Interview with Michael Burgess

What will universities look like in a post-pandemic world?

By Mike Lanzing, General Manager UniBank

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted Australia’s university sector across many levels. The question posed by many now is ‘where to from here?’ for our educational institutions that have, until recently, relied on traditional ways of educating.

In this three-part series, UniBank General Manager, Mike Lanzing, speaks with leaders from universities across the country to understand the biggest impacts they have felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, asking them: will universities ever look the same?



Michael Burgess, Chief Student Experience Officer, Western Sydney University

In late 2019 Western Sydney University commenced trialling a new student support program called ‘Western Success’. Its aim was to provide proactive academic and financial support to students when they needed it most. 

While the university didn’t exactly have a pandemic in mind when they designed the program, Chief Student Experience Officer, Michael Burgess, said the timing was incredible.

“When we kicked-off the program at the end of 2019, we didn’t know what was ahead. When COVID-19 arrived in Australia in early 2020, we rapidly scaled the program from a 1,200 student and five advisor pilot to mobilise more than 65 advisors to provide comfort and support to 7000 students.  All in the space of a couple of weeks.

“There were heartbreaking stories from our international students who lost family members in other parts of the world and were unable to travel home. It was a very emotionally difficult time for them, compounded by social isolation, living in cramped quarters and an inability to work as jobs dried up. 

“We have so far provided more than $3 million dollars in support in the form of food vouchers and accommodation assistance, as well as support from advisors who were focused on our students’ welfare. At the outset the most immediate impact was to support those basic human needs and I’m proud of the extraordinary affect the program had,” said Michael. 

While shifting to online learning was an obvious change, Michael said COVID-19 has accelerated another form of disruption that he says has been simmering under the surface of the university sector for some time.

“Our teaching and learning experience had to radically change in a very short space of time, which really challenged our institutional culture and beliefs. It forced us to change the way we work, our behaviours, the way we engage with our colleagues, and evaluate our performance. This disruption was actually already happening before COVID-19, but at a much slower pace.

“Before the pandemic we witnessed demand for new skills. For example, there is a huge deficit in data scientists, and the market won’t wait for the education sector to fill that gap. That’s why large tech firms have started offering certificates in the skills they need inside their organisations and are also hiring on that basis. 

“And now, because of COVID-19, students will expect more from universities. The rapid acceleration of online learning has actually lowered the barriers to education, allowing new entrants an opportunity to capitalise on. No longer do you need to go to a traditional lecture theatre or even be restricted to studying locally.   

For Michael and Western Sydney University, the one positive from COVID-19 is that it has handed the sector the tools and mindset it requires to potentially thrive in a post-pandemic world. 

“We have just navigated 50,000 students through a pandemic; that doesn’t happen every day. As a team we made decisions that in the past would have taken months or possibly years to make. We’ve proven to ourselves that we can do things differently and to never assume that traditionally universities can’t be innovative and agile. 

“The important thing is for us to take those things forward once this pandemic is finally over. Universities that embrace this disruption will be the institutions that shape the future.”

Michael Burgess, Chief Student Experience Officer, Western Sydney University