The Centre Cannot Hold

University management have centralised student services. Is their takeover working?

Xinbin Chen is a sixth year law student. He would likely have been done in five, were it not for student services. In October 2016 Chen was unwell, so he applied for special consideration. Using the newly centralised system, he submitted special consideration applications for several assessments. He heard nothing back.

A month later, Chen followed up with an email to student services, who directed him to his lecturer. Chen's lecturer sent him back to student services. "I felt like they were kicking the ball between them," he says. Frustrated and unwell, he gave up.

More than four months later Chen’s special consideration applications were accepted, but in the meantime he was deemed to have failed the unit in question. As an international student it cost him more than $5,000 to take the subject again, to say nothing of the lost earnings and additional living expenses Chen incurred as a result of having to extend his degree by six months.

When his special consideration application was finally approved, Chen called the student hotline number, 1800 SYD UNI, and told the operator about his problem. He says the operator did not apologise for the University’s extreme delay, and instead asked “what do you want to do with that?” Defeated once again, Chen gave up.

Deputy Vice Chancellor (Registrar) Tyrone Carlin, who led the centralisation, acknowledges that students have experienced issues, but largely attributes them to teething problems that do not represent a system he argues is more efficient and transparent.

SRC President Isabella Brook says this is the same response the University has given to successive student representatives since they first began raising their concerns more than eighteen months ago.

With a new semester starting, and another crop of students set to go through the Student Administrative Services (SAS) process to change their units, courses and timetables, it is unclear if these problems are merely growing pains, or whether they indicate a change that was implemented with scant consultation and prioritises efficiency over student wellbeing.

'If the University had wanted to encourage its staff to provide advice fast, regardless of whether it actually helps students, the SAS managers could scarcely have devised a better set of incentives'

Students queue out the door of the Student Centre  at the beginning of semester two, 2017. Photo: Nick Bonyhady.

Under the old system, administrative issues from special consideration to enrolment to course transfers were dealt with by the faculties. If you had a problem with your science enrolment, you spoke to a science academic or to the science faculty itself. Now all issues are handled by the Student Centre in the Jane Foss Russell building, through the 1800 SYD UNI number, or via generic email addresses. This transition is the culmination of a long-term process that was first visible to students at the start of 2016 and is now largely complete.

As Carlin points out, the old system had its problems. First, the University was not gathering data on student experiences, impeding its ability to improve over time. Second, it was inconsistent: faculties provided different levels of support, had varying rules for similar situations, and interpreted the same University-wide rules in different ways. Third, it was inefficient; students potentially had to apply for special consideration several times for different assessments, even if the applications all stemmed from a single instance of illness or misadventure.

Carlin emphasises that the University was not motivated by cost-saving. Instead, he describes the University's approach as "pragmatic" and “data-driven”. Under Carlin’s leadership, the University has collected a wealth of information about student demand for administrative services. “As we go forward, one of the great benefits of having gone through the process is that we have a capacity to finally start to understand the landscape”, Carlin says. “You simply cannot deliver the best quality service if you don’t have a handle on what students want and need”.

But it is unclear how the University plans to get a handle on what students need, considering it gathers scant information about whether students are actually getting what they want.

In response to a freedom of information request, the University indicated that it does not have data on issue resolution rates — that is, how many phone calls, emails or in-person enquiries it takes for a student to have their problem fixed. If a student calls a dozen times about the same issue, the University’s statistics treat this identically to successfully resolving twelve different student problems.

At the same time, Honi understands that SAS staff face strict targets requiring them to reply to a certain number of emails and field a quota of phone calls every hour. If the University had wanted to encourage its staff to provide advice fast, regardless of whether it actually helps the student receiving it, the SAS managers could scarcely have devised a better set of incentives.

USyd student Georgia Mantle weathered the consequences. When Mantle transferred from a single degree to a combined degree, she found contradictory information online about the social work component of her new double degree. “All I wanted to know was 'Do I need to enrol in a specific sociology unit or can I do what I want’.” Unsure of what subject to take, and concerned that an incorrect choice could extend her degree, Mantle asked SAS what subject she should take through the USyd ‘Contact Us’ web form. Mantle characterises the University’s response as “The information is there and you need to make sense of it for yourself.”

“I felt like I was being treated like an idiot,” she says, “I can read, I was just confused and stressed and that’s why it wasn’t clicking for me.”

Six emails later, including a formal degree assessment, and Mantle had still not received a clear answer from the University. Unable to finalise her enrolment for weeks while she corresponded with the University, Mantle took a punt and confirmed her enrolment. She is still not entirely sure whether her subject choices were correct.

