Establishing a vision for the future of student services

Steven Dew - 2 December 2021

Hello colleagues,

I am pleased to share with you the new vision for the future of student services at the University of Alberta. The vision is the culmination of several months of work that included consultation and input from deans, vice-provosts, central unit staff, faculty staff, and students across the university. I would like to start by thanking everyone who participated for your contributions and ideas, as well as your patience in allowing us the space to complete our work.

As part of the U of A for Tomorrow (UAT) initiative, student services leaders have worked collaboratively with the SET student services workstream to prepare the university for an exciting future. Ultimately, the vision will drive improved student experience. Our goal is that students can access a full suite of high-quality student services, from making a quick inquiry at the Student Service Centre, to receiving holistic support, to balancing their academics with the rest of their lives.

Through a series of workshops and a high-level design process, the vice-provosts and I have defined, and will further develop, the methods to achieve the university's goals by improving staffing structures, processes, and technology. To date, this process has delivered a high-level vision for the future, with design of the detailed staffing structure underway, but not yet complete. The detailed structure design will maintain deep expertise in central units and complementary expertise in program-specific services outside of central units.

An exciting future for students

With this vision, we imagine a future in which the university's student services are seamless, technology-enhanced, integrated, equitable, consistent, and student-centred. Achieving this vision is a priority for three key reasons:

  1. To prepare the U of A for growth: With plans to increase enrolment by approximately 10,000 students over the next five years, student services must be able to consistently support a student body that is increasing in both size and diversity.
  2. To improve the student experience: The needs and expectations of our students are evolving and the university must be capable of meeting these needs by balancing high-quality engagement with efficient and convenient delivery.
  3. To enhance service culture: Fostering collaborative partnerships and being responsive to student needs will further our work in building a student-focused organization.

Realigning the central units

To achieve our goals, a realignment of functions among the four central student services units is required. This includes the Office of the Dean of Students (DoS), the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR), the Office of the Registrar (RO), and University of Alberta International (UAI). The figure below presents the high-level future state for these units including the functions that each will oversee. The vice-provost for each unit is currently leading a detailed design process in collaboration with the student services workstream to drive improved student experience across all programs at the university.

While some student services may be consolidated, the future-state vision is to create an effective student services ecosystem that will prepare the university for growth and ensure our services can deliver a consistent and excellent experience for our students. The proposed changes include consolidation and alignment of functions to enhance expertise in these services while bolstering areas where the university is currently under-resourced. Four of the most significant future-state changes will affect the following areas:

  • Student services: Counselling, wellbeing, and generalist career services will be more closely integrated into DoS, where centralization can drive an improved and more consistent student experience. Study abroad administrative services will move into UAI and will drive improved student experience and streamline processes. The Student Service Centre will report to the Registrar and will use the Centre's increased capacity and capability to triage, respond, and be the first point of contact for the majority of student inquiries. (Student services that are program-specific will not move centrally.)
  • Recruitment: All recruitment (excluding thesis-based master's and PhDs) will move into the RO. Recruitment for course-based master's programs will then have the oversight and specialist resources in a single function that will partner with program-specific recruitment teams. Program-specific recruitment work, including for professional non-direct entry undergraduate programs, will remain in the faculties, and collaboration on service provision will be a priority.
  • Registrarial: Registrarial services will be appropriately rebalanced from academic units and FGSR into the RO. This will require the detailed design of staffing structure, systems, and processes drawing on the knowledge of experts from FGSR, the RO, and academic units.
  • Advising: Graduate administrative advising that currently sits within faculties will move into FGSR, and graduate advising service partners will be established to drive improved student experience. Discipline-specific graduate program advising will stay within the faculty/department.
New student services ecosystem at the U of A

Complementing the work of the colleges

Overall, this vision complements academic- and program-specific services that faculties currently provide and that the colleges plan to provide in the future. While the detailed structure design is currently under development, we know that some services and the staff who deliver them will not move centrally and include, but are not limited to:

  • Program-specific advising for all students
  • Academic standing (currently FGSR does this work for graduate programs, which will remain unchanged)
  • Setting program-specific requirements
  • Program-specific work-integrated learning, including co-ops, internships, and experiential learning as it relates to academic programs
  • Program- or discipline-specific exam administration
  • Program- or discipline-specific convocation administration (currently FGSR does this work for graduate programs, which will remain unchanged)
  • Most services related to professional and non-direct-entry undergraduate programs

A service catalogue detailing accountability for services will be made available as the staffing structure design for the four central units is developed in the coming months.

The detailed design and implementation of the vision for the four central units will be carried out in collaboration with the work to develop the colleges' Offices of Education and Offices of Strategic Initiatives. In addition to broad and significant consultation that informed the vision, the provost, vice-provosts, and SET student services workstream will work with college and faculty leaders to ensure a complementary and collaborative future-state design that enables the new operating model.

What comes next?

The DoS, FGSR, RO, and UAI are currently developing detailed staffing, process, and systems designs that will achieve this vision and prepare the university for growth and an improved student experience. Once the detailed future-state design is developed, a precise implementation timeline will be shared with the community.

The vision's implementation and delivery will be staged to respect and respond to the annual cycle of student service delivery in order to minimize the impact on student experience and staff capacity. As such, this transformation will occur over a two-year period, with design currently underway and implementation to commence in spring 2022.

It's important to note that the staffing structure has not been determined and will be reviewed over the coming months.

