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A case study of creating partnerships for learning: New models of collegiality at the University of South Australia

Lucy Schulz
Coordinator: Service Quality
Judy Szekeres
Division Manager: Division of Business and Enterprise
Anna Ciccarelli
Division Manager: Division of Education, Arts and Social Science
University of South Australia
In February 1999 the University of South Australia opened the doors to new standards of customer service. Campus Central is a 'one stop shop' for student and campus administration available on the six campuses of the University and external students through the External Students Centre.

The University has made gradual improvements to existing services but this tinkering was not going to achieve the transformative changes necessary. We wanted administrative and support services that complement and contribute to the positive learning experience of our students - less running around to get simple administrative things done, streamlined administrative processes and a more positive and supportive approach to meeting the needs and expectations all our customers.

The notion of a single point of contact on each campus was supported by the Vice Chancellor in October 1998 and Campus Central opened its doors four months later. The project involved consulting the University community, especially students; designing, finding and building five spaces; developing an organisational structure; staffing and training; marketing; and putting new processes in place.

Campus Central sits across a number of organisational boundaries. It has been able to do this because it was designed to be a key service provider rather than an organisational unit. It creates a space for us to seriously consider the meaning of customer service in today's competitive environment and has given the University a vehicle to examine all its work and organisational practices.

Since then the methodology used to develop and implement Campus Central has been applied in other organisational contexts within the University to achieve changes to structures, roles, work processes and practices. We are challenging organisational boundaries and established hierarchies preferring more flexible ways of operating which more fully involve all University workers. The changing role and demands on academic staff have meant a need to rethink the role of administrative and support staff. As the University has needed to adapt to technological changes, the global market and less public funding staff have needed to think of new ways of doing things. At the University of SA we are responding to these pressures by creating partnerships which are inclusive, responsive and entrepreneurial.

This paper will explore the change and organisational development methodology currently being used by senior administrative staff from different parts of the University of SA. It is an approach based on our collective experience designed to both transform the organisation to meet corporate goals and external challenges as well as the needs of academic and administrative staff.


This paper describes how a university can implement significant changes relatively quickly given the right timing and sufficient organisational commitment (both from the top down and bottom up). The two examples discussed in this paper involve changes to staffing and management structures, communication and decision making processes, working environments, customer service and work processes and systems. They represent corporate transformation rather than fine tuning (Dunphy and Stace, 1995). The examples represent significant elements of a university's administration and illustrate how to develop a service culture to support core activities. Campus Central, a one stop shop for student and campus administration provides an example of a University wide service strategy and the School and Divisional administration review provides an example of a more focused and local initiative.

The methodology described in this paper continues to provide a framework for organisational change, learning and initiative within the University of South Australia. It explores how a group of senior and middle level administration staff, mostly working within academic units have attempted to address the challenges of developing a service culture in areas traditionally resistant to this view of the world. Our approach has contributed to the development of a new understanding internally about organisational development and learning linked to change management and action. In the words of our Vice Chancellor it highlights that;

"... the organisation is more a work in progress led by people who themselves are seeking to learn rather than a fixed entity with clear boundaries and certain ends". (Bradley, 2000)
Statements like this included in an internal discussion document about organisational learning promote a creative and reflective stance amongst staff, an innovative and enterprising culture and an environment which rewards the "early adapters".

Context - Customer focus as a strategic priority

For staff working in universities, reforms to the system over the last ten years have meant major changes to their work practices and attitudes. For example, a close working relationship with few students has been replaced by the need to encourage more independent learning practices, more flexible models of delivery and putting in place more systematic ways of providing services.
"Educators may be the last people to adopt a service orientation toward the people they are supposed to serve. ... To suggest that learners, and those paying for the education the learners are supposed to receive, are customers, draws a blank look from traditional educators. Those who take this unusual attitude are vastly outnumbered by those who think of the institution as a permanent fixture and the students as merely passers-by who flow through the system and leave money behind".
This was Albrecht's reading of the prevailing attitudes in educational bureaucracies in the late eighties. (1988:75 cited in Sawatzki, 1994:chpt 8) At the beginning of the new millenium, Campus Central and the changes in progress within schools and divisions are, for our university, visible symbols of successful organisational learning.

In 1998, a one-stop-shop ethos challenged what we had established in terms of our organisational structures and processes[1]. In a multi-campus university, the idea of this type of service can be problematic although more sensible when thinking from a customer perspective. According to research conducted by the University's Marketing and Development Unit, most students and potential students relate to their course, campus and the University rather than a School or Academic Division. Implementing a one stop shop meant considering how to meet the needs of customers in the context of our organisational arrangements. We needed to consider how students thought and related to the University.

