Student Record System rebuild

Inspired by a challenge from @RowlstoneS, the lovely people at Burston Central are going to renew their Student Records system. Exciting, or what? I’m not exactly sure how to make this amusing, but we’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, suggestions welcome in the comments box, or via @wadingtreacle on Twitter.

Simon looked round the table. He felt almost excited. His first significant development project since he’d arrived at Burston Central, and it was a corker: replacing the student records system. Mission-critical, stakeholder-sensitive, multi-platform, future-proof, enterprise class development*. If this wasn’t a passport to a Senior Applications Developer post, he didn’t know what was. Unconsciously, he stretched out the fingers of his left hand and pulled hard on them with his right, cracking his knuckles loudly. The conversation died away and everyone turned to look at him.

Simon returned to reality. It must be time to start. cleared his throat, and took a swig of water from his filter bottle. He glanced down at his checklist.

1. Welcome the task-and-finish group

He smiled broadly, but without sincerity, and launched into his introduction.
“Well, hello, everyone, and many thanks for giving up your valuable time to attend this inaugural meeting of the Student Records System Replacement Task-and-Finish Group. It’s lovely to see you all today to work on this critically important enterprise system.”
He was pleased to see that one or two people were already taking notes. Emboldened, he went slightly off-piste. “It’s not often that a big organisation like this gets a chance to really do a root-and-branch update of one of its underpinning technological systems and I’m sure we’re all going to work together with great synergy and, er, er….er, get the job done in style.”

He took another swig of his water and glanced at the checklist again.

2. Introductions

“Right, well, as you know, I’m relatively new here, so it would be great if we could just go round the room and introduce ourselves. Usual drill. Who are you, and why are you here?”
One or two people pressed their lips together at this. “Don’t be shy!” Simon had seen this kind of reticence in his previous job, working on customer relationship management for a large retailer. Some people were very nervous at being asked to contribute to big projects like this. He’d been like that himself, once.
He smiled encouragingly. “I’ll start, if you like. My name is Simon Edgerton, and I’m the senior applications analyst for registry services. I’ve been at Burston Central for about eighteen months, which I know makes me a very new boy by some standards.” He paused to allow for his joke to sink in. There was no perceptible response. “My role here is to co-ordinate the requirements of the UI, or user interface, and get those translated into some applications specifications for the new system.”

He looked to his left. “Shall we go clockwise?”
Shannon gave a self-conscious wave. “Hey, everyone. Shannon, Head of planning. I’m here to make sure that the new system collects the data we need for the HESA return.”
Simon looked a little sorrowful. “Shannon, sorry to pull you up in the first few minutes, but would you mind spelling out the acronym. Not everyone will be aware of what it is.”
Shannon raised her eyebrows slightly, and looked around the table. “Oh. Sorry. HESA is the Higher Education Statistical Agency. We’re legally obliged to send them data about our students and staff annually: the HESA return.”
Simon nodded encouragingly. “Brilliant, thanks, Shannon.” He looked at the next person to Shannon’s left.

“Anna, Head of Registry Services. We’re responsible for individual records in the system and making sure that all of the graduation information is correct.”

“Critically important, Anna, glad you could be here.” Simon’s gaze moved on.

“Niall, Professional Services. I’m here to provide input on the data input needs for new courses and modules.” Simon nodded slowly. He was already starting to look a little glazed.

“Jenny, Quality Officer from Faculty of Engineering. Here to explain how we approve new curricula elements.”

Simon brightened a little. “Great, so you’re going to be able to specify the workflows.” He nodded enthusiastically.

Jenny shrugged. “If you say so.”

“Yeah, workflows.” Simon noticed the blank looks around the table. “Well, we’ll get to those. All in good time!”. He smiled encouragingly and turned his attention to the next person.

“Gina, Head of Marketing. We need course information from the system to feed through into the prospectus.”

“Tony, applications interface architect. I’ve got an overview of all of the feeder and output applications which will need to interface into the new system.”

Simon nodded enthusiastically. “Brilliant. Key stuff, Tony. Glad you’re involved.”

Jenny put up her hand. “Um. Simon. Sorry to seem dim, but I didn’t really understand what Tony meant.”

