While not quite a frying pan-to-fire situation, Julie Jomeen has had an ‘interesting’ twelve months, leaving the UK as the coronavirus was starting to bite and arriving in Australia when the university sector began facing its toughest challenges in years.

Things would not get easier at either end, with Boris Johnson’s government fumbling the COVID-19 response and Southern Cross University, to where Professor Jomeen was headed, about to axe 130 jobs amidst a devastating $33m budget shortfall. It wasn’t alone, and universities continue to wobble as overseas student income dries up.

Welcome to your new life… 

“Yes,” Prof Jomeen confirmed in a Zoom call from the Gold Coast, near to the SCU campus that has seen significant growth in the last few years, “this was certainly the strangest start to a new job.”

Nothing but an optimist, and coming straight from a gym workout, Prof Jomeen explained that she and the School has quickly adapted to the ‘new normal’, with the great majority of students in her School of Health and Human Sciences studying off-campus, in other words attending almost all their lectures and tutorials on-line. 

Surveys show that many, perhaps most, Australian students don’t like this, nor always do their teachers, regardless of how good the technology, but that’s life in the age of COVID, and it’s unlikely to change soon.

Prof Jomeen heads the multi-campus School’s courses, which include nursing & midwifery, and allied health programs such as Speech Therapy, OT, Osteopathy, Podiatry and Pedorthics, as well as a human science course in Biomedical Science and Sport and Exercise Science. These have strong practicum arrangements with GP practices, hospitals and community health, the aged care sector, schools and allied health practices. If students miss out on face-to-face instruction they certainly make up for it with their hands-on work with patients and clients.

“SCU has been proud to maintain these placements despite the challenges of COVID,” Prof Jomeen says.

“Partnerships are key,” she says, “nothing can operate successfully in isolation, and we have strong relationships with the LHDs [SCU works across both the Northern NSW and Mid North Coast footprints], Queensland Health, and the private hospital sector. We also collaborate closely with the highly regarded University Centre for Rural Health.

“SCU is not just a key provider of education but an important civic institution, which includes our reach out into the community and having a large number of students from the local area.”

Despite the tertiary education crisis, expansion plans are afoot for the School, including Social Work coming into its fold, along with a formal connection with the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM). On the horizon for the NCNM is a Masters of Lifestyle Medicine, reflecting Prof Jomeen’s belief that, “Our society will have an ever-greater focus on preventive health and health promotion, wellness, and the various benefits of keeping us at home when we do fall ill.”

Keenly aware of Indigenous health indicators, Prof Jomeen wants to embed Indigenous health in all the School’s courses and research focus, along with boosting the number of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander students and graduates. Midwifery has already been successful in this and she would like to see that expand. She sees the Indigenous Health Major as a desirable stream. 

With a history of research, in her case, a PhD (School of Medicine, University of Leeds) on ‘The impact of choice of care on women’s psychological health’, she is a strong advocate of the need to promote research and, in economic terms, to re-focus on the postgraduate market. Meanwhile, she is pleased to see a strong ‘undergraduate portfolio’, especially in nursing & allied health disciplines such as Occupational Therapy both of which are “growing year-on-year.”

On balance, and amidst global uncertainty, Julie Jomeen’s timing has been perfect and the knowledge and enthusiasm she brings to our regional university will be a great asset. So will the skills of the graduates and researchers, many of whom will remain here to nurture a growing, ageing and socio-economically disadvantaged population.