It is evident from Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) results and internal surveys that students do not separate the academic from their more general experiences of University. Therefore issues such as the quality of our administration and support services requires attention. Students regularly comment on the need for straightforward, responsive and integrated administrative processes in addition to well resourced support services. They also expect a high level of responsiveness at "front counters" and service areas. These counters exist in all areas of any University - school, department, administrative area, library, help desk.

Evidence of improvements to service quality often seem quite intangible. Unlike product quality, service quality is about performance in three areas -outcomes, processes and people (Blanchard and Galloway, 1994; Cronin and Taylor, 1992; Parasuraman et al, 1985). Most customer service training focuses on people skills as a means of improving the quality of services, and disregards the importance of the process and service outcomes. A systematic approach to good service includes managing the processes organisations put in place.

Campus Central - building commitment from the top down and the bottom up

Initially we thought we could achieve a one stop shop ethos without making structural changes. In other words, focusing on existing and local areas and encouraging these areas to take more responsibility for following through on customer requests by providing training and assisting staff develop service goals and improve work processes. Whilst this may have worked, it would certainly have been a slow process.

The idea for Campus Central coincided with a major organisational change from nine Faculties to four Divisions and arose out of training that the Senior Quality Officer, Lucy Schulz, was conducting with the former Faculty Offices. The Vice Chancellor supported the idea and wanted it to happen in time for the start of Semester 1, 1999. As a leader of change in our organisation, the Vice Chancellor recognises the importance of supporting initiatives, providing the resources where necessary but essentially leaving it to those on the ground to make it happen.

According to Binney and Williams (1995) this is the most effective approach to organisational change;

"... successful leaders in change are not opting for the 'top down' or the 'bottom up' approaches. They are combining the best of both approaches and embracing the contradictions and tensions between them. They have found a way of leading and learning, of providing direction and allowing autonomy; of being forthright and listening (p159)."
One of the other elements needed apart from a commitment at the top is commitment from staff in the organisation. The work that had been done in faculties had in many ways laid the groundwork for Campus Central as we grappled with outdated attitudes, processes and structures. We could see the problems and in essence were collectively looking for solutions. Campus Central is in many ways an example of a solution that grew out of a range of conversations and collective experiences about service improvement; some would say an organic or evolutionary solution rather than simply a structural or imposed change strategy.

In October 1998 a large group of staff and students (about thirty people in total) from a number of areas within the University was brought together to begin planning a large and complex project which would help solve this problem for customers of the university. At this stage all we knew was what we wanted -

Draft vision statement

Our administrative and support services complement and contribute to the positive learning experience of students at the University.

Specifically we will:

This draft vision statement and a very rough action plan were adopted by the group at their first meeting. What characterised membership of the group was that everyone involved delivered services to students or provided support to those that did. Whilst there were some middle level managers involved, most of the staff could be described as front-line service providers.

We established a number of smaller groups at the first meeting to make the task more manageable:

Services provided

The new Campus Central offices provide a focal point for all campuses but most importantly are a visible indication to students of their importance as part of the University community. They have been specifically designed and refurbished to provide better facilities for staff and students. They include: It was agreed that Campus Central would provide the following services for students on each campus: In addition, a number of additional services are provided for staff including: booking and collection of audio visual and other equipment (laptops and data projectors); room and car bookings; parking payments and information; receipting and petty cash; issuing of photocopier paper and cards; facilities hire and assistance with signage changes and other minor work requests.

Evaluating our performance

We are involved in a continuous improvement strategy with Campus Central which involves, not only customer feedback but also ongoing consultation with staff working in the area. We have developed service standards relating to key processes and are monitoring these regularly across the centres. We have conducted a workload/ workflow analysis to assess how work and time are managed by individual staff. This information assists with planning and addresses the impact of a new span of hours from 8.30am to 6pm. We continue to evaluate the number and range of enquiries and analyse the situations where staff are making referrals. This enables us to monitor one of our primary goals; to minimise referrals and respond accurately to customer enquiries.

Campus Central represents the building of a learning network, a virtual community as well as a physical one. Membership cuts horizontally across structural barriers of different organisational units whether academic or services. It also cuts vertically across the hierarchy of line management in both the division and service units and overlays a common campus space for coordinated customer delivery. This cross functional network was created, nurtured and supported by the Senior Quality Officer who with the mandate from the Vice Chancellor persuaded staff to relinquish territory, authority and space in order to create a new service delivery function that no single unit alone could achieve. Campus Central is a unique organisational as well as physical space.