Simon smiled kindly at her. “Fair enough, Jenny, fair enough. Well, Tony is responsible for making sure that all of the feeder and output applications will be adequately served by the new system. OK? I’m sure you’ll get up to speed with it all soon. OK, let’s keep going.”

Jenny’s eyes widened. She flicked her eyes round the table, but everyone was staring fixedly at Simon.

They moved on.

“Lawrence, Students’ Union President. Just keepin’ my eye on y’all, makin’ sure you don’t forget to put students at the centre of the system, y’all.” He put his thumbs up.

There were some weak smiles, and Simon dutifully provided a fake-sounding chuckle. “Good to have you with us, Lawrence. Just let us know if you don’t understand anything.”

Shannon winced. Lawrence was a systems engineering graduate. He would probably be better able to keep up than some of the others. He caught her eye and grinned. She felt sure he was plotting something. At least, she hoped so. Otherwise this group was going to be seriously tedious. She grinned back at him.


*thank you to for inspiration here



With thanks to Mark Jacot.

It was freezing in the office. The heating had been off all weekend. Shannon was shivering. She pulled her pashmina more tightly round her. It was seven-thirty and she’d already been in the office for an hour.

On the left-hand screen, she had her admissions projections for the next three years. She was staring at her right-hand computer screen, which was open on the WonkHE website. She was trying to work out what the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement would mean for Burston Central.

More students, but less student support – what if they were disproportionately hit by the massive cuts to the National Scholarship Programme? About 28% of their current intake qualified for it at the moment.

Was the removal of the numbers cap going to mean more competition from the for-profit providers, which might impact on fee levels? Or maybe less competition, if students could go to more established institutions instead?

She sighed. Maybe a cup of coffee would help.

She stood up and stretched out her frozen hands awkwardly, trying to keep the shawl over her shoulders. Picking up the kettle, she went out into the dark corridor. Maybe a sprint up and down would warm her up? It must be a good fifty metres each way.

She smiled at the thought of someone running in the corridor. Unlikely. Though it might make the motion-sensitive lights work a bit better.

As she walked towards the Ladies, she noticed that the door to the International office was open. Sunita must be in early. She went in. The outer office was empty, but Sunita’s office door was open.

“Hi, Sunny,” Shannon called out as she walked across the outer office. She didn’t want to give Sunita a fright.

There was no answer. She put her head round the door. “Hi,” she repeated.

Sunita looked up at her. She was sitting at her desk with a credit card in her hand. There was tears in her eyes.

“Sunny? Are you OK?”

Sunita’s lower lip trembled. She shook her head.

“Is it the kids? Dev? Your parents?”

Sunita shook her head again. She clearly didn’t trust herself to speak. She gestured at the computer screen.

“You haven’t fallen for one of those charity guilt videos, have you? Mawkish marketing. What’s the point of making people cry with guilt?” As she said this, Shannon winced to herself. Maybe that was a bit hard-hearted of her. Maybe she should find those things upsetting, rather than irritating.

She went over to the desk and looked at the screen. It seemed to be the Amazon website. She peered at the message. ‘Your payment has not been successful. Please use another method of payment.’

Shannon frowned. “Did you put the code in wrong?”

Sunita shook her head. She sniffed. “No. It’s the card I always use. There must be no money in the account. Dev must have cleaned it out and not told me. Maybe he’s going to leave me.” This last proposition tipped the balance of her self-control, and she began to sob.

Shannon put her hand awkwardly on Sunita’s shoulder. “Um. Well. Surely not.” She had no idea whether this was a likely scenario or not. She didn’t know Sunita or Dev that well. She looked around the room in the hope of inspiration for something to say next. Nothing.

Sunita was still holding the credit card in her hand. Shannon looked at it. “Hang on a minute, Sunny. Is that a NatWest account?”

Sunny nodded.

“They’ve got problems with their systems. I heard it on the Today programme when I was driving in.” She tried to remember what had been said. She didn’t bank with RBS or NatWest. “I don’t think the cards are working.”

She leaned over Sunita and opened another tab on the browser. “Look. BBC News. ‘More RBS glitches’. That’ll be the problem. Phew.”

