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Changing context, changing practice: Managing change in student support services

Rigmor George
Margaret Hicks

University of South Australia
Shifts in the wider social and economic environment have fundamentally challenged the role and purpose of universities in society. These changes have resulted in universities being more directly linked to industry-based needs, a more diverse student population, an increase in technology facilitated delivery, more corporate styles of institutional management and higher staff/student ratios. The response of individual universities to these changes has included refocussing the services provided by units such as student support services to contribute directly to the strategic directions of the university.

This paper draws on the work of Senge and others in the organisational change literature to present a case study of the way in which the student support services at the University of South Australia have been reconceptualised. It provides a rationale for the changes by considering the new demands of the wider social context and their implementation in the higher education sector.

The paper presents an overview of the new direction and the way it has been conceptualised as a coherent and systematic approach for all students, including the various equity client groups. Features are an increase in the range, availability and means of accessing the services including online delivery, group based activities, and working collaboratively with teaching staff to mainstream support. Management issues are addressed with particular reference to the reconsideration of the roles of student support staff.


Australian universities today are vastly different organisations from what they were twenty five years ago. In the mid 70s, new government policies began to open up educational opportunities for those not traditionally involved. The introduction of colleges of advanced education was the first step towards mass higher education, and with it came the need for special forms of support for students from non-traditional backgrounds. In the late eighties, the Unified National System of higher education saw the overnight creation of universities from the colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology. This has increased competition for funds and the widening of their brief and responsibilities in research and management.

These changes have been precipitated by wider social and economic factors (Campion, 1995; Marginson, 1995, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1993; Reid, 1996). They are part of a movement in knowledge-based economies in OECD countries such as Australia to increase the educational levels of citizens. This is being achieved by providing access and support for those groups not traditionally involved in higher education, and by increasing access to education throughout life by using more flexible forms of delivery and technology-based practices (Coldrake and Stedman 1998; Renner, 1995).

These shifts have resulted in significant changes to the profile of the student cohort in many universities and introduced new forms of educational delivery, both of which have had a major impact on the provision of services. This paper focuses on the way the University of South Australia has reconceptualised student support services in response to these changes. It considers the need for change, the means of change and the nature of the change.

Changes in student support

Within Australian universities, student support has been organised within institutions in a variety of ways although there has been a major distinction between that provided for students on campus and those studying at a distance. In face-to-face contexts the approaches have developed out of counselling models with a tradition of individual students serviced by a variety of professional groups through appointments (George and O'Regan, 1998). In distance education contexts, however, the approach has been quite different. Because of the profile of the students and assumptions about their capacity for independence, a distinction has been made between 'universal' support and 'specific' support. The approach has been to provide general resources at the institutional level, and to integrate subject-specific learning support into carefully constructed learning materials. More specific needs are then taken up through contact with teaching staff (Morgan et al, 1998; Valke and Martens 1997; Inglis, 1996). This approach has a much wider developmental focus and is conceived as integral to mainstream teaching and the responsibility of the teaching staff. In more recent times there have been moves to provide this kind of integrated approach to learning support in face-to-face contexts by working within the primary delivery of particular subjects (Hicks and George, 1998; Skillen, Merten, Trivett and Percy, 1998).

The earlier models of support was predicated on deficit notions - assisting relatively small numbers of 'students from non-traditional backgrounds' to succeed in courses where the content and delivery essentially remained unchanged. Typically the support was undertaken in units separated from the mainstream teaching, by staff with specialisations in learning support, personal counselling, careers and disability. The focus of the support tended to be for individual students delivered by individual staff members. Increasingly since the early nineties the focus and means of student support has become an issue.

Greater numbers of students requiring support, the need for more flexible forms of delivery, the convergence of all modes of delivery, the demand for accountability precipitated by reduced government funding, and the requirement to demonstrate outcomes which contribute to the strategic directions of the university have all challenged the traditional ways of conceptualising the services. In addition, the increased access to technologies and their application within educational contexts has provided a new means of providing the same services and the potential for new kinds of services. These shifts in practices are summarised in the following table.


mainly equity based client groupright arrowuniversal student population
few (NESB) International studentsright arrowsignificant NESB numbers, particularly on some campuses
face to face deliveryright arrowtechnology facilitated delivery
working directly with students to address individual responses to learningright arrowworking in systemic ways with both staff and students within subjects and courses
student services structure a free-standing entity within the Universityright arrowstudent services delivered from a group whose activities are directed by the strategic directions of the Divisions/University
service based in individual professional performance (range of services, standards)right arrowservice based in performance of multidisciplinary teams against services and standards directed by Divisions/university
relatively low staff/student ratiosright arrowrelatively high staff/student ratios
academic professional development indirectly related to student learningright arrowacademic professional development directly related to student learning

Context of the University of South Australia

The University of South Australia is a multi-campus post-Dawkins institution, the result of the 1991 amalgamation of a number of campuses from both the former South Australian Institute of Technology and the South Australian College of Advanced Education. It has a particular brief in its founding act for the education of Indigenous people and frames all its activity within a more general commitment to equity. Most of the educational programs offered are applied with a strong focus on the education of professionals.

