Navigating the ruins of a failed corporation

Unpacking the disappointments and disasters of USyd student services

A photo of the Student Services waiting room.

Both operate in oligopolistic environments shaped by the ruthless dynamics of supply and demand, hungry for profits or “market share” when trying to out-do their competitors in a capitalistic arena. Both offer a suite of cookie-cutter products, which often fail to adequately meet individual needs. Consuming one of these products requires committing to a fixed-term contract, made difficult to escape due to legions of terms and conditions. Top executives are compensated generously for their often questionable management, with salaries beginning well-above the million-dollar mark.

They both also offer the promise of “superior” service – one which has been continually broken. Whilst I can handle a routine blackout between Stanmore and Newtown, one shouldn’t expect consistent failures when it comes to their education, and their future. The highly debatable quality in the recent overhauls of USyd’s academic offerings, such as OLEs, cheapen the value of a “world-class” degree. 

Meanwhile, the teaching quality varies enormously. One only needs to look at new administration building: intermittent Internet, fossilised classrooms and poor recording facilities that make it difficult for those who can’t physically attend lectures.

But what happens when the student experience breaks down? 

With your only respite being the now centralised USyd Student Centre – the equivalent of a telecom phone centre –  students become helpless consumers facing a bureaucratic abyss when crucial issues, such as academic progression, exchange credits or degree administration, arise.

Many of us are no strangers to the dehumanised processes of USyd’s handling of student queries – an effective “cost-cutting strategy” to boost the university’s profits, which reached almost $170 million last year. The system delivers anxiety and frustration. It is not unusual to wait weeks, even months for a reply. 

It took Candice* three years to be properly enrolled in a Bachelors of Science (Advanced) with majors that would best reflect her changing interests. She was initially rejected from an internal transfer despite satisfying the ATAR requirements. Delays between email correspondence, forgotten promises of call-backs and a lack of familiarity with the degree requirements culminated in the change taking place many months after the initial request. The bureaucratic torture persisted when Candice tried to change majors – where the only consistency was, ironically, the irregular information retrieved from multiple in-person consultations at the Student Centre.

Simon* was in his last year when he too decided to change degrees. During this process, he waited six months for a response despite opening numerous tickets on USyd’s contactless “Service Portal.” Its sterile interface is the equivalent of talking to someone at automated call centre.

Such delays, devoid of human touch, resulted in Simon delaying graduation for a semester and thwarted any aspirations of further study. “[I] once had aspirations of doing further academic work at USyd, but not anymore. The whole ordeal left such a bitter taste in my mouth I’d rather just work.” 

Michael’s* graduation date was also pushed back a semester due to administrative errors on USyd’s part. They incorrectly marked one of his subjects as “incomplete” from first year, almost three years ago, despite displaying as “complete” on his Sydney Student. Email replies were staggered at 1-2 weeks between him and administrative staff, which prevented him from enrolling in Winter School to promptly complete his degree. He only received a reply at the start of Semester 2. By then he had already enrolled because he had no other choice. “[They] basically blamed me for their blunder and was not helpful at all.”

At no point was a phone number or contact details to a “real” person made available in any of these cases. One can’t help but wonder if these delays are intentional, keeping students in the system for longer, while universities profit off prolonged degrees.

Simon and Candice were only able to switch successfully after escalating their cases to the Associate Deans of their respective faculties. It seems as if only when executive power is on your side does the university start taking you seriously. But this process also lacks transparency, as many emails of relevant staff members or academics are deliberately obfuscated on the USyd website, forcing students to navigate another bureaucratic labyrinth.

It’s easy to blame the inefficacy of administrative staff for these gross injustices. But it appears that a greedy university is ultimately at fault. How is a decentralised team supposed to support over 60,000 students?

Short-staffing and poor training of administrative centres come at the expense of adequate academic guidance and mentorship – which is crucial for nurturing the educational experience students deserve. 

The increasing levels of disenfranchisement between students and staff, general complacency, lack of compassion and treating students like hapless cash generators is despicable. 

If customer service was a key performance indicator, USyd would have an appalling rating.

*Names have been changed.