Sunita blew her nose. “Shit. Are you sure?”

Shannon nodded. “Well. It looks like it. At least, that seems like the most likely thing. Doesn’t it?”

“Probably. God, I feel so stupid. Why didn’t I think of that? It’s not the first time.” She sniffed loudly again. “I’m just so stressed at the moment. It was the last straw. I’ve got to go to India with the VC this week, and I was trying to finish the Christmas shopping. I have to do it online. I never have time for the shops.”

“Well, I guess you can try again later.” Shannon tried to sound brisk. This was all a bit embarrassing. “Now, would you like a coffee?”

Sunita pulled herself together. “Oh. No. No, thanks. I’d better get on. Lots to do.”

Shannon nodded.

“Sorry about that, Shannon. Um. Bit embarrassing. Just a bit tired.” Sunita looked up at Shannon.

Shannon took the hint. “Not to worry. All very busy at the moment. Right, I’d better get some water for this kettle, then get back to figuring out the Autumn Statement implications. Might need to come and talk to you about it at some point – if the domestic number cap’s being lifted, we might be less dependent on international, you never know.”

Sunita looked panicked. “I hadn’t thought of that. My God. I hope that doesn’t mean job cuts in my office.”

Shannon winced. “No, no, sorry, I didn’t mean anything like that. I was just thinking aloud. Just worrying about your workload, really. ” She sighed and started to sidle towards the door. Sunita didn’t move.

“See you later, Sunny.” Shannon made a mental note to pop in later on and check on her.

Sunita looked vaguely across at her. She was still nodding her head when Shannon left the room.

Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

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Popularity contest

Hot on the heels of the latest mid-cycle UCAS application figures, which had been disastrous for Burston Central, HEFCE had published detailed analysis of applications and acceptances for the last two full academic years. Burston Central’s head of Strategic Planning, Shannon O’Reilly, was poring over the figures, and she was scratching her head. Obviously, she’d known their own figures for some time, give or take a bit of fluctuation in the first term. Despite the brutal imposition of full-cost tuition fees, applications and enrolments had held up fairly well for 2012. But she’d been very worried about their position in the top 20 for applications.  How were their benchmark institutions doing?

For many years, Burston Central had been really popular. The VC put it down to a combination of location, location and location. Burston had a reputation as a party town. God knows why, looking at the town centre, but the students seemed to like it. The university performed indifferently in the National Student Survey. Class sizes, staff- student ratios, accommodation costs were all firmly average.

There were no real research stars, unless you counted that guy from Sociology who was on telly every time urban youth got restless, and the woman from Chemistry who had something to do with debunking the claims of cosmetics companies. All the numbers were resolutely average. The Council got very agitated about the situation, and it made the VC cross.

But despite all of this averageness, students still liked to come. Shannon didn’t think it was that strange. The staff were mostly pleasant and welcoming, and interested in their disciplines. They knew enough, even if they weren’t leading lights. Plus, they were very accommodating to students with disabilities, students with caring responsibilities and students who’d been looked after, and had good links with agencies and colleges who might encourage potential undergraduates. 74% of their students came from within a 50 mile radius. For those students, it was either Burston Central, or University of Burston, which had a different kind of reputation, or no HE at all. Really, it wasn’t that surprising that applications were usually high. It was difficult to provide evidence for that perspective, though. I wasn’t something that numbers could capture. So she was worried that this year could be different.

No. Almost no change in the top and bottom 20 in terms of the numbers of applications. Leaving out London Met’s figures, the rankings for this year looked remarkably like last year. It was a relief, but what did it mean for strategic planning? Were numbers the same because this year’s intake were already on their trajectory before the increase in fees? Was this coming year going to be the big drop? And was it going to be the same for all institutions? It didn’t look good for actual numbers of applications this year, she had to admit.

And yet. And yet. There must be some way of capitalising on their attractiveness to the local region, even if that popularity wasn’t really based on any objective measures.  Could they focus on those students for recruitment, rather than constantly chasing the diminishing pool of 18 year olds? Probably not worth suggesting it. The VC was very keen on the Head of Marketing, and she tended to think the Widening Participation applicants were more trouble to chase than they were worth.