In its teaching and learning framework, the University has three interlinked key concepts which shape the teaching and learning environment: student centred learning, graduate qualities and flexible delivery (see Appendix 1). The first two are organising concepts. Student-centred learning signals the intention to provide students with greater access to learning opportunities and more control over their learning. Graduate qualities focus the teaching and learning activity on the achievement of seven kinds of student outcomes which are institution-wide and curriculum based (Nunan,George & McCausland, 2000). The third concept, flexible delivery, is seen as the means of achieving the first two through the application of technologies in teaching and learning and a shift to a more facilitative or management role played by academics in student learning. This has some manifestation in the provision of many courses through traditional forms of distance education but is increasingly focused on online forms of delivery for all students of the University.

This broad framework is the basis of all teaching and learning activity of the University including the four Divisions and their constituent schools, and units such as student support services. It is central to the way that all professional practices are shaped and is a significant influence on teaching and learning arrangements.

New ways of thinking about organisations

Change is not a new phenomenon in universities. Although some vestiges of Medieval university life have remained with us through the centuries, the fact is that massive changes have occurred over the centuries, largely through the kinds of social and technological changes that we are experiencing in current times. Most notable were the changes which occurred through the invention of the printing press and during the Industrial Revolution. The fact that universities have survived to this point is indicative of their capacity to take on new forms and embrace new directions.

The current situation presents a number of challenges. The combination of both external and internal factors - rapidly changing social and economic context, very competitive higher education sector, highly diverse student population, focus on professional education with an emphasis on lifelong learning, demand for particular graduate outcomes, enhancing delivery through technology - require new ways of thinking about the services offered and the organisation required to deliver them. The central issue is the way the organisation responds to the rapid changes and how it achieves the particular outcomes required.

Creating universities that are 'learning organisations' (Senge 1990) rather than just organisations concerned with learning is one way of responding. In times of rapid change, the most critical characteristic of a healthy organisation is its ability to anticipate and work with the changes in its environment (Senge 1990; Field and Ford 1995; Smith 1998). That is, if organisations, including universities or their constituent parts, are to survive in these turbulent times they must develop the capacity to learn - to learn new ways of doing the things they have always done and to learn to do completely new things. This does not necessarily mean that the traditional values and perspectives of the organisation will be compromised. Rather it can be seen as the means by which the commitment to these values and perspectives is realised into the future.

Senge (1990) identifies five disciplines which must work in an interrelated way to contribute to the development of a learning organisation. A summary of the disciplines now follows.

Senge's ideas are particularly challenging for universities. University cultures have traditionally been highly individualistic - aggregations of largely autonomous individuals held loosely together through collegiate affiliation. To adopt Senge's approach is to challenge some of the most basic notions of university life. The remainder of this paper outlines how the student support services at the University of South Australia is being reconceptualised within this framework.

Identifying the issues at the University of South Australia?

As indicated above, the student support services at the University of South Australia had been undergoing some incremental changes over time in response to the changing circumstances. In 1999 it became clear to the managers of the unit that the entire paradigm needed to be reconceptualised in order to meet the changing demands of the organisation. The issue centred on how the small number of student support staff could provide strategically significant and timely services to all students of the University. This involves 27,000 students with a variety of developmental needs (equity groups, continuing education, re-trainees, mature age, school leavers, and international students) studying in significantly different contexts (on campus, distance, off shore, workplace) in a large number of courses through various modes of delivery (face-to-face, external and online). Furthermore, it involved conceptualising support in terms of the quality of student experience rather than just retention rates, to be concerned with providing support for students to do well rather than just focusing on those in danger of failing.

