Transcript

The Dean Series: Health Sciences

Hal Swerissen
Email: h.swerissen@latrobe.edu.au

Audio

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 11.5MB].

Transcript

Matt de Neef:

Hello and welcome to the La Trobe University podcast series. I'm your host, Matt de Neef and today, I'm talking to Professor Hal Swerissen. He's the Dean of Health Sciences and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Regional) here at La Trobe. Professor Swerissen, thanks so much for joining me today.

Hal Swerissen:

Nice to be here, Matt.

Matt de Neef:

I wonder if we could start today with a question I've asked all the other Deans up to this point and that's about your role as Dean. So, we know the Dean's the head of the Faculty but can you give us a bit of a sense of what's involved in your role on a day to day basis?

Hal Swerissen:

Sure, it's a busy and an exciting job - I really love being Dean. The job really involves a series of roles. The first of which is, probably, to help set the direction for the Faculty and that's an important part of what you do. The other thing is representing the Faculty body throughout the University and externally; and that's a significant part of the role.

The things that are, probably, a little less exciting but, nevertheless, very important are the business of monitoring what a large faculty's doing, the staff performance, the research outcomes, the teaching and learning, what the students are doing and so on.

And then, inevitably, when you're running something large and significant there are always issues that come up. So, you have to come up and so you have to be involved in issues, management and sorting out problems on a day to day basis.

Matt de Neef:

The Vice-Chancellor, Paul Johnson, has described this era at La Trobe as a period of growth. Have you noticed this growth in terms of enrolment levels within the Faculty of Health Sciences, at all?

Hal Swerissen:

Yes, we've grown very significantly—probably, in the order of 30% over the last four years. So, that's put a huge set of demands on us to expand our courses, to expand the number of students that we've got, to put new staff on and to find facilities for people. So, it's been a very exciting period for the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Matt de Neef:

Now, we were speaking before we came on air, about the 'open day' here at La Trobe. We've just reached the end of open day season. And by all accounts it was a pretty busy period for everyone involved. Was that the feeling among the team within Health Sciences?

Hal Swerissen:

Yes, we had a very good open day here at Melbourne—where we are today—and also around the campuses in Bendigo and Albury-Wodonga, Shepparton and Mildura. We've had an enormous and great interest in our programs. Having new programs in areas like, Dietetics and Paramedics has really excited people's interest.

There are a range of, really, opportunities for people to study at La Trobe now which have been introduced over the last three or four years which means that we've got very high demand courses. That's really been reflected in what we saw at open day; very busy, terrific staff performance in putting all of the booths and the programs together. It's really exciting to have so many people on the campus looking at our programs.

Matt de Neef:

So, what are some of the messages, you and you're team have given to prospective students to make La Trobe stand out as a great place to study Health Sciences? Or do you find that the reputation the program's already got means that you've got students flocking to the department already?

Hal Swerissen:

Well, I think that in the high-end programs that we have—the programs that were really popular like, Dentistry and Physiotherapy, Speech pathology and so on, those programs pretty much sell themselves. They've been very popular. We've got a very good reputation and there are many students who want to do that. We could probably fill those programs four or five times over with very high quality students.

We are very keen to put a message to the community that we're trying to introduce very flexible set of programs which are adapted to suit student needs. We have students coming in from school; we create an opportunity for people to transfer at the end of the first year because we have a common first year. So that, there's a pathway, then they can move programs and we allow 10 to 20% of places to be flexible at the end of the first year. And then, people can also transfer at the end of the third year or come in to the master's program at the end of the third year.

So, we're keen to promote flexibility. We're also keen to promote the fact that we're the oldest faculty of Health Sciences in Victoria. We were the oldest faculty in relation to Allied Health and Nursing. So, we have a very strong history and track record, as well.

Matt de Neef:

Now, we know that Health Science is one of the few faculties to have a presence across all five campuses of La Trobe. How important are the regional campuses to the identity of the Health Sciences program?

Hal Swerissen:

Very important. Probably, the most significant part of that is that there is a looming workforce shortage in rural Victoria, in areas like Nursing and Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy and so on. And it's very important for us to have a set of programs which actually run in regional Victoria because students who study in the regional campuses are much more likely to working in those communities.

So, we've had a very strong development of courses in Northern Victoria as part of the University's overall program.

Matt de Neef:

Of course, one of the most exciting developments in the faculty of Health Sciences is the ongoing development of the La Trobe Rural Health School. In the last month or so, we've seen the opening of the Physiotherapy Clinical School in Bendigo and there are several more developments planned in the following years. Can you tell us a little bit about what falls under the La Trobe Rural Health umbrella and what the school hopes to achieve by the program?

Hal Swerissen:

The Rural Health School has a suite of program in Northern Victoria, on the Bendigo campus and also in Albury-Wodonga, Shepparton and Mildura. The programs that we offer are Dentistry / Oral Health—all of the Allied Health programs; Nursing, Public Health, and Human Biosciences that compliment the Pharmacy program which is run through the Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering, as well.

So, we have a very broad suite of programs which are run through the Rural Health School. We'll expand our numbers by about 800 students; that's effectively doubling the size of the school in Northern Victoria. And it will involve us putting about $70 million worth of buildings up, in Bendigo in particular, and then student accommodation throughout Northern Victoria. And that's a very significant set of achievements for the University which will be realized over the next four years.

Matt de Neef:

Now, as I said before, the Physiotherapy Clinical School in Bendigo has been relocated. Can you tell us a little bit about the partnership between La Trobe University Health Sciences and Bendigo Health?