Was there any way of offering something new at lower cost, and advertising it as ‘better value’? She couldn’t see how they could cut expenses any further. The Chief Financial Officer controlled costs with an iron rule. And he didn’t appreciate suggestions from other departments, either. Plus it might make existing courses look like poor value by comparison.

And just to ice the cake, the PVC for students had suddenly got a bee in his bonnet about white, working class males and how they needed extra input. She had no data to support that view. In fact, her data showed that Asian males were more likely to perform badly compared to their A level results and to drop out. And what was that ‘extra input’ supposed to look like? And cost?

How was she supposed to come up with an objective strategic plan when there were certain areas she couldn’t mention, or when the data she’d analysed was trumped by another Vice Chancellor’s newspaper article, or when she had no access to cost data? Shannon put her head in her hands. Everyone else was long gone. She was feeling so sleepy, and she still had to finish this analysis before she went home. Maybe she’d just rest her head on the desk for a minute. She pushed the papers aside and leaned forward onto her arms.

She woke some time later. For a moment, she felt panicked. Where was she? Why did her arms hurt?

She raised her head from the desk and realised what had happened. Falling asleep at her desk. Great. She looked at her watch. Quarter-past nine. Shit. She still had to finish the report.

Shannon stood up. She’d take it home with her. She packed her briefcase and crossed the room to get her coat from the hooks by the door.

Just then, there was a sound. It sounded like a door being closed somewhere else on the corridor. She stiffened. Surely there was nobody else around at this time of night. She tiptoed back over to her desk and took a small torch from the top drawer. The pointless motion-sensitive lights in the corridor never came on before she got to the lift.

She opened the door cautiously. The corridor was completely dark, but there was someone coming towards her. She aimed the torch towards them.

“Cheers, Shannon. Can’t stand those stupid lights.”

Just then, the motion-sensitive lights came on. It was Sunita from the International Office.

“Sunny!” Shannon gave a sigh of relief. She switched off the torch. “You gave me a fright.I wondered who the hell could still be here at this time of night.”

“Very brave of you to come out and challenge me, then. And anyway, what are you doing, still here at this time of night?” Sunita seemed quite cheerful, despite the time.

“I could ask you the same question. I was just on my way out, though. Give me a sec to get my bag?”

“Sure. I’ll stand here and jump up and down a bit to keep the lights on.”

They both smiled. Shannon went back into the office to put the torch away and get her coat.

“This is getting ridiculous, isn’t it?” said Sunita. Her mood seemed to have changed.

“The working hours?”

“Yes. I don’t mind if it’s occasional, but this is beyond a joke. By the time I get home, I’ll just collapse into bed and then it’ll all start again in the morning. And I’m going to India next week with the VC, so that’s another four days away from home.”

“Anything in particular that’s taking up more time?”

Sunita sighed. “It’s the VC.”

Shannon nodded in sympathy. Wasn’t it always the VC?

“He’s got some idea about developing international….I don’t know what exactly….just international projects in general. He’s asked me to write a scoping report. But I don’t know what to scope.”

“Tell me about it. I’m supposed to be writing a paper for Council on how to move up the league tables. I just don’t know where to start. We need to focus on something, and invest in it, but he hasn’t said which areas he’ll support.” They both sighed deeply.

Shannon made a huge effort to change the subject. “How are the kids, Sunny?”

“Very well, as far as I know,” Sunita sounded bitter. “I hardly ever seem to see them.”

Shannon thought she must have made a huge faux-pas. “Oh dear, Sunita. I didn’t know. Have you and Dev, er, …?”

“We might as well have done, for all I see of them all at the moment. This job is killing me.”

They fell silent as they crossed the atrium from the lifts and buzzed to open the main doors. Outside, Shannon turned left towards the main car parking area. “Are you parked over here, Sunny?”

“I couldn’t get a parking space this morning. I’m over in the Council car park. Not too pleasant at this time of night, as you can probably imagine.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Why had she said that? Car parking policy wasn’t her fault. “Well, see you tomorrow.”

“Yes. See you soon.” Sunita gave a little wave and started walking briskly towards the centre of town.

Shannon sighed again. There must be more to life than this.