Ask SET Anything: Student Services Edition recap

Todd Gilchrist - 23 September 2021

Last Friday, the SET team hosted another edition of our Ask SET Anything event series specifically for student services. Staff in this area were invited to learn more about the Student Service Centre and student services in the new operating model, raise questions, and share feedback. We had another great turnout with approximately 190 staff joining us for the live Zoom meeting and another 140 watching the livestream. Thank you to everyone who joined the event.

Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Dr. Steven Dew and I were joined by a panel consisting of members from student services and the SET team:

  • Melissa Padfield — Vice Provost & University Registrar, Administrative Sponsor & Initiative Lead of the Student Services workstream
  • Barbara Billingsley — Dean, Faculty of Law & Academic Sponsor of the Student Services workstream
  • Raymond Matthias — Director, Student Service Centre
  • Rob Munro — Executive Lead, Service Excellence Transformation
  • Brian Stewart — Program Director, Service Excellence Transformation

For those who were unable to attend the event, a recording is available for viewing:

Delivering excellence while preparing for growth

Provost and Vice-President (Academic), Steven Dew kicked off the event by acknowledging the hard work that student services and student support staff have done over the last week as work pivoted and required a swift response to new public health measures. Despite these difficult circumstances, staff ensured that students received the services they needed, which Provost Dew described as the university's number one priority. He also emphasized that under SET, there is no intent to cut or halt services, but rather:

  • Support all students through simple access points, such as the Student Service Centre
  • Maintain our expertise in different student experiences without referring them multiple times
  • Lessen the burden on students to navigate services themselves, through the Student Service Centre, improved web presence, and technology

Further, the work being done by the student services stream is preparing the U of A for a future of growth. A goal is to prepare the university for enrollment growth in the next two to five years, and continue to improve and evolve the student experience so that the university is on the leading edge of meeting their needs.

Achievements to date

Since beginning work last fall, the stream has been hard at work preparing the university’s student services ecosystem for its future state. From information gathering and visioning work, to analysis and validation, the team has achieved a significant number of key objectives, including:

  • Launching the Student Service Centre, including hiring and onboarding a 35 person team
  • Streamlining the student awards process to increase transparency and accountability
  • Creating the Student Recruitment Centre of Expertise and Enrollment Management Centre of Expertise, both of which include dedicated service partners to work with each college
  • Beginning to automate and centralize parts of the transfer student admissions process

Provost Dew also gave a short presentation that provided further detail on these achievements as well as what’s to come within the stream.

Visioning work continues

One of the most significant pieces of work that the stream is currently undertaking is establishing a vision and designing the future of student services at the university. This work will develop a model that clearly defines student services and identifies what work will be done where, and how. This will enable multiple student services to be delivered seamlessly by the right people, at the right time, and at multiple points throughout a student’s academic journey. Provost Dew noted that the vision is not necessarily about centralization for cost cutting purposes, but rather about preparing the university for enrollment growth and delivering an excellent student experience.

Visioning work is planned to be completed before the end of the year.

Student services web page

To keep you informed about ongoing changes and updates within the student services stream, a dedicated web page has been created. This web page tracks progress and provides updates as student services functions transition to the new operating model developed under the U of A for Tomorrow initiative. Here you will find an overview of the stream's approach, working group members, upcoming consultation events, FAQs, and more.

Consultation and upcoming events

As we continue with the UAT initiative, we want to ensure that staff have their questions and concerns addressed and learn more about the opportunities in the new model. We will continue to host engagement events including more Ask SET Anything events, so be sure to check the UAT consultation page for upcoming dates and further details. The next event will be the Ask SET Anything: Procurement Edition on October 4 from 9 - 10 a.m.

Below, you will find answers to some of the questions asked during the Ask SET Anything: Student Services Edition. Stay tuned for more that were submitted to be answered on the SET FAQ web page and student services web page.

Todd Gilchrist
Vice President (University Services and Finance)
Chair, Service Excellence Steering Committee (SESC)


Questions asked and answered

What other services can we expect to see brought into the Student Service Centre?
The Student Service Centre is currently focused on triage and ensuring it serves as the universal front door for students. This means functioning as an access point for the navigation of student services where advisors provide information and if that doesn't solve the inquiry, the student can then be referred to the right service, the first time. In many cases, the centre is able to offer service provision on things associated with both the Office of the Registrar and the Dean of Student functions. Beyond that, we're working to make the experience of moving through our student service ecosystem easier.

Over time, and as our advisors upskill, we want them to be solving up to 80 per cent of student inquiries directly through the Student Service Centre, only referring students elsewhere in the case of especially complex needs. We know this is the experience that students want, particularly for what we call "transactional" services—those that are high volume, repeatable processes—for example, updating a student’s record. These are the types of services that we will look to the Student Service Centre to deliver so that advisors and specialists can resolve the majority of student inquiries as quickly as possible.

When can we expect graduate students to be served by the Student Service Centre?
Right now, there are many services that graduate students can access through the Student Service Centre—including those that are associated with the nature of being a student—such as record management, requesting transcripts, access to mental health services, etc. But we are working on increasing the services that graduate students access in the centre.