It was clear that face-to-face forms of delivery in one hour or half hour appointments with occasional and somewhat ad hoc subject based support would not begin to deliver the kinds of strategic outcomes that were being demanded. A number of issues emerged:

Within the student support group

Within the wider University

Applying Senge's framework

Of the five disciplines - systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building a shared vision and team learning - the first, third and fifth have had most focus in the changes made so far within the student support services unit. The following discussion uses Senge's five disciplines as a framework for considering the changes that have occurred in student support at the University of South Australia.

Systems thinking

Senge's view is that systems thinking is the key to all change and that has certainly been the major focus for the reconceptualisation of the area.

In the early days of student support, keeping the services separate from the mainstream academic delivery was seen to be crucial to the effective operation of a confidential service. An unfortunate side effect of this was that the services were positioned as very much marginal to the mainstream activity of the University. To some extent this approach encouraged the view that the 'enemy is out there' in the wider University (Senge 1990: 19), that the problems with teaching and learning belonged to others and the role of student support staff was to rescue the students who slipped through the cracks.

Senge's approach suggests that it is necessary to look at the University as a system and to see each sub-system (such as student support services) as interconnected and jointly responsible for the outcomes of the whole University. This approach is consistent with the University's teaching and learning framework and the expectations that all parts of the University contribute towards the declared strategic directions. This rethinking of the role and function of student support services has radically altered the practices of staff. In particular, it has challenged the forms of delivery of the services, realigned and reassigned professional development in teaching and learning, and introduced mechanisms for transparency and accountability.

Forms of delivery

A major issue was how to offer services so that all students of the University could benefit. It was necessary to look very closely at the current face-to-face services, what other services could be introduced and how technology could be used to increase access.

In order to meet the demands for face-to-face delivery a 'dropin' (no appointment necessary) was introduced for all professional groups (learning support, counselling, careers and disability) to deal with minor matters or to refer students to resources on the new website. This has reduced waiting times and has encouraged individual students to engage with staff on a less formal level. In addition, the group-based services which had been offered for some time were provided in more systematic and transparent ways.

Web-based delivery was seen as the means to reaching the vast majority of students and is now seen as a primary form of delivery. This service includes access to information, the provision of advice via email about general issues related to studying at the University and more specific personal, careers and study related matters. There is an ongoing program of resource development which is directly related to particular learning processes and assignments. These include:

A decision was taken not to provide hard copies of these resources but to make them available online. This has provided greater flexibility for students and staff and promotes the web as a primary form of delivery for all students. Learning guides are often prepared in collaboration with teaching staff and can be provided in a seamless way to students through electronic links into online subject materials. The expectation is that all staff in student support will be involved in the development of these web-based resources as a normal part of their workload.

The forms of delivery for students are outlined below.

Direct support services to students

Indirect support services to students

Supporting staff to achieve student outcomes

One of the legacies of the traditional approaches to student support and academic professional development is to see a separation between working with students and working with staff. Although there has always been some recognition that the student support staff and the professional development staff have a common goal - quality student outcomes - their work has not been tied together in a systematic way to achieve this. To address this there have been two significant changes in the roles of staff: This convergence between the work of staff in student support and academic professional development facilitates general improvements in the University's teaching and learning environment and signals that high quality outcomes for all students are the primary focus for all staff of the student support unit.

Direct services to staff are outlined below.

Direct services to staff

Transparency and accountability

As part of the redevelopment of services, a consultation process was undertaken with the wider University. Two issues became clear: there was widespread ignorance by staff of the services offered and some staff who were referring students were concerned that they did not receive feedback from the student consultation. Thinking about these issues in terms of the system resulted in several mechanisms. Systems thinking has challenged many of the accepted practices in student support at the University of South Australia. It has enabled new approaches and has resulted in a range of outcomes that fit more closely with the University's strategic directions.

Personal mastery

Senge makes the point that 'Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively' (Senge,1990 :7). The notion of personal mastery is fundamentally linked to and concerned with 'lifelong generative learning'. Professionals can expect that some aspects of their practice will develop out of, and build upon, past practices-that some traditional practices will be appropriate for new contexts. However, it also needs to be acknowledged that the demands that come with the rapidly changing context may have very little continuity with the past. Such practices will require the development of new professional skills and understandings which may fundamentally challenge an individual's professional identity. To this extent, maintaining a professional approach is contingent on pursuing personal mastery of the new skills and understandings required in the new context, of exploring the personal obligations for changed practice in the space between what has been and what might be.

While these changes need to take place at an individual level, a number of strategies and structures have been put in place at the University of South Australia to encourage and support these developments.

Personal mastery requires a commitment to being a particular kind of professional-one who maintains a personal commitment to professional values but with an outward focus that anticipates the future.