Thank you

I understand this is a period of significant change for many staff engaged in student services activities across the university. I want to reiterate that work is still being done to finalize the detailed structure of student services and that this announcement is a high-level vision for the future. I encourage staff to access well-being and change resources, take advantage of time off during the Winter Closure, and connect with your direct supervisor if you have any questions at all.

Developing this vision has been a massive undertaking and more work is ahead of us to bring it to life. Thank you again to the leadership teams and staff within student services across the university for their hard work and collaboration. Special thanks to Melissa Padfield, Executive Sponsor and Initiative Lead and Barbara Billingsley, Executive Lead of the student services workstream, for their time and effort supporting the consultation and development process. And thank you to the UAT and SET teams for their guidance and support throughout this process of strategic transformation.

Steven Dew
Provost and Vice-President (Academic)

Frequently asked questions

How does this vision announcement impact student services staff in central units?
To achieve this vision, the greatest change will occur for staff in the four central units. These units require realignment by function, meaning some staff who have previously delivered services to a subset of the student base or in a narrow scope will, in future, work in a team with a more generalist skill set in order to deliver the service to all students.

Most staffing changes will involve a reporting line and title change only. Staff moving between central units will likely maintain specialization from their previous role, while also understanding a broader range of services at the U of A to deliver a more fulsome service to students. Some additional roles will be created as part of achieving the vision, which will be advertised and filled at a time that minimizes disruption to service delivery.

How does this vision announcement impact faculties?
Student services staff in faculties and departments will be able to focus on program-specific work and improve the experience for students engaging directly with a faculty, as central units will be able to take on a greater volume of work. In addition, staff within faculties will be able to easily direct students to the Student Service Centre as a first point of contact. This will provide students with a more holistic experience and reduce the potential for them being redirected multiple times. The Centre will also more accurately triage students to faculties, easing pressure on student services staff in faculties and ensuring only program-specific requests go to those staff.

To achieve this, staff who deliver program-specific work will remain in their current roles within the faculties. General (i.e. non-program-specific) student services work currently delivered in faculties will, in the future vision, be delivered by central units. Individual staff who move into or apply for a role in the central units from a faculty will then be able to offer their experience and expertise to improve the student experience for a wider student base. It is worth noting that many staff who currently deliver general student services in faculties do so as only a component of their role, in which case the work itself will move to the central units and the nature of that role can be focused on program-specific services.

The precise general student services work and related FTE that would be best placed in a central unit is still to be confirmed through detailed design in the coming months.

What are the next steps and timing?
The detailed design phase is currently underway in which the vice-provosts of the four central units (DoS, FGSR, RO, UAI) are designing the staffing structure for their units, in collaboration with SET and the establishment of the colleges. This work will be done alongside the ongoing efforts to develop the Offices of Education and the Offices of Strategic Initiatives in the colleges. In addition to the broad consultation that informed this vision over the past 15 months, the provost, vice-provosts, and the SET student services workstream will work with college and faculty leaders to ensure a complementary and collaborative future-state design that enables the UAT operating model.

We anticipate the detailed design and precise implementation planning will be complete by the end of March 2022 in preparation to begin implementation in April. Service changes will be staged in order to minimize impact on service delivery by implementing changes at times of low volume to meet staff capacity.

I'm a student services staff member; who can I talk to for more information?
Please talk with your immediate supervisor to discuss the vision for student services at the U of A as well as any potential impacts to your position. As mentioned, specific staffing plans and organizational designs are not yet completed and so particular information may not yet be available to address questions associated with every student service role on campus.

What was the consultation process to develop this vision? Who are the stakeholder groups that you met with?
The vision is the culmination of 15 months of work that included significant consultation and input from deans, vice-provosts, college general managers, student services staff in central units and faculties, and students across the university. Student engagement focused on the student services' current state, service accessibility, and future state. The team utilized surveys, focus groups, and presentations to various student groups across the university. The survey and focus groups covered both undergraduate and graduate students, and the presentations to student groups included the International Students Association (ISA), the Graduate Student Association (GSA), the Indigenous Graduate Association, and the Aboriginal Student Council (ASC).

Student services-related staff in every faculty and central unit were interviewed, discussing the current state assessment and implications of the college model. In addition, three workshops with student services leadership and college general managers were held in order to agree on a common vision and approach to delivering future-state, student-centric services.

If my job is discipline-specific, will I move centrally?
Discipline- or program-specific work will not move to the central units. However, work that is applicable to all students, regardless of discipline or program, will be centralized to improve the student experience and streamline service delivery in preparation for enrolment growth. For example, the University of Alberta International offers some career services for all international students, regardless of their program or discipline. While this provides a high level of expertise for some requests specific to international students, it can mean that international students get "bounced around" the university trying to access the right career services. The vision for the future is one where any student can visit career services in DoS and receive expert service without being immediately redirected to another unit. If that student is seeking discipline-specific career advice, they will be referred to the relevant faculty or department.

What is the timeline for giving student services staff certainty on their roles and whether they will remain with the university?
There is no intent to decrease the total FTE delivering student services. The detailed future-state staffing structure will confirm where role and reporting line changes will happen and is due to be completed by March 2022. Implementation of this structure will be staged depending on the nature of the work to avoid peak periods in the annual cycle.

Some positions are already confirmed; 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. The roles and reporting lines for other positions in the four central units will be determined through the detailed structure design, underway now and due to conclude in March 2022.

If your role involves providing services that would be offered in the colleges or the faculties (e.g. 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. 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 working with our partners.

Some 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 contribute to a difficult environment for everyone. We 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 that we need to move through this period to complete our transition. We will continue to engage our staff and build a strong culture that the university 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 for improving morale for frontline staff.



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