This project has highlighted the importance of building an effective team to achieve the changes that are inevitable and necessary for a responsive organisation. However, senior management support, particularly support from the Vice Chancellor was also critical. They gave us the resources and the authority to make it happen.

Extending the methodology

While professional administrators have led the major service units, once we move into academic organisational units we find academic staff holding key leadership posts supported by relatively junior administrative staff. Thus school administration has tended to develop into a set of processes based on reactive and specific local needs unconnected from each other and disconnected from university wide activities. In addition senior academics have been required to manage these operations. It is not surprising that many senior academics have been reluctant to take on leadership positions within academic units (schools) for fear that any management role will bring with it a load of paper and process, with few systems or support to lighten the load. Administrative staff, likewise, have often felt that the organisation of academic administration at school level does not allow their professional development, nor use their expertise in an efficient way.

The establishment of Campus Central had highlighted a number of disjunctions between school and Campus Central processes and indeed the service ethos. It was therefore apparent that we needed to continue the same examination of roles and procedures at this level. The role of a Head of School had also changed significantly as a result of the same restructuring that led to us rethinking student and academic administration. The new Head of School role requires a much higher level of support than previously provided. For example, assistance with budget development and monitoring, School data collection and analysis, strategic planning and administrative management.

We wanted to put in place an effective administration to support schools as the core academic and work unit. Our task has been much more complex because of the range of interdependencies between the school and other areas of the University. In our view administration and management are a core organisational activity required to support effective academic leadership although generally this is only implicit in discussions about the work of universities. Specifically we wanted a fresh look at some key issues:

Our methodology for this project reflected a very similar approach to the one we used for Campus Central. Although this time we needed both a Divisional and University-wide approach.

We commenced with an extensive consultation process in each of the Divisions involving students and key groups of administration, technical and academic staff. The report summarising all individual and group consultations also included a number of recommendations. These recommendations reflected a collective understanding of the issues and proposed a way forward based on key principles and agreements. Implementation has involved breaking down the tasks into some key areas and a number of smaller groups have again been established;

One key aspect of the various reviews was recommending a senior general staff position in all Schools. This School Administrator role will be an important contributor to the effective management of school operations and will provide much needed support to the Head of School. General staff work will be managed by the School Administrator rather than an academic manager. They will also be a key contact point for division and university wide units enabling better support both for school administration functions as well as consistency of practice across the University.

From local initiative to strategic imperative

Whilst this exercise was originally identified as a University wide project some Divisions were resistant to further change so quickly after Divisional restructuring and therefore the project was initially piloted in the two largest Divisions. Whilst this may not have been the preferred option initially, it has resulted in a number of benefits as we have been able to progressively refine our ideas and processes. A number of similarities, particularly in terms of recommendations, became apparent from the pilot projects. Concurrently the other divisions were realising the need for this type of review process and a university wide group was established to ensure consistency of outcomes. A number of priorities were identified to frame the specific divisional implementation strategies; These priorities were endorsed by senior management earlier this year and we are now working on implementation across the University.

At this point the outstanding issues relate to academic leadership roles within schools, most notably the role of the Course Coordinator. A core function identified within school administration is support to course and subject coordinators. However, to identify general staff responsibilities it is first necessary to clarify the roles of academic staff. In addition, the introduction of performance management and the large number of sessional staff have also raised the issue of span of control for the Head of School, specifically their capacity to manage the large number of permanent, contract and sessional staff. This is linked to the broader issues around academic leadership within schools to successfully achieve school goals across a broad range of activities.

Our work here also challenges existing notions about the distinctive nature of academic and general staff work, providing instead an example of how the roles are sometimes not easily separated. We have preferred to think about the university worker where all staff make an important contribution, where roles are linked and better integrated, a team rather than individualistic approach to work which removes the dualism of academic and non-academic (general) staff.

"... the actual and potential blurring of roles is important, and will continue to grow in significance as universities move into more flexible modes of delivery of teaching and learning and as they seek to support and reward staff for their skills, performance and potential rather than on the basis of job classifications". (Coaldrake and Stedman, 1999; 16)
The approach to addressing how the changes implicit here are managed needs to be considered in an institutional context. Our methodology will again be used to work through the issues in a participatory and systematic way. These were issues raised by academics during the original consultation process and whilst there has not been final agreement, elements of our models of academic leadership are currently being trialled in Schools.

