Exchange nightmares: credit where credit’s due

These are just some of the administrative difficulties students face on exchange

Artwork by Andrew Rickert

Under the heading “How the exchange program works”, the university’s Study Abroad website explains in one of three short dot points: “You will study faculty-approved units of study overseas which are credited towards your degree. This means you shouldn’t have to delay your graduation by studying overseas.”

The reality for many students is much more complicated.

Third year Arts student Courtney went on exchange to Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University earlier this year. During what was supposed to be the most exciting time of her studies, she endured over a month’s wait for news on whether the subjects she had chosen were approved for credit, despite regular follow up emails and costly international calls.

With time running out, she was forced to take extra classes in case certain choices were not approved. Another student who went on exchange to Geneva was taking seven classes at one point due to similar concerns. Courtney did not get her subjects approved until after she had returned from exchange and commenced the new semester in Sydney.

And Courtney was one of the lucky ones. Another student returned from Hong Kong University, to be told just one of her four units would be credited. The decision was reversed after numerous emails requesting the office reconsider, but not before a reply telling her the follow up emails were “disrespectful”, that she held “an unreasonable expectation”, and that she not try to follow them up within ten business days.

To obtain credit for their courses, students going on exchange—or participating in the university’s ‘international mobility’ program—must submit subject selections from their host university to USyd academics who ultimately approve it. Rather than contact the relevant academics themselves, outbound students instead submit their subject choices and the related UoS outline through a centralised admin office.

The office behind handling these academic approvals is Faculty Services. A branch of the Student Administrative Services (SAS), it was created in December 2016 as part of the university’s centralisation process.

In addition to exchange-related academic matters, administrative processes like unit of study permissions, progression, and credit also fall under the responsibility of Faculty Services. The team of around 50 staff handled over 122,000 emails from December 2017 to September 2018, with ‘international mobility’-related enquiries totalling over 35,000.

There is currently no available data on resolution rates for exchange-specific matters, but Sarah Jones, the head of Faculty Services, maintains that 83 per cent of cases are resolved within ten days. The statistic is at odds with anecdotal evidence, and Jones acknowledges that many students have experienced difficulties. Given the university’s goal of having 50 per cent of students undertake a mobility program by 2020, “current practices simply cannot continue,” she says.

This year there has been a 624 per cent increase in the volume load of short term study abroad applications in 2018 in the business faculty, though there are just two staff who manage mobility in the business portfolio.

Jones believes the need to do a full degree progression check for each applicant is one reason to blame for the protracted processing time.

But not all students are lucky enough to benefit from the “full degree progression check”. After confirming his exchange to Waseda University in Tokyo would be for a full year, one student was told he was only enrolled for a single semester and that his law degree would be terminated if he continued for the full year. The Faculty Services office told him they couldn’t “advise on academic progression”.

The same story has plagued countless students—conflicting information from administrative staff, long waits for email replies, and a process that causes unnecessary stress.

INGS / Law student Isobel, was told a year after her short term exchange in Aarhus that she had “reached [her] credit point limit” but was “ineligible to graduate”. Despite writing a 2000 word appeal to the Student Appeals Board, the matter was dismissed on procedural grounds and Isobel was unable to graduate on time.

Jones suggests nature of overseas subjects can also delay processing, as subject content often changes or is updated after students arrives, necessitating re-approval within a short time frame. Beyond this, she also blames long waits on “core dependenc[ies]”, such as waiting for an academic to make a decision on a subject.

It appears the university’s process relies on many factors coming together perfectly; there is no contingency plan for students going to countries where UoS outlines are not available in English, or are only available once students are enrolled in the unit, by which time it’s usually too late to unenrol should USyd academics fail to grant approval.

Despite decades of students going on exchange, it seems processes fundamental to enrolment—such as subjects liable to change or responses from academic staff—still cripple the system.

When something goes wrong, the student is the one forced to shoulder the risk. Any small misstep could potentially mean a delayed graduation, or having to take extra units back home. This entails all the associated living costs and study expenses, as well as rearrangement of employment plans.

Isobel’s exchange unit in Denmark was rejected for credit the day before the course started, meaning she had to do a unit that didn’t count towards her degree but that she was not allowed to remove from her transcript.

When she asked if she needed to unenrol in another subject to avoid exceeding the maximum credits allowed, she was given a link on “how to unenrol”. She was told over the phone she would be allowed to reduce her study load.

Yet Director of Academic Appeals and Progression Professor Mark Melatos determined in her initial FASS appeal, that there was no evidence the faculty confirmed she could reduce her study load. He dismissed telephone conversations she had with Faculty Services staff as inadmissible as they were not in writing and constituted “informal communication”.

“The Faculty is taking advantage of their own failure in a way that is deeply unjust,” says Isobel.

For students with a time-sensitive matter in need of a quick resolution, the facelessness arguably endemic to university admin exacerbates the problem.

Isobel says, “[…] even though it may be clear internally, for students there is quite literally no way to tell who is responsible for resolving an issue.”

Students cannot directly call staff at Faculty Services, nor visit an office, with many expressing frustration at the inability to “talk to a real person”.

Other students Honi spoke to have described emailing as “extremely unhelpful” and “get[ting them] nowhere.” The average wait time for these students to get an online response has ranged from three days to three months. Students are rewarded for hyper-persistence, with issues only resolved after months of back and forth.

The Faculty Services office says improvements that make the experience easier for students are on their way.

Jones says that a new mobility-dedicated team was added three weeks ago, by reshuffling staff, in an effort to increase efficiency and consistency. An upcoming report plans to quantifiably measure process improvements.

Technology looks to play a large role in the planned improvements. From the end of October, SAS will roll out a new client management system called ServiceNow, which collates enquiries made by a student and will allow students to track the progress of their enquiries.

Jones says Faculty Services is also working with the Sydney Operating Model (SOM) team, an— automation and innovation team—to try to introduce “smarts” into the technology. Deliverables will be provided in 2019.

On a larger scale, the university has proposed an Outbound Mobility Policy for 2018 with changes that include creating a “database of conditional credit approval decisions”. Credits approved on the database have a three-year expiry date, and Faculty Services may award conditional credit approval without contacting an academic again based on the database.

According to the 2017 annual report, 29 per cent of all students have been on either long- or short-term exchange. With almost 60,000 students enrolled, it remains to be seen whether the new measures will be enough to lessen the administrative nightmare for the 50 per cent of students that will go ‘mobile’ should the university have its way.