Not only has the University created a set of perverse incentives that encourage staff to palm queries off to others rather than taking the time to resolve them immediately, the Deputy Vice Chancellor is also unable to say how satisfied students are with the outcomes of their interactions with SAS, because the University doesn’t ask students for that feedback.

Carlin is mindful of this omission. “There are lots of sporadic instances where there’s an opportunity for a student to provide feedback ... but I think it’s absolutely not adequately systematised, and it needs to be,” he says. “One of the things that I’ll be working on ... is building in systems so that there is a much more systemic gathering of that data.”

The University’s decision to only seek student feedback after radically changing student services is reflected in the low number of students who feel included in the University’s decision-making. A USyd survey document obtained by Honi bearing the branding of Colmar Brunton, an independent polling company, notes that only 15 per cent of students felt like they “have a voice at the University”.

'"It's not like our students can walk to the Student Centre to speak to someone — they could, but it would take one hour each way."'

Image: Rebekah Wright.

For students at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Cumberland Campus of Health Sciences and Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), structural problems with SAS are set to be compounded by the University's removal of permanent service counters from their campuses. Alice Morgan, Conservatorium Student Association President, describes Cedric Poon, the former Student Administration Manager at the Conservatorium, as a beloved administrator who knew individual students’ issues. "He could do literally anything [to help students]", Morgan said.

Poon has since been made redundant in the centralisation process. Instead, students at the Conservatorium and Cumberland campus will have access to one support worker for just four hours a day, three days a week from 24 July to 31 August. That support worker will only be able to resolve 'Tier 1’ enquiries, which Morgan explains are merely “general enquiries” that require no staff access to University systems.

The limited availability of support workers has already frustrated some Conservatorium students. Nicky, a postgraduate music student, only commutes to campus when he has class on Thursdays, rendering the new service arrangement inaccessible. By contrast, the Student Centre on main campus is staffed by multiple workers from 9am to 5pm, five days a week, with longer hours during peak periods. This presents a clear inequity: students at the satellite campuses pay the same as other students, but they will receive a lower level of service.

Students at the embattled SCA will not receive any in-person support. “We’re working that through at the moment”, Carlin says. With the University proceeding with its plans to shutter the SCA’s current home at Callan Park and bring a greatly reduced version of the institution to main campus, the removal of student services from Callan Park is another blow to the institution and its students.

Nonetheless, according to Professor Matthew Hindson, Associate Dean (Education) at the Conservatorium, the situation “is a lot better than we thought we were going to have — no in-person support at the Conservatorium. The University Administration has taken on board our feedback regarding the importance of having someone on the ground here.”

In early versions of the SAS centralisation plan, Conservatorium and Cumberland students would have been deprived of physical assistance with administrative problems like their peers at SCA. As Hindson told Honi “It’s not like our students can walk to the Student Centre to speak to someone — they could, but it would take one hour each way.” Parvarthi Subramaniam, Cumberland Student Guild President, emphasises that in morning traffic, even driving from Cumberland to main campus typically takes about an hour.

Carlin explains that the University’s reluctance to have SAS staff on satellite campuses stemmed from a fear that there was insufficient demand. “The idea that there is a necessary relationship between where a student happens to be dominantly studying and the delivery of that services, I think is counterfactual.” Because many administrative tasks can be completed by students themselves online, “there was a hypothesis that one staff member [on a satellite campus] was overdoing it”, according to Carlin.

Only after significant pressure from staff and students, including a petition circulated by Morgan and SRC Education Officer Jenna Shroeder that garnered over 500 signatures, did the University agree to reinstate a physical SAS presence on the satellite campuses, albeit temporarily.

“Admin services at main campus know nothing about music degrees,” Morgan says. She recounts the story of another student studying at the Conservatorium who recently went to main campus seeking advice, only to have SAS suggest the student “go back to your Con admin staff and discuss this with them?”

This knowledge gap seems to stem from the fact that, as specialised institutions that were once independent of USyd, the Faculty of Health Sciences and Conservatorium run according to rules that are unfamiliar to the centralised student services team.

Some information on these faculties is available through the University’s student self-help website, including on niche matters like a health sciences specific exchange program, but other material is missing. A search for ‘ensemble’ — a core type of class for many music degrees — on the University’s information portal provides no relevant results. While SAS staff have access to additional resources, many rely on the portal to answer queries. As a result, Morgan fears that Conservatorium students will be left without anywhere to turn for information.

