Sydney Timetable: A solution in search of a problem

Why do we have a new timetabling system?

One Thursday afternoon in the thick of Semester 2 exams last year, every USyd student received one of those weekly Student News emails that I assume no one ever really reads.

Nestled a few paragraphs down, it loftily proclaimed: “From Semester 1 2021, our brand-new timetabling system, Sydney Timetable, will make it easier for you to plan, schedule, and adjust your timetable.”

After clicking the hyperlink a smoothly copy-written announcement on USyd’s website questioned me: Timetables are changing next year – what do you need to know?”

The only question I had was: Why?

How, between accepting hundreds of staff redundancies, suppressing legal student protests, and releasing its own version of Monopoly (RRP: $99.95) did USyd find the time – and more importantly, money – to overhaul a timetabling system that, many would argue, didn’t really have anything wrong with it to begin with?

Though some might disagree, I would describe the ‘old’ timetabling system as deceptively simple, even ingenious: block out the times of the week when you don’t want to have a class – for instance, nothing before 10am or on Fridays – and assign yourself to your preferred tutorial time. For the first three years of my university life, this mostly worked a treat. Sure, the process of arranging a swap was a bit clunky but, as one friend remarked, “getting the classes you wanted was like solving a puzzle.” The system was thoroughly exploitable, to the point where you could block out all of the times around your preferred classes, effectively guaranteeing you exactly the timetable you wanted.

Then came the change.

When re-enrolment opened in mid-January, the ‘new and improved’ system awaited: the trendily-named Allocate+. The king is dead; long live the king. Gone was the refined aesthetic of the old interface, replaced by a far more visually-perplexing grid of sans-serif fonts and masses of dark grey.

Under the Allocate+ regime, students must now submit so-called preferences. ‘So-called’ because, for units that may only have three tutorial times, you’re still made to indicate three ‘preferences.’ So, for a class that only has one Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday time, you still have to indicate all of them as preferences, even if you only want the Tuesday class; an illusion of choice that essentially allows the almighty algorithm to place you wherever it ‘prefers.’

I found my disdainful sentiment echoed through the annals of popular Facebook page USYD Rants 2.0. As one rant eloquently put it: “new timetable interface bad.”

This trend is no flash in the pan either. At the time of writing, of the 140 rants posted since the beginning of February, 18 of them were about the timetabling system, 13 (72%) of which expressed some sort of negative sentiment towards it. These ranged from the straightforward (“The new allocate system is the fucking worst,”) to the elaborate (“To whoever on earth invented the new USYD Timetable platform, I truly hope from the bottom of my heart that you die a very slow and painful death…”).

Most friends I asked had similar feelings, with two calling it far less “streamlined” than the older system. Another said, “[Why not] fix the current issues with Sydney Student and subject selection? Why did they change it? What was the point?” Two others missed the ability to block off times, another said they had received an email asking them to swap into a newly-opened tutorial time or else they may be randomly reallocated to it anyway, and one just said “I hate it.” It also meant that students who had enrolment difficulties, often through no fault of their own, missed out entirely on submitting preferences before the deadline and were left at the mercy of the algorithm, like me.

The veritable Dr Frankenstein to this Creation is a small software company based in the suburbs of Melbourne that goes by the name of JDR Software. It also runs timetabling for several other universities including UTS, Western Sydney, ACU, Notre Dame, Monash, and La Trobe. And, while none of their student newspapers have, to date, published diatribes lamenting the bygone days of quick and easy timetabling, it seems that they may not have to deal with the same preferences nightmare USyd does – if one rant is to be believed.

But surely it’s not all bad though?

Maybe it’s just that people just don’t like change? And admittedly, there are some redeeming qualities of our new organisational overlord. For one, it’s still exploitable! Clashes between online lectures and labs or tutorials can be forced by first deallocating yourself from the lecture and joining a lab or tutorial in its place. It also has a dynamic calendar where you can sync your timetable with friends by adding them as a “connection” à la the once-popular Timeweave app.

As to why the change, who made it, when was it made, and how much did it cost? The University didn’t reply in time for publication.