Students pay the price for USyd’s ‘tired’ administration

Services dedicated to helping students are letting them down

Artwork by Emma Harbridge

Students at the University of Sydney claim that the institution’s negligent administration is costing them more than their semesterly student support and amenity fee (SSAF).

Non-responsiveness at crucial points of enrolment, misleading advice, hostility, and even the dead-naming of trans people are prices students have paid for an obsolete system, according to a former casual administrative officer.

“The two main issues are that the system is tired and outdated, but overall there just aren’t enough staff you can go and talk to.”

Students are faced with a two-to-three hour wait period in the first two weeks of semester, forced to wait longer than necessary as staff manually enter vital student information into spreadsheets, according to the same officer.

Although Sydney University is comprised of 60,000 students of over 130 nationalities, only eight desks in the Student Service Centre in Level 2 of the Jane Foss Russell Building are dedicated to providing walk-in assistance to students, Monday to Friday.

The former Student Services staff member said colleagues had become “desensitised” to frantic students, because they weren’t seeing people face-to-face.

“They’re attempting to centralise the administrative process and make it more standardised but then that makes it’s a faceless experience,” they said. “Transparency of seeing your [place] in an email queue would not speed up the process but at least you’re not left in the dark for weeks on end.”

One person at the other end is Alex, a 23-year-old arts student who last year updated his personal information through Sydney Student to reflect his trans status.

“I entered my updated gender status and preferred name into Sydney Student, but the University is actually refusing to abandon my birth-name in communications with me,” he said, a practice he found “profoundly distressing”.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, transgender people are exposed to higher rates of both physical and non-physical abuse than their peers, with a disproportionate number experiencing generally poorer mental health outcomes. National bodies consider dead-naming to be an invalidating act of social exclusion.

“Right now, it’s unclear whether they are choosing to dead-name me maliciously, or just can’t be bothered to accommodate trans students in the way we require them to,” he said.

A spokesperson for the University told Honi that the timetabling system currently provides lecturers and tutors access to both preferred and given names, however, was considering updating the system to provide only the preferred name.

After numerous dealings with administration staff, the student was advised to seek help from the University’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

However, a 2017 Honours graduate at USyd said she encountered unexpected hostility from CAPS’ administration when she was suffering from deteriorating mental health due to anxiety, and was made to feel like she could not return.

“This initial session was helpful, but that counsellor left permanently. When I came the second time, [the new counsellor] looked at my history and said ‘Didn’t they fix this last time?’ as though a person’s mental health can be ‘fixed’.”

When she explained to the administrative officer that she wished to change counsellors, Jess was told she was “wasting” the centre’s time.

“I didn’t go [to CAPS] again.”

The prevalence of mental illness in the 18-24 year old age group is the highest of any other age group.

While USyd’s 2017 Annual Report boasts of $700 million received in government funding, CAPS serviced only 12% of the student body.

According to the experience of another Honours student, it is usual for both emotional support and administrative duties to fall on teachers, supervisors and heads of department, as these are the few affiliates of the institution that see students face-to-face.

“When things went wrong for me during my credit application from UTS, I found myself relying entirely on academic staff to both rectify this and console me alongside a gruelling administrative back-and-forthing of indifference and misinformation,” she said.

“I was an emotional wreck. Administrative staff see you as a number.”

The University said they could not comment on the specific circumstances of these cases, adding that “[They were] grateful for the students in raising these issues and will ensure the relevant teams will look to improve services and explore more fulsome support.