Hal Swerissen:

We're building a $30 million building on the Bendigo Health site. That's in the planning process at the moment. That will be a major clinical school developed with Bendigo Healthcare Group. And we will have a partnership with Bendigo Health, Monash University and La Trobe to provide an educational precinct for health sciences at the Bendigo Healthcare site in the middle of Bendigo.

So, this is a very exciting development for us. It allows us to put clinical education and research in a health care setting. It's a hub, really, for our clinical placements model which will go in Bendigo and then throughout Northern Victoria.

Matt de Neef:

How does the Health Sciences faculty and the courses offered within the Faculty compare to the traditional medicine degree, you might see in one of the bigger universities—Melbourne, for example?

Hal Swerissen:

Well our approach is one of having very flexible pathways across a range of disciplines—Medicine, of course is one discipline. It has a very focused approached to the training program. Our approach is to be multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary in its orientation. And to have an approach which really brings together a set of disciplines within a flexible program.

The other part of what we're trying to do is to bring together partnerships with the University and health services; both the hospital-based health services, what is known as acute health services and the rehabilitation and community-based services, focusing particularly on primary care so that we create a network of relationships between the University and health services across a very broad range of discipline.

So, in one sense, what we're aiming to be, over time, is a one-stop shop for the health services.

Matt de Neef:

As you mentioned before, La Trobe has got a very strong commitment to developing and expanding its regional campuses. Can you tell us a little bit about what's involved in your second role and that's as the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Regional)?

Hal Swerissen:

The Pro Vice-Chancellor (Regional) position is one which is really just over a year old. It brings together in an integrated way our efforts to bring campuses in Mildura, Shepparton and Albury-Wodonga and Bendigo into focus for the University and to really represent the University in all of those communities and to then, create a matrix structure which links back to faculties and to our administrative support services so, that we can deliver high quality set of programs in Northern Victoria.

Matt de Neef:

Presumably, being Vice-Chancellor (Regional) you spend a bit of time in the regional campuses. How do you split your time these days?

Hal Swerissen:

Well, I spend 50 days a year in a car. [Laughter] On average, I do about 40 thousand kilometers a year. That gives you an indication that I travel a bit. Every two weeks I'm on an airplane going to either Albury-Wodonga or Mildura; that sort of thing. So, there's a lot of travelling involved in it. There's a lot of meeting people. It's a significant balancing act that needs to happen with the Faculty role, as well.

What I have discovered in doing that is that it's very important to have very high quality video and communications technology. And that's making a huge difference over the last six months since we've put some very high quality equipment in. So, I now run a lot of virtual meetings, from whichever office I'm in, either in Bendigo or in Melbourne and that's been a critical part in how to manage that role.

The balancing act is actually quite a useful way for someone in my job to work. Because I have, on the one hand, a set of very clear operational responsibilities—strategic delivery of the Health Sciences program—but on the other, I have a broader university role which means that I, then, have to balance up the inevitable sets of interests that a faculty has with the broader responsibilities that are there for the University.

And I, actually, think that that's a good mix for a dean to have because it, then, brings you into a contact with the sets of issues which you're there for the broader university, as well, as for your own faculty.

Matt de Neef:

Now, if I've read your profile on the Health Sciences' website correctly, all of your qualifications come from Perth-based universities; namely, Curtin University and Murdoch University. What was it that, initially, brought you to Victoria and to La Trobe University?

Hal Swerissen:

When I was finishing my post-graduate studies, I was President of the Council of Australian Post-Graduate Association which was the student body which represented post-graduates. They're offices were co-located with what was then known as the Australian Union of Students which was in Carlton. So, I used to spend about two days a month in Melbourne. So I go to know Carlton like it was a suburb of Perth. And I got offered a job in a university here in Melbourne. So, I thought that would be a terrific thing to do because I knew Victoria pretty well.

So, I was very attracted to Melbourne. I think it's a great place to live. I like Victoria. The other thing I'd say about that is that I was very interested in combining a role as an academic and also somebody who work with the external world; in government and with health services and so on.

I've always been interested in having a university base and doing research and teaching but combining that with being involved in external activities in terms of researching, consulting and working with government and so on.

Matt de Neef:

I'm glad you mentioned government, actually, because, of course, you've been a Senior Ministerial Adviser on health, to State and Federal government in the past. And as we sit here today, recording this podcast, we're still in limbo as to the outcome of the 2010 election. How do you see the state of healthcare in Australia, as it currently stands?

Hal Swerissen:

That's probably a topic for another podcast, at some point, Matt. There are a couple things I'd say; one is that Australia's health outcome is still amongst the best in the world. So, if we just take a simple measure like life-expectancy, Australia is second or third in terms of those sorts of health outcomes.

So that's a terrific thing about Australia. The health system, itself, is a bit creaky, largely, because of Commonwealth-State relationships and there is a need to sort those out and to produce some more modern healthcare system which delivers on the needs of the sorts of problems that Australians face over the next 30 or 40 years.

At the moment, we're in limbo, as you say. And it's not clear where we'll end up. There have been a set of proposals on the table which I've been involved in negotiating around primary care and around hospitals more generally. The reality is that, it will take another five years or so to work through all of those issues to see if we can take the next steps for the Australian healthcare system.

Matt de Neef:

Prof. Hal Swerissen, thanks so much for your time today.

Hal Swerissen:

My pleasure, Matt.

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