We are working with the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR) on a series of knowledge base articles. These are the backbone of the student-service ecosystem and will be built out more robustly over time. These articles will allow service providers to access the same consistent information regardless of where a student accesses that information. Ultimately, we want to make our student service ecosystem as easy and as student-centred as possible, so that when a student needs program information, they go where the program information lives, but when they just need help as a student, they access the Student Service Centre regardless of what kind of student they are. Our number one commitment is to make sure that all students, graduate and undergraduate, are getting the services they need.

What is the timeline for giving student services staff certainty on their roles and whether they will remain with the university?
Depending on what side of student services your position resides, we are looking at March or later. If your role involves providing non-academic student services (i.e., residence/housing, financial, health and wellness) in the Student Service Centre in its first iteration is completely staffed and there are no new positions planned for the centre at this time. We've also fully staffed our Recruitment Centre of Expertise and Enrollment Management Centre of Expertise.

If your role involves providing services that would be offered in the colleges or the faculties (i.e. work related to advising, clinical placements, work-integrated learning), we ask for your patience as we are still in the process of clarifying the role of academic services in the colleges. You should have a fairly good idea of where these pieces are going to land by the end of the year, even though the transitioning of these services may not happen until the next academic cycle. How these pieces fit into the operating model is quite new, not just to the University of Alberta, but also in the broader context of the Canadian post-secondary system. We are working to determine what parts of these academic services make the most sense to be delivered at the college level, to provide economies of scale, consistency of service, and the opportunity to have a more coordinated approach to dealing with our partners.

What is the university’s plan to avoid further increase in wait times and what measures will be put into place to ensure efficiency?
We have been working through a unique time. In addition to the pandemic response that we're all facing, the Student Service Centre had an extraordinary amount of volume at the end of the summer. The staff have been shouldering an incredible workload, as our tickets have spiked to more than 400 every day. This last period is not indicative of what our service standards are going to look like going forward. With the existing staff from Student Connect and the onboarding of 20 new staff members, we're going to be able to return to our standard response time of two to three days.

We’re also focused on improving technology enabled student service provision. The enhancement and continual teaching of our chatbot Vera will help reduce volume and turnaround time over the coming months. This is an important part of the student service ecosystem because it allows students to ask a question at any time of day or night and receive an answer. In addition, there is currently an enterprise service management process underway to look at a new tool that can help with the ticketing, tracking answers, and triaging student inquiries. Between our robust staff, good training, and continual improvement of technology, we're continuing to see improvements every single day at the Student Service Centre.

International students already have a great "one-stop-shop" for assistance on any international-student-related matter. Why would you change something that works well and already fulfills the needs of international students? I am worried that we will just end up with diluted services under a huge umbrella.
We are very pleased to hear your praise for the University of Alberta International team who are our frontline for service provision to international students. We don't want to see that standard slip and we are working to ensure that excellence is retained and that our staff continue to build that critical relationship with our international students. We acknowledge that international students bring complexity to our university and have unique issues to wrestle through. We want to ensure that we recognize the context of whatever student is in front of us, regardless of the service that they are looking to access.

Ultimately, we want all students to have consistently excellent experiences. We want all students to access services that meet or exceed the bar we've set for ourselves, and that we don't have different classes of students when it comes to the quality of the service they're provided. For example, if an international student requests assistance for mental health, we want to make sure they don't have a longer queue than a domestic student simply because of the door they went through to access those services. While that is more of an aspirational statement than the answer to exactly how this will work, we are still in the process of figuring out how those pieces will come together and we appreciate your patience.

How can we ensure that students from other campuses are getting correct information when they contact the Student Service Centre?
Establishing strong communication lines between the Student Service Centre and our other campuses is a top priority which we are currently working on. We have established a new chat line between our advising team and the team in Camrose, that did not exist before. Establishing these connection points between our staff so that we can have robust feedback is important. In addition, a specialist has been assigned to serve as a connection point between the Student Service Centre and the Augustana student service team. Our specialists can update our knowledge base articles so that everyone on the team has the correct information to provide our students, knowing that different campuses have different schedules, add-drop deadlines, etc.

Many frontline staff are at critically low morale and experiencing burnout. How do you plan to regain their trust and confidence?
Morale is a challenge right now—we have been through a lot. The uncertainty, the succession of issues that have landed on the university, the complexity and the challenge of what we're trying to do all contributes to a difficult environment for everyone. And we do have to work to rebuild morale and our sense of spirit. We have worked very hard to communicate throughout this process and to engage with our community. Hopefully, this has provided a level of transparency—and to the degree that we have the information—openness to our community.

We welcome input from others on how to move forward, but we know we need to move through this period to finish our transition. We will continue to engage our staff and build a strong culture that the U of A has historically been known for.

In addition, we are about to turn a corner: from how do we cut/diminish/restructure to how do we grow and become more vibrant. The conversations surrounding this stage in the transformation are much more optimistic and inspiring, so we hope that's part of our solution on improving morale for frontline staff.



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