The difference in the availability of information between Health Sciences and the Conservatorium suggests that the University jumped the gun on centralisation, proceeding with a reduction in services at satellite campuses justified by the availability of online and phone services, despite being told that those resources were not fully in place.

'"It is such a shame that the great memories I've had as an undergraduate student here at the University have been tainted by the experiences I've had at the Student Centre."'

Permanent student counters at satellite campuses have been replaced by solo workers for a handful of days a week in peak periods. Image: Rebekah Wright.

At peak times on main campus, the Student Centre employs up to 60 people, but during the rest of semester it operates with a full-time skeleton staff half that number. The difference is made up by casual staff, an employment strategy that lead to the mass lay-offs which Honi reported on in September 2016. Many of the casual staff at the Student Centre are current USyd students or recent graduates.

Since then, Honi can confirm that there have been two more rounds of lay-offs, one at the end of April and another at the end of May, as other groups of casuals came to the end of their contracts.

According to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which represents University staff, in May "30 more casuals worked for two weeks without getting paid on time because their contracts were not extended, only then to find out two weeks later that they would get no further work. Days later, the same positions were advertised even though 19 people had made an expression of interest for further work."

One former staff member told the NTEU: “We were guaranteed full-time hours, with continuous verbal rhetoric of overtime work available for months to come. These were casuals who had forfeited other employment offers because of this promise ... It is such a shame that the great memories I've had as an undergraduate student here at the University have been tainted by the experiences I’ve had at the Student Centre.”

Honi attempted to contact several Student Centre managers, but was referred back to Carlin, who believes that the high rates of turnover in the Student Centre partly reflect administrative staff members’ desire to move to more advanced roles in the workforce. “In these sorts of roles generally, you observe the same thing. That’s always a challenge of dealing with this type of work.” He also concedes that the University has struggled to plan for demand properly. “As the process matures, we’ll see less of the stab-in-the-dark approach to resource planning,” Carlin says. “It’ll be much more data-driven”. As students have learned, however, it is not clear that the University is collecting the right data.

According to one former faculty administrative staff member who did not wish to be named, the University’s decision not to re-hire staff it has already trained leads to a wealth of institutional knowledge being lost with each cycle.

This has been compounded by the departure of several experienced staff members. According to an internal University document, the positions of the Arts, Business, Engineering and IT, and Conservatorium student administration managers were made redundant in the centralisation. Of the five former managers, at least three have now left the University, taking with them years of experience in the operation of the faculties whose student administration they once managed.

Mantle believes she received poor advice because of the University’s hiring practices and decision to centralise SAS. “It’d be really hard to have to get your head around all those degrees and all the different requirements, because there are a lot. Whereas if you work in the Arts faculty, you can know everything there is to now about Arts, within reason.” The University lists well over a hundred different undergraduate and honours courses online, almost all of which have different rules that are regularly updated.

Carlin says student services employs more people than it did in the past, and justifies current staffing levels on the basis that every dollar spent on student services “is a dollar that is not available to advancing the student experience and student education”.

While Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, NTEU Sydney Branch President, would doubtless like to raise the staffing levels at the Student Centre, his more immediate concern is that the University’s hiring and firing cycle is “incredibly inefficient, and demoralising for existing staff to be starting from scratch every few months.” Indeed, the Union has recently filed a formal dispute letter with the University over the “recruitment and management of staff in the Student Centre.” The letter alleges that, “Either the Student Centre is making ad-hoc changes without the required consultation or management has no understanding of its own workforce.”

The University and NTEU will be meeting with each other on the issues surrounding the Student Centre as they simultaneously negotiate a new enterprise bargaining agreement. In the meantime, students like Chen and Mantle will continue to grapple with the consequences of frequently overworked and under-resourced staff.

While Chen was struggling to get an answer to his special consideration, the focus of SAS management was elsewhere. According to the NTEU, in 2016 the University was attempting to stop its Student Centre staff from wearing shorts to work.

The centralisation of student services has had some benefits for students: dictionaries and calculators for exams are approved rapidly; enrolment can be completed online; wait times for credit approval have gone down. The simple stuff works, but it has come at a cost. Road blocks have been erected between students and experienced academic advisers, frontline staff are incentivised to provide unhelpful advice, and it is tougher for students on satellite campuses to get help with their degrees. Students with complex queries are struggling to have their queries resolved. The challenge for the University is to keep resolving simple queries quickly while fixing its flawed approach to complicated problems. Given SAS management's fascination with legwear, when that will happen is anyone’s guess. 

Story: Nick Bonyhady

Art: Rebekah Wright