The holes in our academic support system, and how the university can do better

The state of affairs at academic services at the University of Ottawa is well-known to many current and former students as inefficient and ineffective.

For years students have lamented the difficulty they’ve had accessing acceptable, timely services at the university. In fact, attempts at gaining access to an academic advisor either by appointment or over the phone are often met with apologetic looks and “good luck” pats on the back by fellow students.

An open Facebook poll regarding satisfaction with wait times at the U of O’s academic services garnered over 100 responses in only a few days, with the vast majority of students expressing dissatisfaction with wait times.

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But where exactly have they gone so wrong? I spoke with over a dozen current and former U of O students about their experiences with academic services, in hopes of identifying the problems, as well as the solutions we need to consider.

The glaring issues

Many U of O students reported waiting hours on end for simple tasks such as requesting to receive a diploma or to increase their course load.

One of these students, U of O graduate Jake Harris spent several days calling the academic services office, and was finally told he should come in person to retrieve his document when it was ready.

“Two weeks later when it was ready I went to the office at 9 a.m. but the line was so long I figured I might miss the whole day of work. Eventually I took an afternoon off to go and pick it up,” he recalls. “When I got in they told me they could have mailed it to me.”

Students with minor course fixes and those with an acceptable GPA looking to add an additional course told the Fulcrum that they were forced to wait for hours before seeing an advisor who manually inputted the go-ahead.

When asked if a better organized website could streamline common requests, students who spoke to the Fulcrum were in agreement that this approach would be much more efficient. In fact, according to U of O alumnus and current University of Toronto student Storm Davis, many simple tasks that currently require a meeting with an advisor could be automated.

For example, Davis believes that “they could automate course overload so that if you have the cumulative GPA to qualify for 6 courses you can just enroll.”

He says the transition to a more online system would save students from unnecessary waits, but must also come with instruction for it to be effective. “Student Centre came out last year and not a single student was taught how to use it,” he notes.

These changes combined would likely have decreased the number of students looking to book an appointment regarding information that could have been more easily accessed online.

As well, any student who has paid the Faculty of Social Sciences’ academic services office a visit will be familiar with the ticket system to see an advisor.

Although regular office hours run from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., several students verified that tickets regularly become unavailable by 10 a.m., especially during peak registration and exam periods. Getting through to an advisor during these crucial times is unfortunately the most difficult. No appointments are taken during these weeks, and wait times go on for hours.

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Michelle Tam, a fourth-year economics and communications student, says the ticket system stopped her from going on an international exchange.

“I wanted to go on exchange, but it was almost impossible to see an academic advisor,” she said. “Every time I went the lines would be too long, no tickets (were) available to talk (to) anyone.”

Tasnim Ahmed, a recent U of O alum, used the university’s Good Ideas contest to propose that faculties post ticket numbers being served onto their websites.

“This would have given students the ability to check which ticket is being served online on their phones (or) laptops rather than physically needing to wait in the waiting area, and the waiting area would be clear if students could spend their time elsewhere.”

The idea was never implemented. Past contest winners included getting a room for music “jam” sessions, and decreasing the price of double sided printing.

But the hurdles don’t end in the waiting room—students looking to speak to an academic assistant over the phone know the drill. They will have prepared themselves to wait for hours on end listening to irritating music repeat itself, and a standardized message apologizing for the delay.

Lhori Webster, a fourth-year political science student, described her wait time to receive documents, saying that she was usually on hold for two hours a day before getting through to anyone.

“I would phone right before the office opened at 8:58 a.m. to know that I would get through. On a good day, it would take 15 minutes, on the worst day it was about three and a half hours.”

On several occasions, however, students have even been left on hold until the office closes without speaking to anyone. “If I phoned later on in the day, the backlog was (so) long that they would close the phones early, even before 3 p.m.,” she explains.

“We recognize the delay with the University of Ottawa. We’re familiar with it.” This was the message given to Webster by a reputable international university waiting on documents to confirm her international exchange.

The reason for the delay? Miscommunication, she speculates.

Most students will need to deal with multiple offices at the university during their degree. This can include the Office of the Registrar, Academic Services, the Co-op Office, and the International Office.

According to Webster, there seems to be very little communication between these offices about the state of a student’s file, as well as a lack of accountability on the part of academic advisors.

“Nobody owns the files when they speak to students. Four different people had access to my file, but nobody stayed on it,” she recalls. “Every time somebody picked it up, they interpreted it differently.”

This lack of internal and external accountability can lead to conflicting messages given to students and can result in repeat visits to the office, and may even delay graduation for students forced to take an additional semester for requirements they thought they had fulfilled.

“My biggest complaint about the (faculty) is the lack of accommodation for students working full time,” says fourth-year International Studies and Modern Languages student Philippe Lavoie. Other co-op and working students I spoke to were unanimous: accommodation for working students at Academic Services is sub-par at best.

