Hubs: Creating student centric services at Cardiff

PTC sofa

Cardiff Business School, which has a staff of 300 and around 3,500 students, has recently been undergoing a programme of professionalisation of its support services. This is in part due to the introduction of a College model in Cardiff University 3 years ago, but also in response to increasing student numbers and stakeholder expectations over recent years with the historical response being an organic and piecemeal evolution of existing structures rather than the creation of a purpose-designed professional services.

Our work began with an external independent review undertaken by Andy Dyson, ex-Chair of the PMSC and retired Director of Professional Services at MBS, and Patricia Donovan from Cardiff University's VCO who has the dubious honour of being the first administrator to bear the title of ‘School Manager’ at Cardiff. A period of head scratching over the 'how to eat an elephant' problem or reconfiguring the then 80 strong professional services team led to an agreement by the management team that student services would be the first to be examined and enhanced.

At the time, student services in Cardiff were fragmented even within the business school with separate offices for Undergraduate Enquiries, MBA Enquiries, MSc Enquiries, Student Cases & Support and Examinations and Student Records. These offices worked alongside central Registry, Careers and Student Advisory teams. Administrators based in a number of our academic Sections (departments) also played a lesser or greater role in supporting student enquiries and other learning and teaching tasks. Each office knew it's own work well but there was no holistic view along the student journey, or indeed, along any particular process for our students. Although the transformation wasn't designed as a standardisation exercise, the diversity of approach was causing considerable issues both for the school and its students.

As a result, students were trapped in what must have felt like a giant pinball machine, being bounced from academic colleagues in roles such as Module or Programme Director or Personal Tutor, to multiple admin and support offices in the school, and down and back to central services which are mostly based at the other end of Cardiff city centre and a good 25 mins walk away. As anyone who has visited the Home of rugby (and since Euro 2016, football), Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and male voice choirs knows, it often rains in Wales. Not always, but often. The sight of 500 homesick first year undergraduates queuing outside Security to collect their pass cards, huddling under not quite enough umbrellas, before trudging around the City picking up Council Tax letters, enrolment paperwork and student loans was enough to bring a tear to the eye.

But what would a future student services structure look like and, importantly, how would it best be configured? The reviewers gave a number of options: ‘programme centric’, ‘academic staff centric’ or ‘student centric’. Staff from the school undertook a number of visits to other UK business schools to look at alternative models and their pros and cons. After some debate, the recommended option of a 'student centric' approach was adopted. This was not a universally popular approach.

The rationale for this model was that, by providing a 'one stop shop' for student enquiries, the burden on academic staff would also be greatly reduced. Students would not have to 'shop around' to find an answer to any particular query or question. Personal Tutors and Programme Directors could refer standard queries to professional services colleagues and concentrate on academic issues and concerns.

And so the 'Hubs' were born, one for Undergraduates and one for (taught) Postgraduates (combining both MSc and MBA students). New posts were created, staff were mapped and recruited and the first students visited the Hubs in September 2014. Each Hub was responsible for the whole student lifecycle, from enrolment to graduation, for their corresponding student cohorts, no matter which programme or year of study.

Academic staff had concerns. Who would support them and their programmes, who should they direct their queries to, who should they work with? Particularly unpopular was the introduction of 'generic' email addresses for staff queries when they had been used to speaking directly with a named administrator. Students were, one the whole, very happy with the new service. A 15 month review, undertaken again by Andy and Pat, indicated a high level of satisfaction with the new approach.

Methods of measuring activity and footfall were introduced as well as proactive seeking of 'customer' feedback. This focused again on the students and perhaps, to a degree, neglected the academic ‘customers’. In particular, the Happy or Not system introduced in both Hubs, although popular with the professional services staff (no doubt due in part due to the excellent scores they were receiving!) caused considerable anxiety amongst some academic colleagues as being a step too far to ‘students as customers’.

The size of the Hub teams has meant we can cover for planned and unplanned staff absences and cross-skilling between team members has meant that 'single points of failure', which occurred under the previous mainly programme centric approach, could be avoided. The Hubs were less 'personal' for the students, but the gains in their efficiency and effectiveness, including extended opening hours and a far more proactive, customer service focused approach, more than compensated for this according to the feedback we have collected and received.

Was the change a success and would I recommend it? Yes, undoubtedly. That does not mean that there isn't work to do and enhancements to make. Importantly, the term 'one stop shop' has been replaced by 'first point of contact' since, although all Business School services were now in a single location, and although we now have central student advisory, careers and employability and placements staff based on site, there are a range of important support services which are provided by the university which aren't, and probably never will be, provided in the School.

Importantly, although the school reconfirmed its commitment to a student-centric model, the cry of our academic colleagues for more personalised and local support has been heard. It may well be more efficient to arrange support by year of study at undergraduate level for example, but academic colleagues associate far more strongly with the programme of study they teach on. Generic email addresses may well be the correct tool for dealing with a large customer base (3,500) but not between colleagues, even in a school with 300 staff. This part of the transformation I would have done differently and we are currently revisiting our approach. We certainly won't be asking our academic colleagues to submit their enquiries through our new web-based student CRM system!

I’ll be part of the hosting team at the Professional Managers Annual Conference (PMAC) 2016 and would be delighted to show you around the Hubs and answer any questions if you are joining us in Cardiff for this conference on 12-13 December – if you want to bring your team along, please note that group booking discounts are available.

Dr Andrew Glanfield, School Manager, Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University and Chartered ABS Professional Managers’ Steering Committee Member