative initiative, Business Breakthrough (BBT) University graduate students in Tokyo, who weren't allowed to have a traditional graduation ceremony due to coronavirus concerns, have used Newme telepresence robots to stand in their place.
A Zoom conference allowed graduating students to access the ceremony remotely. The students appeared on tablets that were placed over the robots' 'faces' and these robots were dressed in black graduation gowns and caps in this important ceremony. When a graduate's name was announced, the avatar robot moved to the university's president who stood on stage to receive their diploma, much like a more traditional graduation ceremony. The university hopes its initiative can be implemented by other education institutions looking to avoid mass gatherings.
Learn, Change, Connect and Give
Through it all, Curtin University graduates recognise that in spite of these unexpected twists and turns brought forth by the COVID19 pandemic, the life skills of achieving an academic degree is enhanced through these challenges. Mr Stephen Scudamore, former Chair of Amana Living and long-serving member of Curtin Council, received an Honorary Doctorate of the University for his outstanding contribution to Curtin University and to the Western Australian community, particularly in the area of corporate governance.
In his occasional address, Mr Scudamore, a Chartered Accountant, who holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree and a Master of Arts in History and Economics degree from Oxford University, emphasised the following four key points:
Always keep learning, achieving this degree is the start of a life-long learning journey. Keep retraining and up-skilling. Learning never stops.
Be adaptable. Embrace change and life is filled with the ordinary and extraordinary – not just the theories and concepts learnt at university and textbooks. It is through change that real learning, life experiences, breakthroughs and innovations are achieved.
Dr Scudamore shared an aspect of his career experience when he was delegated to work in KPMG Papua New Guinea for three years. What was he to do? He was thrown into a foreign country with a vastly different culture and had to find ways to make it work. There was an incident where his local colleagues took leave from corporate work to take part in a cultural tribal warfare. He stated that no textbook or corporate governance could be applied in this situation. Life has its surprises and one has to embrace it fully and make the most out of it.