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UEA’s 2021 timetabling project review reveals start-of-year mayhem for students and staff

A 17-page review examining UEA’s 2021 timetabling project which saw them switch to ‘Timetabler’ has been published.

Many students and staff started the semester without a viable timetable and some continued to experience problems throughout the first semester. 

The methodology of the review included a review of the documentation, interviews with key stakeholders, a third-party project audit, and an analysis of over 250 responses to a feedback form. 

To ensure an impartial view of the review, Maxica Consulting were commissioned to work alongside the Review Team which consisted of Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Christine Bovis-Cnossen and Library Director Nicholas Lewis.

UEA had been working toward a new timetabling system since 2018. The timetable implementation project started in March 2020 and the initial aim was to have a published teaching timetable in July 2021. However, it took 12 months for the contract to be signed, which left just 4 months from late March 2021 to July 2021 for the execution of the new system.

The report details multiple drivers for the implementation of a new timetabling system. These include: improved interface and functionality, a reduction in manual work, improved data quality, and better space allocation.

The main primary factors for the timetabling issues are as follows: underestimating project complexity, difficulties with data capture and integrations, and governance and controls.

They also evaluated the impact of the timetabling project on the university community. Many student welfare concerns were raised, particularly in regard to those with pre-existing conditions relating to anxiety and “those international and overseas students who may have been significantly affected by the vagaries of the timetable”.

In UCU’s submission to the review it was reported that some students and staff missed out on nursery places and care altogether as they were unable to state what days were required by standard deadlines.

In an email written on 28th September 2021, the HUM Athena Swan Faculty committee noted: “There were grave concerns as regards whether the implementation of the new timetabling system had undone some of the work that current and previous members have done over several years to implement gender equality across HUM, particularly around childcare and wellbeing”.

The review also commented on parts of the university community which were disproportionately affecting by the timetabling issues, including “those with childcare responsibilities… or those who had to commute into the university and who found the constant chopping and changing of timings and locations very difficult to deal with at the start of the semester”.

They reflected on the impact on Postgraduate Research students and Associate Tutors, saying “Associate Tutors were asked to teach one week before the start of term. For some, this was their first experience of preparing and delivering teaching”.

Some students who rely on part-time work commitments for supplementary income were also at a disadvantage, as “last minute changes to their timetable may have led them to make choices between keeping their job or missing core or compulsory events”.

In an interview with UEA SU officers on 4th November, concerns were also raised about students and staff with neurodiversity, who underwent “high levels of stress and anxiety”, and disabled students with mobility issues who were affected by last minute room changes. The review states: “unfortunately owing to underlying complexities around how types of disability are coded at UEA, in semester 1 it was not possible to accommodate all accessibility requirements in the automated rules in Timetabler”.

In terms of the impact on university staff workload, “the overwhelming feeling from Schools was having lost control of their timetables”. Anonymous feedback from academics has also confirmed this: “the implications this has had on staff cannot be stressed enough… The work involved at every level was immense”. Some Faculty and School role holders felt their feedback and concerns “went into a void, rather than them being taken seriously and them being worked with in a collaborative way”.

One feedback form respondent from the teaching staff wrote: “In week 7 of term, I still don’t have a fully functioning timetable, I have given up dealing with the hub on this and I have resorted to communicate the teaching events to students directly a week ahead of the actual events happening. I am booking my own rooms.”

In conclusion, the review states that several interviewees said the project was being managed during a period when the university was in “business continuity mode dealing with Covid-19”. The project team also said they had tried to facilitate more consultation with academic colleagues, but the academics were “extremely busy with switching to online-only teaching because of the pandemic”. They noted a crisis mode which was sustained across August and September which could have been managed by the possibility of a Plan B.


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Dolly Carter

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August 2022
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