Students working within the National Capital Region found it very difficult to make time to see an academic advisor within their working hours. Given the long wait times after receiving a ticket, many students resorted to taking a day off of work in order to see an advisor. For co-op students, this means a full day without compensation since co-op students are not given any paid time off.

For students working outside of the downtown area, the options are much more limited. Unable to come in person, students must resort to the phone lines to receive any answers to their questions. However, some faculties close their phone lines for lunch break from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. For many co-op students, lunch is the only time they can call in to the office.

After calling into the office repeatedly, Webster was told by an academic advisor that the Social Sciences Academic Office had received cuts to funding and were down to only three academic advisors working at a time last year.  A task that should have only taken a few hours at most to complete took up several weeks of her time due to the large backlog faced by advisors.

A curious exception is the U of O’s Telfer School of Management. While business students had certain complaints, they reported much shorter wait times and streamlined services as compared to the rest of the undergraduate faculties at the university.

Karim Bitar, a recent Telfer accounting graduate who began his degree in mechanical engineering, described his experience with academic services as generally positive.

“I went into the office fairly often, but the longest I would wait in line was about 20 minutes… At Telfer there was a high demand for appointments so it seemed like they compensated by adding more staff to deal with the larger number of requests.”

What are other schools doing right?

A number of students at other Canadian universities, including former U of O students who transferred to other Canadian schools, offered some insight on differences in academic services at their universities.

Just across town, Carleton University offers separate offices for course selection and degree planning. Additionally, wait times for in-person and online communication at Carleton are much shorter.

Christina Ganotakis, a former U of O student who transferred to Carleton, says that the school has separate academic advisors and student success offices which offer students two avenues for course and degree mapping.

“There has always been an open office for academic advisors, and I’ve been serviced within 10 minutes when needing to switch courses or map out a semester,” she says.

“The student success office offers students the ability to sit with someone and discuss their degree and the courses they need to take (and) alternative courses for a prerequisite. Again, only had to wait 10 minutes.”

Although it is a larger school, the University of Toronto increases staffing during peak periods so that wait times are never too long. Staffing measures include hiring undergraduate students, who cost a fraction of what a full-time advisor would cost, yet are also very knowledgeable.

“At U of T, the office was fully staffed at peak months, and they also streamlined students taking up time and the phone system,” Davis says. “The maximum you ever waited was 30 minutes because they maximized informing students about how to do things themselves. They also had a couple offices for bigger undergraduate (departments).”

The U of T’s media relations did not respond to requests from the Fulcrum for confirmation of Davis’ observations.

In stark contrast with the U of O, Queen’s University sets up regular appointments with their students to follow up with student’s progression throughout their university career.

Reem Khalil, a third-year student at Queen’s University, says her experience with the academic office is always positive. “They take a more proactive approach by setting up regular appointments for students, so problems are usually addressed before they become serious.”

What improvements can we make on our campus?

When asked by the Fulcrum, one academic assistant was able to verify some numbers at the social sciences office. On average, there are five advisors taking appointments at a time, two advisors at the front desk, and two advisors taking phone calls.

For an undergraduate body of over 9,000 students, it is not humanly possible for two operators to field incoming calls from every student. This system is made to fail.

The positive takeaway from these discussions is that most students have a generally good experience talking with academic advisors—the problem is they so rarely get through to one.

An obvious solution to most of these problems is simply to increase staffing in academic offices. As well, increasing communication between partner offices and assigning students to specific advisors could turn these issues around.

Allocating a number of advisors to different program areas would mean that students follow up with the same advisors every time. No information would be lost by passing on students to completely different people, and time would be saved, because advisors would already be familiar with their student’s files.

In addition, office hours should be reflective of the student body. If a large percentage of the student body is working, perhaps opening the office up to appointments outside of business hours is necessary.

Increasing communication between partner offices seems long overdue, and assigning students to specific advisors could be a step towards a solution. Allocating a number of advisors to different program areas would mean that students follow up with the same advisors every time. No information would be lost by passing on students to completely different people, and time would be saved because advisors would already be familiar with their student’s files.

Finally, an online reservation system for appointments, like the one used for booking doctor’s appointments at the U of O’s Health Services, could also save students hours of waiting fruitlessly for their number to be called.

The U of O’s media relations did not provide a comment on the feasibility of these solutions by the time of this publication.

Looking Forward

Although many students I spoke to had a long list of grievances aimed at their respective academic office, the vast majority of students said that they would still recommend the University of Ottawa despite these concerns.

Says Lavoie, “I think the U of O has a lot to offer, and I wish I didn’t have to bookend my recommendations with warnings about… poor accessibility of academic services.”

Universities seeking to gain a competitive advantage over others should perhaps consider this novel idea as a factor: the student experience. It may not be a factor represented in the annual global university rankings, however it is a factor they must consider if they want students to continue to enroll at the university.