Interview with Sarah Cordiner

The remote campus director talks about her traveller roots, winning and losing at business and the limits of the curriculum

December 20, 2018
Sarah Cordiner, Broome campus director, University of Notre Dame Australia

Sarah Cordiner is head of the University of Notre Dame Australia’s Broome campus in Western Australia’s remote north. Thought to be the youngest university director in Australian history, she is also a best-selling author who has run education and training businesses in Devon, Malta and Perth. Until recently she ran online workforce development business MainTraining. In 2017 she was named one of The Huffington Post’s “50 Must-Follow Women Entrepreneurs”.

Where and when were you born?
South London in 1985; my mother’s side from traditional gypsy culture and my father from a typical middle working-class family. My grandfather’s birth certificate says “occupation: traveller”.

How has this shaped who you are?
I grew up with a leg either side of two very different cultures that didn’t fully understand one another’s ways and didn’t agree with each other’s norms and values. It taught me to see life, relationships and communities from different angles. That underpinning ideology of being open – seeing the world through the lens of any person you are with – will teach you something you don’t know. When you put those lessons from others with the experiences and knowledge you’ve gained for yourself, that’s when magic can happen.

Did insights from your traveller background help you to understand Indigenous Australia?
Success in this space comes from having the willingness to understand. That means asking questions. By showing people that you want to see the world through their eyes, you create a safe space to be frank and blunt. When you show people that you are genuinely interested in them, they delight in being able to share the world from their perspective.

How did you become an educator?
I almost dropped out of school. I was led to believe that knowledge is fixed, that I was not one of those academic people and never would be. I hid away in the art room, waiting for the day I could leave education forever, and met this art teacher who kept encouraging me to do more. By the end of the year I’d completed enough pieces of artwork for an A level. He encouraged me to retake the exams I hadn’t bothered going to. I came out with top scores in 13 GCSEs and A levels. I saw that learning, growth and development can come in many forms. I vowed there and then, with a paintbrush in one hand and grade papers in the other, that I would dedicate the rest of my life to passing on that gift of self-efficacy through education.

The global recession claimed your third business in Perth. How did you pull through?
We had a contract with the Remote Jobs and Communities programme across Western Australia. [Former Australian prime minister] Tony Abbott decided he wasn’t going to keep that programme running. On one day I lost A$2.7 million [£1.6 million] and 21 of my 23 staff. I’ll never forget lying on the concrete floor at about 2am, having had to tell the news to my staff one by one, and thinking, now what? I’d started again a couple of times before. Why couldn’t I do the same again? I decided to put everything online. I essentially turned 10 years’ worth of training, education and consultancy services into online programmes. That opened me up from a locally dependent education economy to a global one. I put my education programmes on autopilot, where people could buy their own training without me being physically involved in the transaction – a legitimate make-money-while-you-sleep from people all over the world. By the end of 2016 I had more than 12,000 students in 146 countries.

How did you end up in Broome?
My husband is a police officer. In Western Australia all police officers have to conduct a minimum of two years’ country service. We pulled Broome out of a hat. We were given six weeks’ notice to pack up our lives, close the business and get ourselves to Broome. We had no idea where we were going to live because the police arrange your accommodation for you. You see your house when you turn up. We arrived and heard the removal men laughing. There were chickens in our kitchen.

The Kimberley region around Broome has less than a thousandth of the UK’s population, in an area almost twice as big. How does that affect your work?
In Broome, our university offers vocational education and training as well as higher education and research opportunities. We tailor every programme to each community. Instead of expecting our students to come to us, we deliver our training by going out to them. It’s about providing that opportunity by taking it to their doorstep, convincing them they have the ability, giving them that self-efficacy to engage, and providing hands-on support to maintain their commitment and get them through to graduation – which creates a ripple effect in their communities. They become an inspiration and role model. We might go out to a community that takes us four and a half days to get to. There might be one student there waiting for us. We commit to that provision of service because it is socially transformative.

What educational policy or practice would you like to change?
What we recognise within the curriculum overlooks incredible skills, competencies and talents. It makes people feel that they have nothing. It doesn’t recognise that we have people who can speak four to 10 languages; who have a knowledge of culture that could transform Australia; who have knowledge of flora, fauna and land management sustainability that we couldn’t possibly begin to fathom unless they could teach us. They understand kinship systems that are so complex. Our curriculum limits what we recognise, accredit and measure. That really needs to go back to the drawing board.


Alan Shepard has been named the next president and vice-chancellor of Western University in Canada. Dr Shepard, who has led Concordia University in Montreal since 2012, will join the Ontario institution in July, replacing Amit Chakma. The US-born academic was previously provost and vice-president (academic) at Ryerson University in Toronto and held leadership positions at the universities of Guelph and Virginia. Carol Stephenson, who was on the presidential selection committee, said that Dr Shepard checked three boxes committee members wanted to see in the next president: competency, character and commitment. She said: “Alan is A+ in all three,” and he “understands the complexities of modern universities and what it takes to move them forward”.

Tom MacMillan has been appointed Elizabeth Creak chair in rural policy and strategy at the Royal Agricultural University. He will join from the Soil Association where he is currently director of innovation and is one of six new appointments related to a £2.5 million research project on UK food security post-Brexit. Joanna Price, the university’s vice-chancellor, said Professor MacMillan’s appointment would “enable us to provide academic leadership in food security, a critically important area for the sector”. Louise Manning will also join the university as professor of agri-food and supply chain security.

David Shirley is to be the next executive dean of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. He will join the academy at Edith Cowan University in early 2019 from Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is currently the director of the Manchester School of Theatre.

Ian Bond, currently head of the University of Bristol’s School of Civil, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, will become dean of the Faculty of Engineering in August.

Glyn Davis, former vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, is to become chief executive officer of Australia’s largest charity, the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

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