University of Hull UCU Rotating Header Image


SSFA Restructuring proposals: Survey of UCU members at the University of Hull


The survey was conducted between 8th and 29th June, covering both the period of review and the publication of initial proposals for the restructuring of Student Service and Faculty Administration (SSFA). It was distributed to UCU members via our membership list and covered members in Professional Services and Academic Departments. Members were asked to identify their role in the survey (question 2) in order to inform analysis of the results (with the analysis conducted so that the views of SSFA members were represented fully) but reporting (below) is not by role, ensuring anonymity for all participants. The purpose of the survey was to gain information about members’ views on the review and proposals for restructure of SSFA. The insights gained from the survey will inform representation by UCU on the proposed restructure of SSFA and will be shared with management as part of UCU’s continuing efforts to constructively engage with decision making at the University of Hull.


The survey included six questions as follows:

  1. Are you currently employed by the University of Hull?’
  2. What best describes your job role?
  3. Do you think you will be directly affected by the Transformation of Student Services and Faculty Administration (e.g. job role could change)?
  4. Please use the space below to comment on your concerns regarding the Transformation of Student Services and Faculty Administration. Please be careful not to be overly critical and name individuals, directly or indirectly.
  5. Please use the space below for comments/suggestions to help UCU represent your views to management on the Transformation of Student Services and Faculty Administration.
  6. Please use the space below for any further comments not addressed in questions above.


Question 1 is confirmatory, Question 2 asked to identify their job role in order to inform analysis of the results (with the analysis conducted so that the views of SSFA members were represented fully) but the following analysis and reporting (below) is not by role, ensuring anonymity for all participants.   Questions 3, 4, 5 & 6 were analysed under themes as these items requested free text responses – as noted in the reporting of earlier UCU surveys, free text responses generate complex responses such that thematic reporting can be the most suitable analytic approach.



There were 94 participants in the survey (32% Professional Services and 68% Academic).  All participants were employees of the University of Hull and members of UCU.



The importance of Student Support and Faculty Administration Staff

The importance of both the roles and duties performed in Student Support and Faculty Administration (SSFA) and of the people who perform those roles and duties was highlighted throughout the text comments. Respondents noted not only how essential these roles and people are to the day-to-day running of the University, but also the vital role Student Services and Faculty Administrative staff play when there is a need to ‘go beyond’. One comment captured this theme noting

The SSFA staff are essential to the routine business of the faculty (which would grind to a halt without them).  They also constitute the extra capacity that is needed when sudden spikes in the workload erupt.

The professionalism of staff in SSFA was also noted but under this theme there was a warning about the dangers of reducing staffing levels in SSFA for example the observation ‘that the University needs many more SSFA staff not less’ was repeated a number of times.  Similar comments noted where SSFA staff’s workload is (collectively or individually) either too high or at the edge of capacity. Respondents highlighted – related to workload/capacity – a connection with the Student experience, noting that SSFA staff’s work is vital to the student experience.

The survey therefore reflected that the work done by SSFA staff is vital and should be valued as a field of practice in its own right with a distinctive professional identity. However, comments from the survey suggest that the University has not adequately recognized this distinctive professionalism noting in one comment

We will never improve our [………………] until the University starts taking these staff seriously – [……] could have been so very different if they [SSFA colleagues] had been given the respect they deserve. [1]



As noted, the survey results suggest that SSFA are collectively and/or individually at the edge of capacity in respect of workload. Respondents are aware that SSFA staff have already experienced a loss of staff as a consequence of restructuring, and this has had the consequence of increasing workload (which has not diminished) for remaining staff. One response summarises this view

The SSFA [……….] were cut drastically by the voluntary severance scheme earlier in this academic year.  There should not be an expectation that this resource is an automatic source of further savings, but an assessment of their workload [should be conducted] before any further blanket statements about saving x amount from a particular area.

The survey also includes comments (by non-SSFA staff) who note that overall volume of administrative and student support work (i.e. the aggregated number, volume and complexity of Student Support and Administrative tasks required within the institution) has not diminished but has, in fact, increased. Most, if not all of this work should properly be within the remit of highly professional SSFA staff but the University has managed this increase by re-allocating work (or tasks) from where they should reside (with SSFA staff) onto others, particularly Academics. This trend both fails to take advantage of the professional capacity within SSFA, and also shifts additional work onto others (who are not best placed to do it) as one respondent notes

My concern[2] is that we will end up with fewer PSS staff doing critical student-facing work, which will mean that academic staff have to take on roles previously done by departmental administrators.


On the proposals for restructuring

A comment that both reflects the esteem for the work done by SSFA staff and also addresses the proposed restructure captures a number of views about the proposed new structure

…the University should not waste time (and therefore money) attempting to fix what is not broken, and which works extremely well.

In essence there was a relatively strong theme which questioned why the proposed review and restructure was necessary at all

Where comments address the plans (as understood by respondents) there is a general position against centralization of these services, a negative perception of a move to less face-to-face, de-personalised ways of working and interacting (both with students and colleagues), and concerns about the asymmetry of the plans. There is, overall, an acknowledgement that the principle concern (that this proposed restructure would result in over-centralisation) has been somewhat addressed but there remains even in these comments a distinct lack of clarity over what the objectives of the review were[3] and why it was considered necessary other than as a cost-cutting exercise. In respect of this, it should be noted there is a skepticism in the tone of some of the comments, epitomized by the following comments

  • Centralised services are okay but are not, in my experience, a substitute for the support offered by a dedicated individual who is in close proximity (this is surprisingly important, especially for the day to day management of teaching and learning) and who knows our degrees and students intimately. I realise this is a lost cause at this institution, but the point needs making nonetheless.
  • Yet more changes which create a less-personal services and take the administrators physically away from their units for which they are responsible is not a good idea. The move to Hubs was not well-received by staff and students despite the comments by those responsible for the change who thought it was well-received.

