Case study: How Liverpool cracked its timetabling challenges

Timetabling is a tough nut to crack, but the University of Liverpool’s sustained efforts to tackle its previously underperforming timetabling service powerfully illustrate key success factors. These include successful engagement of colleagues and students, carefully sequenced system and process improvement, and overhauled governance that carries on long after change has been implemented: resulting in Liverpool’s timetabling now being amongst the best-rated in the UniForum benchmarking global group.

Timetabling is a crucial service that’s often hard to improve

Timetabling: a dark art or a cumbersome administrative process, depending on who you talk to, often unglamorous and frequently bemoaned. Amongst UniForum members it consistently ranks as one of the toughest nuts to crack in terms of service improvement, but the problem is that getting it wrong has far-reaching consequences.

At the heart of a successful timetabling service is the work of balancing the needs of students, the requirements and preferences of academics, and the requirement to optimise the usage of space. Other issues include:

  • When to seek input from faculties and schools, and how much?
  • How to use data and system capability to good effect, versus good old-fashioned human nous and relationships (cajoling, commanding, everything in between)?
  • How to govern decision-making especially around requests to depart from standard policy.

The University of Liverpool faced these challenges and more: an increasingly complex (and therefore hard to timetable) curriculum, unclear processes and a clunky system, pressures to improve space utilisation, and a fragmented service that was hard to govern. These issues combined to mean that Liverpool’s timetabling service received some of the lowest effectiveness ratings in the UniForum effectiveness benchmarking around the time the project to improve the service began.

It’s been a lengthy journey, but the service really has now been transformed: with a new resourcing model boosting capacity within a dedicated university-wide timetabling unit whilst maintaining strong links to faculties; significant system enhancement; better reporting and data to inform decision-making; and improved personalisation for students and self-serve for academics.

Key Principles and success factors

  • Demonstrate benefits back to academics and students as quickly as possible
  • Use data upstream to highlight the impact of e.g. curriculum decisions
  • Ensure oversight and governance continues once the project has delivered the planned change

The UniForum Service Effectiveness data show strong evidence of the impact of this improvement on service users, with users reporting improved experiences across all service attributes. Liverpool now scores above the global average and with process efficiency/effectiveness, confidence in staff capabilities and understanding, and the responsiveness of support in the upper quartile globally. All of these attributes (which vary in importance from service to service) combine to mean that Liverpool’s timetabling service has some of the highest satisfaction levels across the entire UniForum programme.

Speaking with Liverpool’s director of student services and members of the project team responsible for the endeavour a whole host of success factors stand out, but with three key areas at the fore.

1. Engaging academics successfully involves agreeing key principles… and sticking to them

There was widespread recognition that the timetabling service at Liverpool was not fit for purpose, including from the University’s executive team, as well as amongst teaching academics and students. However there was also pressure to retain local control of the process, with a understandable scepticism as to why a service that was more centrally coordinated would be any better.

In this context a key success factor for the project has been demonstrating benefits back to faculties and academics as quickly as possible… in particular ensuring that a system of push notifications was introduced so that academics and students were made quickly aware when an aspect of their timetable (the room of a seminar, for example) had changed.

It was also important to agree operating principles at the outset, with input from the broader academic community, and then ensure that there was strong and ongoing buy-in from senior academic leaders to see that they were adhered to. This meant that when requests for changes or ‘special treatment’ come along there was a route of recourse to a dean or head of department, couched in a way that moved the narrative from being ‘the timetabling team says no’ to ‘this falls outside of the principles that have been agreed as right for the university as a whole’.

The improvements to the system and reporting functionality have also enabled the new team to be very proactive in resolving issues, taking a data-driven approach: spotting any issues caused by individual curriculum decisions that run contrary to accepted principles, for example, and resolving them long before scheduling the timetable begins. The quality, accuracy and timeliness of data and reporting has also provided a powerful tool in helping to inform space planning and curriculum design, at a much earlier stage of both processes.

2. Centrally-staffed doesn’t mean out of touch

Although there was an initial perception that faculty-level timetabling staff were being ‘taken away’, the new team purposefully had a faculty focus built in from the start, to allow for the building of relationships, knowledge and understanding of the needs of each faculty. This faculty-link officer model is combined with periodic rotation of staff to reduce the risk of over-relying on any one person.

The skills-set and attitude of the project team and the new timetabling team have both been important in making the project and redesigned service ‘feel right’ across the university.

Specifically this has meant ensuring that detailed, logical thinking is matched by a willingness to ‘get out there’ and spend time understanding the needs of people in faculties. The team also runs timetabling clinics and troubleshoots issues with the timetabling app. In these and other ways a more consolidated service doesn’t feel remote.

3. Governance and oversight are for life

For the largest quarter of UK and Canadian Universities, the results presented in Figure 2 have a different message. In this portion of the scale curve, growth delivers very little reduction in the proportion of income spent on administration. The only way for these institutions to free up income for investment in the academic mission is through changing the way in which services and administration is delivered.

This kind of change takes time – the reality is that the University probably didn’t see the full benefits until three years after the project concluded. Over this kind of timeframe ‘long haul governance’ is critical, and at Liverpool this has meant a project board that includes representatives from all faculties and other interested parties, but equally with a clear mandate and sense of leadership from the University’s executive team, in this case sponsorship by the Deputy Vice Chancellor and Pro Vice Chancellor for Education.

Amongst the key stakeholder groups represented in project governance and in the fabric of the work itself was the Student Guild – and this focus on the impact of the service on students helped to overcome some of the desire to cling onto local processes, because of the variance in outcomes this caused.

The amount of work, debate and decision-making involved in this project led to an understandable desire to bring the project to a close and with it the governance oversight structures. However, when challenges arose afresh at the start of a particular academic year it became clear that a timetabling oversight group was crucial for keeping people engaged and understanding the knock-on impacts of timetabling decisions (especially those made locally) for other areas of university life. As a result, the oversight group is now firmly part of business as usual – as no doubt are the improvements to the service as a whole.

This article was written by Phil Copestake, Cubane’s UK managing director and Ariel Rainbow, UK consulting manager, based on interviews with and other input from Dr Paula Harrison, Director of Student Administration and Support at Liverpool, and Rachel Parkes, Head of Project and Programme Management.