A semester on from the centralisation of student services, what have we learned?

Documents obtained by Honi show a system with expansive aims, but missing a crucial component

The student services division interacts with every student. Those interactions are not uniformly positive. The University's student services division interacts with every student. Those interactions are not uniformly positive.

Over the course of the year, Honi has reported on the reform to student administrative services: these include the new centralised special considerations system, the 1800 SYD UNI helpline, and the closure of faculty student service counters. Documents obtained by Honi under freedom of information laws give a better sense of the intention behind the reform, and how its implementation has evolved.

1. The University considered the need for a case management system, but did not proceed with it

A leading complaint from Students’ Representative Council caseworkers and University administrative officials has been that students who receive inconsistent information from the University have no recourse because student services do not record the information it provides to students verbally. This lack of record-keeping has caused real issues. For example, one student told Honi that they were told an exchange subject would count towards their degree. Later, the University told them it would not, leaving the student out of pocket, behind in their degree and with their scholarship at risk. Without proof of the first assurance, the student had little ability to challenge the University’s new ruling.

In approving the entire student administration project back in 2014, the University identified the need for a “standard case management tool” to “enable virtual teams to access, update and share secure information related to a student administration case”. It is therefore all the more mystifying as to why the project went live without that system in place.

Outgoing Deputy Vice Chancellor Tyrone Carlin previously told Honi that he was aware of the omission and working to address it for limited classes of queries.

2. Phone records show a system that’s largely working, but hide the details

The Government Information (Public Access) Act, under which freedom of information requests are performed in NSW, only allows access to existing records. Taking full advantage of that language, the University has refused to release information that it holds on its databases, maintaining that such information is not a ‘record’ until a report is run on the database and subsequently saved or printed. This prevented Honi from gaining a comprehensive picture of average in-person and call waiting times under the new student administration system.

However, in a commendable gesture of transparency, the University has released some data on wait times from January to July 2017. In that period, wait times at the student centre were just under 15 minutes and on the phone they were just under 10 minutes. Though revealing in some ways, the headline data is limited; it does not show wait times for different types of  enquiries. For example, one student told Honi that they attended the student centre late in semester one and waited for over two hours to receive a transcript, while other students who needed calculators checked before exams were seen in minutes. Information on the different queue wait times was not released to Honi.

3. Exams of the future

In its initial plan for student services, the University considered long term plans for two major technological changes to the way that exams are administered: video invigilation and automated student identification. The former would presumably allow a much smaller number of invigilators to remotely monitor a much larger number of exams while the latter would do away with the current paper slips on which students record their details. It’s easy to see why both of these proposals have not yet been implemented: the potential for cheating is obvious.

The University is currently undertaking a review of student administrative services. A preliminary report will be delivered to the Student Administrative Services Project Control Board, which oversees the project, on 26 October.