Agility and unity propelled a rapid pandemic response

27/07/2020 | 6 mins

International student focus

On a late summer weekend, two weeks before students were due to start arriving at UWA’s Perth campus for Orientation Week 2020, the Federal Government restricted travel from China in response to growing public health concerns about the novel coronavirus in Wuhan.

The decision foreshadowed the start of a global pandemic that would compel universities worldwide to rethink their operations and course delivery models.

It galvanised UWA into critical incident mode as many hundreds of students in China faced the reality of being unable to return to Perth to continue, or start, their studies for the year.

Multiple teams moved into action, ensuring that students unable to make it to Perth would be supported to continue their studies online and stay socially connected.

Those teams included University IT, which in making UWA systems accessible to overseas students was required to tackle the Great Firewall of China. To speed access to UWA websites from within China, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) Gateway solution through Hong Kong was implemented, in partnership with Alibaba Cloud. Studying from 8,000km away suddenly became feasible.

As travel restrictions were extended, the University’s residential colleges prepared to support international student arrivals from outside China who were required to self-isolate for 14 days, with three floors of self-contained studio rooms at University Hall equipped for quarantine use.

At the same time, academic unit coordinators, with support from professional staff and tutors, worked exhaustively to adapt classes to online mode to deliver an engaging remote learning experience.

Pandemic tipping point

For a moment it looked like UWA would be able to catch its breath, with the majority of students stranded overseas successfully transitioned to remote learning. Then on March 11, midway through the third academic week of the year, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Within weeks, restaurants, gyms and libraries were closed across Australia. National and state borders progressively shut. As the total number of COVID-19 cases in Australia climbed, the University made the decision to move classes online for all students, and to enable most staff to work from home.

University-wide response

Enabling 18,000 students to study remotely, shifting 3,000 units online and supporting 3,000 staff to work remotely, presented challenges – and responses to these across all University operations – on an unprecedented scale.

Strict public health and safety measures were rolled out across campus aligned with the evolving advice of State and Federal authorities. This included extra cleaning, closure of venues, social distancing, hygiene requirements and public health messaging.

Staff were offered additional support, including COVID-19 leave and expanded services from the Employee Assistance Program.

UWA’s community events were not spared disruption and also successfully transitioned to online mode. More than 75 webinar events were delivered in the first half of the year, ranging from policy discussions to a Convocation Ordinary Meeting.

International students were invited to an online Career Café with alumni from around the world, and dozens of alumni logged into a webinar about the future of work in South East Asia. The Research Impact Series entered the virtual world, with a panel discussion delivered by academic experts tackling themes such as mental health, maintaining physical fitness and the proliferation of fake news.

Multiple cybersecurity enhancements were delivered. Premium Zoom was rolled out to all UWA staff and students, and 3,000 new units were added into Microsoft Teams. Students were given access to UniDesk, allowing them to connect to a pool of 1,800 computers located across 50 venues on campus.

Visitors to the UWA Library dropped from 12,000 to fewer than 2,500 per day – but demand for digital services soared. The Library transformed its enquiry desks into virtual kiosks, with staff on hand to provide support via MS Teams. Online appointments were available with STUDYSmarter and Library staff members, who provided study, editing and referencing tips.

“Our staff and students have impressed me enormously with their resilience and adaptability, and also with the kindness and support they have shown to each other. I believe we have very good reason to be optimistic about the future of our University.”

Interim UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander AO
Interim UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander AO



In a testament to innovation, learning assumed new digital forms. More than 60 music students participated in a live virtual ensemble, Indigenous studies students took part in virtual yarning circles and exercise physiology students delivered client interventions via Zoom. About 350 active leadership students went from kayaking, mountain biking and stand-up paddle boarding to building and solving virtual escape rooms and creating music online.

At University Hall, many of the residential college’s 750 residents chose to stay. Social interaction became virtual, with a TikTok competition, Zoom check-in meetings, as well as the first UniHall’s Got Talent competition on Facebook Live. Residents were busier than ever, remaining connected through online knitting workshops, a ‘cooking in quarantine’ video series, Zoom and Facebook workout sessions, online art competition, and a balcony art initiative.

Student support

The University’s Student Life team, together with the Student Guild, identified five main areas in which students needed support: financial; wellbeing, mental health and loneliness; food and basic supplies; access to IT equipment and data; and security of housing.

In response, the Student Welfare team swelled to 48 drawn from across the University who set up contact centres that provided direct support to more than 2,000 students affected by uncertainty, financial stress and dislocation from family and the campus.

More than 1,500 students were referred to the University’s services, including 1,200 students who received hardship grants totalling around $1.6 million.

More than 900 tailored welfare packs – containing food, hygiene supplies, grocery vouchers and other necessities were distributed to students. Emergency housing was made available to those in vulnerable situations, while rent relief and relocation to affordable University housing was offered to those in need.

Medical and counselling appointments were provided online.

Support extended across the wider University community with alumni and staff donating funds, offering social support and providing pro bono professional advice through the Support our Students: COVID-19 Emergency Appeal. By the end of June this had raised $131,000 from 340 donors and resulted in 86 offers of social support to students in need, including two webinars of financial planning, property law and migration law advice.

To ensure support for remote study, Academic Skills Advisors created dedicated resources including online orientation materials, while UniAccess arranged lecture transcripts for students with accessibility requirements. The University provided loan laptops and WiFi dongles to more than 300 students needing equipment for home study.

Recognising physical exams were not an option, new systems to deliver online exams for Semester 1 were implemented and used by more than 14,000 students sitting 39,000 exams all around the world.

Solutions for the community

UWA’s academics, researchers and clinicians made significant contributions to frontline management of the State’s medical and public health response through collaborative treatment trials and their expertise in epidemiology, psychology, virology, economics, Indigenous health and more. A taskforce of experts – including nine UWA researchers – from across the Group of Eight universities compiled a Roadmap to Recovery report, providing guidance as the Federal Government navigates a post COVID-19 reality.

Steering UWA through the evolving COVID-19 crisis was the task that fell to Professor Jane den Hollander AO, interim Vice-Chancellor from March to early July 2020.

“A suggestion six months ago that UWA would have all units of study and tutorials online, as well as student-facing services, in less than six weeks of (admittedly very hard) work, would have been met with derision. But we did it,” Professor den Hollander said.

“Our staff and students have impressed me enormously with their resilience and adaptability, and also with the kindness and support they have shown to each other. I believe we have very good reason to be optimistic about the future of our University."

Read all of this winter's Uniview magazine [PDF, 2.8MB]. 

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