Mental models

Senge (1990) makes the point that our mental representations drive our practices in powerful ways and changing these practices is difficult if not impossible without changing the mental models that drive them. Resistance to new ways of doing things can often be traced to incongruity with the prevailing mental models which drive daily activity. Getting change in one practice may be possible through direction and monitoring of work practices but if there is to be a wholesale taking up of a new paradigm the mental models which are at the basis of professional activity need to be made transparent and challenged.

Perhaps the most fundamental issue for the student support staff has been the issue: who is the client? In traditional ways for thinking about student support, the client is exclusively the student and that has predicated particular kinds of practices. In the redevelopment of the services this issue became central. For although it is absolutely clear that the student is always the prime beneficiary of the professional practice, it does not follow that the student is always the client. Furthermore, when services are seen in terms of the strategic direction of the wider University it is clear that the University management and the Divisions are also significant clients.

In any given interaction with a student, there may be a group of secondary clients for whom there is an obligation for a particular service. This is particularly so in the case of disability where a student's personal learning issues will also have ramifications for supporting teachers and providing information to other parts of the University. Such an approach fundamentally challenges the roles and practices of staff.

A second example of mental models is the name of the centres in which staff work. At the University of South Australia these were known as Student Support Centres and it became clear that this was problematic in providing services to the wider student community (as opposed to equity groups). The mental model that both staff and students had of the Centres was negative - places that students go when they have problems rather than a resource for the normal developmental process of learning. In order to overcome this, it was decided to rename the Centres Learning Connection, a neutral name that had no deficit connotations. The name is built around the metaphor of connecting with the various services for staff and students that are located within the unit to achieve student outcomes. Learning Connection was launched as a new entity within the University.

Building shared vision

A number of processes were introduced to assist staff with building a shared vision about the direction of the services. Workshops were run on the development of Learning Connection and a portfolio of services for each of the professional groups was agreed and publicised to the wider University. These services form the basis of Service Contract agreements between Learning Connection and the Divisions/Schools and staff are organised around meeting these agreements. Groups of staff continue to meet to explore their own services and their relationship to the services of other professional groups. Most recent are developments in the area of careers support fore students. Senge (1990) emphasises the need for individuals to come to a common understanding of the future possibilities so that their own personal, mastery can be mobilised into effective teams. He makes the important distinction between a genuine shared vision and agreeing to a vision statement - being involved with the dynamic co-construction of a destination and the means of making it happen, rather than compliance to an idea. It is important that institutional and leadership practices are put in place to encourage and support these developments and it is acknowledged that we have some way to go in developing this dimension.

Team learning

Teams have been a feature of the work practices of many staff in the student support area. In the redevelopment of services, the team approach has been refocussed to take account of particular views - that the team is the fundamental learning unit. All members of professional groups are also members of cross-professional teams that operate on each campus. This matrix of team obligations adds a complexity and richness to the professional services provided. Team approaches ensure consistency of services across the University and provide synergy in work practices to alleviate the wide range of demands on staff. Team meetings are a regular feature of all groups. These meetings involve discussion of professional issues and group decision making as well as the necessary administrative aspects.

A major initiative has been the process of peer review of all resources being developed. The aim of the process is to produce quality resources that all staff in a given team 'own'. This is achieved through successive drafts until the group as a whole is satisfied with the outcome. The process itself is challenging but professionally stimulating because it provides a form of professional development -- the 'dialogue' that surrounds the review of the product provides a window into the thinking (mental models) behind it.


This paper has used the notion of the learning organisation to discuss the changes that have occurred recently in student support at the University of South Australia. A significant shift in theorising the nature of the services has resulted in major changes in professional practices. The new approach aims to: The changes build on incremental changes that have been occurring for some time and extends them into a range of new services and new forms of delivery which locate the support of students within a new framework. The framework is universal in its scope - providing for all students in all courses, congruent with the strategic directions of the University and embedded within the work of Divisions. One of the features of the new approach is the synergy gained by working with both staff and students to achieve particular student outcomes. These shifts in practices and the high equity profile of the University require a particular configuration of services which more realistically fit student needs, the expectations of the Divisions, the wider University and the staffing of the Student Support Centres.


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Appendix 1

Appendix 1

Contact details: Rigmor George, University of South Australia
Phone (08) 8302 4681 Fax (08) 302 4390 Email

Please cite as: George, R. and Hicks. M. (2001). Changing context, changing practice: Managing change in student support services. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 281-293. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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