Before 2013, if a Trinity student needed help paying their tuition, they had to venture over to the College Green Costa Coffee and visit the Financial Services Office located upstairs. For Erasmus and admissions queries, help could be found in Regent House. Trying to go off books or talk to administration about a personal problem affecting academics? There was a small space for student cases adjacent to the Office of the Senior Lecturer. For students trying to figure out where they needed to go for problems that inevitably arise over four years of study, the dispersed office system proved unnecessarily stressful.
To unite the different corners of Trinity’s administration, the College consolidated all of these offices in 2013, creating one place that could handle virtually all student issues: the Academic Registry (AR).
However, this supposed “one-stop shop” for students has gained a reputation for being dysfunctional and slow. To get a better idea of what exactly goes on inside this ‘mecca’ of student complaints, Trinity News got access to the Academic Registry and sat down with some of the people tasked with handling the never-ending stream of student questions.
In 2022, the Academic Registry dealt with 12,354 in-person conversations, 22,921 phone calls, 76,200 emails, and 227 webchat text exchanges, totalling 112,783 student interactions for the year. Two weeks ago, over the last weekend before classes began, over 800 emails and around 300 phone calls were received from Saturday to Monday. Normally, this workload is shared among 80 full-time employees and 30 temporary employees, most of whom are on three month contracts which are concentrated around the registration period at the start of the school year. These employees are spread across five departments: Service, Operations, Student Finance, Business Support & Planning, and Change & Transformation (added this year).
The upstairs of the Academic Registry—the portion visible to students—is exclusively reserved for Service. This critically important department—where almost all phone calls are directed to—only has 16 employees, 7 of which are temporary for the registration period. All of the other departments live downstairs, working on specific cases primarily over email, and keeping the office alive administratively.The downstairs of the Academic Registry. This space is where the majority of the office’s employees — all those not on the Service Desk — work. Photo by Ruby Topalian for Trinity News.
When asked if she felt there was enough staff in the office, Head of Service Trish Barry said: “there’s no doubt that we could be better resourced. I think that’s something that was called out in the institutional review… we do have enough staff to go as we’re going, but for us to be able to improve services and look at things in a different way, it would be beneficial to have more bodies.”
“within the last two months we’ve answered 99% of queries that come in within four days”
With that said, Barry emphasised the importance of working with what they have. As part of this mentality, this year, training for temporary employees started earlier in the Summer. Many of the “temps” that the College employs have not worked in third level education and are not familiar with the complicated bureaucratic ways of Trinity. Thus having this extra time on campus has already made the 2023 registration period a lot less stressful for new members of the team: “within the last two months we’ve answered 99% of queries that come in within four days,” said Luke Fitzgerald, the AR’s Lead for Communications, Human Resources, and Administration.
Though this additional training time has been helpful, Fitzgerald emphasised how important the rise in permanent employees has been in changing the office culture: “I think around 2018, everyone was on contract [temporary] roles apart from the Core staff…Phil, the [former] Head of Service, did a big job in getting everyone made permanent,” Fitzgerald added that this shift made staff feel valued, almost as if the College was saying: ”we want to keep you.” Practically speaking, these employees could now get mortgages and have more established careers at Trinity: “[these] small things…are actually massive to the individual… [it] was a massive sea change.”
“last year [before registration], the service team was down to about three core members of staff.”
Despite this, the Academic Registry is still often a mere stepping stone for those curious about working elsewhere within the College as it provides insight into so many departments. Especially coming out of Covid, the office has seen an unprecedentedly high turnover rate: “last year [before registration], the service team was down to about three core members of staff…It was like a perfect storm of people moving on to different parts of the college, people just making different career choices,” Fitzgerald explained. Knowing that they would not stand any chance of registering students efficiently this way, the AR had to bring in a number of new ‘temps’ and quickly train them with the hope of some becoming permanent staff. Four of the seven temps from last year are still working there today.
Kate Whelan, like most permanent staff in the office today, was a temp herself when she started in July 2021. Now managing a team of 14 service people as Activity Administrator, she couldn’t be happier in her role: “I love what I do, I love being around people. If you have to be in services, you have to like being around people….I think that’s the biggest thing on our team, trying to provide a service that actually helps students, and supports them. [While] There’s a lot of stuff that we can’t physically do on our specific little team, we can escalate things, but I think there’s the big aspect of just trying to be there to support students as much as possible,” she said.
Yet, even with attentive leaders like Whelan, the service desk can take a mental toll on those who work there. “There’s a personality that can deal with it and not kind of let it get in on you…[students] are generally there because something is wrong…we’re really conscious not to have people in that situation day after day after day after day. If somebody is on ‘the desk’ one day, we try to put them on emails the next day so that they’re not being bombarded face-to-face. […] It’s a tough job,” Barry explained.
Though the Academic Registry’s leadership is clearly very determined to foster a supportive work environment that encourages productivity and team work, the reality is that it is a 10 year old office operating in a 431 year old school with a complex web of existing rules and structures. One key issue that has arisen out of this is simply where the Registry should be located. Niamh Kelly, Head of Service Desk, explained that when it was formed in 2013, the only space remaining that was big enough to house everyone was a vacant lab in the Watts Building. Thus today, the Registry is almost hidden in this converted lab at the far end of campus and limited signage exists to guide students. When freshers come to campus for the first time, just finding the office can leave a negative first impression.
In trying to improve its efficiency under these circumstances, the Academic Registry has worked with other offices this year to set up an “Orientation Hub” in the Front Square Exam Hall. Fitzgerald hopes that this space will provide new students with a warm (stress-free) welcome to the AR. The Registry is also in contact with the Signage Committee in Trinity in the hopes of placing more signs around College. Though this doesn’t seem to be a prospect for the immediate future, Fitzgerald’s team have rolled out a new, easy-to-read printed map of campus designed by Irish visual artist Fuchsia MacAre to help lessen frustration as well.
All of these changes are on top of a new, well-trained team of “temps” ready to take on student queries over the next few months, and the recently added Change & Transformation team who are focusing on improving the module enrollment process. With these measures in place, Barry, Fitzgerald, and Whelan are confident that this year will be a step in the right direction for the Academic Registry. “We really took into account the student feedback that we got through the [student] survey [last year]….We really want to get those figures up to over 100 and excellent,” Barry said. Fitzgerald agreed, adding: “Within the team, we’re empowered to make change.”