It is also clear that staff were unaware how the review may affect them individually (and their jobs and livelihoods) and the point has to be made that this survey was conducted towards the end of a protracted review process.

There is further lack of clarity on ‘what happens next?’ as respondents commented on their experience of previous restructuring and processes such as assimilation, commenting that such processes ‘need a serious overhaul’ and detailing inherent unfairness as they experienced it.


Deskilling of SSFA

There are concerns over deskilling (through the loss of experienced staff) and the potential consequences of de-skilling that appear to be inherent to all the models under review. As far as how such deskilling might affect the University as a whole, respondents noted the effects of deskilling SSFA (and other professional teams over previous years), giving examples which included

  • research: ‘PSS support for research has already been cut and fragmented in ways that harm research at the university’
  • the student experience : ‘With each change we lose people who are well-experienced in handling matters [……………………….] this loses flexibility and creates tasks which may not be needed’
  • stability: ‘Timing not good; squeezing an already squeezed provision because of VES. Key staff with significant expertise have left the university. The transformation process has been worrying for everyone at a very difficult time’

There was also clear concern for all staff who may remain in restructured SSFA and their career – comments which complement observations about the necessity for the distinctive professionalism of SSFA staff to be recognized. As one respondent noted ‘There is a need to ensure that the progression routes within the transformed service are clear for members of staff…[4]


Planning and Process

It should be noted that there were not a large number of comments which addressed the details of the models presented to staff for SSFA restructuring (See previous section). Some of the comments give some insight into why this may be.  For example, one respondent noted that

The document seems to focus predominantly partly on broad sweeping statements, and partly on matters of internal structure. There is insufficient commentary on how the designers envisage the new system will impact on the day-to-day experience of ‘service users’.

Similarly, other respondents noted

  • There is not enough information, we do not know much about what is going to happen or what are the criteria for this transformation.
  • I am concerned at the lack of clarity in communications from […..].

The overall sense (and this may address concerns some HR colleagues have expressed about how some staff do not engage with reviews or consultations processes) is of a weariness with continual change, and some sense that the proposals are ‘high-level’ but ignore grounded detail, such as ‘Will I have a job?’, which is as equally important to staff as the question of what a structure looks like on a flowchart. This weariness is perhaps reflected best in one comment

The SSFA project needs to not be delayed any further as it is placing undue pressure and anxiety on the staff involved. We have had the axe over our necks for months, if not years

There is scepticism also apparent which operates on two levels. Firstly, there is scepticism about processes. A comment about process management (which implicitly notes the potential consequences to student experience of inadequate process review, illustrates this scepticism

I am not convinced that equality of student experience will be achieved because whilst they talk about standardisation they just as readily reference localisation of process. Since process review is hard and time consuming, I suspect that only ‘lip service’ will be paid to this and the student experience will remain variable

A further comment is more directly sceptical noting ‘Transformation’ is virtually always a euphemism for ‘cost saving’. There is also, related to this, clear scepticism over how valued colleagues will be treated as a consequence (of this proposed restructure).


Summary: Culture is key.

UCU’s survey was not designed to deliver a fully comprehensive response and analysis to the proposals for SSFA design that were under discussion at the time the survey was conducted. But it was an opportunity for UCU members to comment on the potential concerns they may have about the proposed models for SSFA or on the process of review. Where UCU members have commented on the models that were presented to them, the general comments were solidly against further centralization and it does appear as if a wholesale move to further centralization has not occurred. Respondents also clearly positively identified the distinctive professionalism, specific knowledge and vital role of SSFA staff and it does appear that as discussions have continued, the University will embed CPD and career support into the implementation of the new structures for SSFA.

But it is also (unfortunately) necessary to comment on the weariness and skepticism that is evident throughout the comments submitted for this survey. It would be easy to contest or dismiss my claim of weariness and skepticism as a tonal note, or as an interpretation skewed by the fact that this is a Trade Union report or to assume that surveys such as this tend to attract people who have something (negative) to say. But – while acknowledging that this is a Trade Union report and that some ‘skew’ is present – the scepticism and weariness is still notable in the data. Trying to understand why (in this particular survey), there is such evidence of this, may provide some insight.

All staff at Hull – but particularly SSFA staff – have experienced almost continual restructuring for the majority of the last five years and – from many staff’s perspective – the putative or alleged benefits of this continual restructuring is not clear, either to themselves, their colleagues or our students. Given this – and trying to understand the ‘weariness and scepticism’ that this analysis argues is apparent in the data – the following may apply:  weariness with continual structural change is to be expected as is scepticism about change unless another critical (non-structural) factor in shaping a community of practice (or place of employment) is also addressed. One respondent both summarized what most responses argued (that change does not necessarily make things better) and identified what this ‘missing’ factor may be, so it seems appropriate to close with that comment

Making changes doesn’t necessarily make provision better. If staff are not engaged and take ownership then service provision will not improve. Culture is key.



[1] This comment referred to a specific KPI. It has been edited to protect anonymity but the point made in relation to the importance of SSFA staff was duplicated in a number of comments across different domains of activity or in reference to other KPI’s

[2] Expressed as a concern here, most other comments on this theme reported this as a clear established pattern e.g. ‘It should be made clear how the proposed transformation will reverse the trend that increasing amounts of administration is being asked of academic staff.

[3] The survey was taken while the review was in progress and prior to issuance of the proposals for consultation.

[4] UCU understands that the University has already acknowledged this point and made a commitment to supporting CPD and career development for SSFA staff