Having an impact on the whole organisation

These two projects serve to remind us that we can break the rules and expectations about how to innovate and implement change in a sector that has been traditionally unresponsive to the valuing of a service culture for students. What is particularly interesting here is the model of change that is represented. The university community is learning about what the organisation is capable of achieving in implementing change successfully. The traditional university model for change, at best, is based on academic authority and line management but in reality is better described as a culture of loosely-coupled discipline forces that compete for increasingly scarce resources. The current pressures on higher education have created tensions within the organisation, between collegiate and corporate management approaches. In a devolved environment this is particularly challenging for those who wish to change university wide systems and processes.

The realisation of Campus Central and the changes we are now making within schools and divisions in this organisational environment are an even greater achievement. In Dunphy and Stace's model (1995:72) representing a scale of organisational change from type 1, fine tuning to type 4, corporate transformation, both projects meet the criteria for corporate transformation. They involve major changes in structures, systems and processes across the organisation; and revised interaction patterns and work flows, communication networks and decision making processes across the organisation.

There are some clear success factors learnt through the experiences of these projects which have implications for organisational development and change processes;

These projects can be described in terms of the new paradigm for organisational success which includes fostering speed, flexibility, integration and innovation. As Ashkenas et al (1995) suggest;
"No matter the tools used, iterative strategic thinking and thinking must be an ongoing process for any organization engaged in the transformation of its boundaries. Given the pace of environmental change, static strategic planning is much less effective." (p337)
We continue to implement an innovative, more responsive and integrated service strategy aligned with the key mission and goals of the organisation and most importantly the needs of our customers. We are challenging notions of specialised roles, control from the top and distinct and separate work areas. Campus Central is increasingly seen as a link between different areas in the University and this can only facilitate the ongoing change process which is an inevitable consequence of remaining innovative and responsive. One project is integrally linked with the other. The reviews of school and divisional administration build on our efforts to extend the service culture across the organisation, and both of these projects are part of the University's continuous improvement strategy.


Ashenkas, R. et al 1995, The boundaryless organization: breaking the chains of organizational structure, Jossey Bass, San Francisco.

Binney, G. and Williams, C. 1995, Learning into the future. Changing the way people change organisations, Brearley, London.

Blanchard, R.F. and Galloway, R.L. 1994, "Quality in retail banking", International Journal of Service Industry Management, vol. 5, no. 4, pp5-23.

Bradley, D. 2000, UniSA - Organisational Learning (internal discussion paper)

Coaldrake, P. and Stedman, L. 1999, Academic Work in the Twenty-first Century: Changing roles and policies, DETYA Higher Education Division.

Cronin, J.J. and Taylor, S.A. 1992, "Measuring Service Quality: A Re-examination and Extension", in Journal of Marketing, vol. 56, no. 3, pp55-68.

Dunphy, D. & Stace, D. 1995, Under new management - Australian organisations in transition, McGraw Hill, Sydney.

Illes, L.M. 1999, "Ecosystems and villages: Using transformational metaphors to build community in higher education institutions", Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, vol. 21, no. 1, pp57-71.

Parasuraman, A., Zeithaml, V.A. and Berry, L.L. 1985, "A Conceptual Model of Service Quality and Its Implications for Future Research", Journal of Marketing, vol. 49, no. 4, pp 41-50.

Sawatzki, M. 1994, "A culture of service at the system level", The Workplace in Education - Australian Perspectives, ACEA, Rydalmere, chpt 8, pp79-92.

Schulz, L. 1999, New frontiers in customer relationship management, Paper presented at Contact Australia '99 Conference.


  1. The University of South Australia operates across six campuses, providing some 600 courses onshore, offshore and by distance education. There are approximately 25,000 students and 1800 staff. There are now four key academic divisions (bringing together some 27 Schools) and about 15 administrative/ support units. The organisational structure is relatively flat with two key layers of management. The senior management team includes the Vice Chancellor, Executive Director: Resources and seven Pro Vice Chancellors who lead the academic divisions as well as three coordinating portfolios. The second layer of management includes Heads of School and Directors/ Managers of administrative units.

  2. Course Coordinators provide a critical support role to students from enrolment through to graduation, assisting with subject choices, signing off on changes, etc. They also provide a "leadership" role in relation to the course team, relevant profession and industry bodies and in the planning and review of the course. Over time this has become an increasingly administrative role.
Contact details: Lucy Schulz, Senior Quality Officer, Assurance Services, University of South Australia, GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001. Phone (08) 8302 2444 Fax (08) 8302 2988 Email

Please cite as: Schulz, L., Szekeres, J. and Ciccarelli, A. (2001). A case study of creating partnerships for learning: New models of collegiality at the University of South Australia. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 624-633. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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