Project Focus – Enhancing the Extenuating Circumstances System

Credit: UCD University Relations Gallery


This month saw the roll-out of several user-driven enhancements to the Extenuating Circumstances System, as part of the UCD Programme for Operations and Services Transformation (POST). In this article, we talk to those involved in delivering the changes; about the benefits to students, Academic and Professional staff; and about the change journey itself, from discovery to implementation. 


Supporting Student Needs

The Extenuating Circumstances process at UCD supports students who are unable to meet the requirements of their programme due to serious, unforeseen circumstances and enables them to communicate with both Professional and Academic staff members. “It’s a support mechanism for students,” explains Debra Heeney, the Project Manager for this initiative and Programme and Operations Manager, College of Engineering & Architecture Office. “They [the UCD students] have lots of commitments in their life. A lot of them are mature students. They’re working. They’ve got families. This process allows the relevant staff and faculty to know about their situation, and for a recommendation to be made.” 


Opportunities for Improvement 

The existing process, supported by a purpose-built system in Infohub, while designed for flexibility, has led to inconsistency in the student experience and has added complexity for staff. “One example from the students’ perspective would be that they were only permitted to submit one supporting piece of documentation.” In a scenario where multiple documents were required to support an application; students previously had no choice but to email School/ College offices with the additional information. “That’s not an efficient way to gather the full picture in relation to a student’s case, “says Debra. The user of the system, whilst trying to approve the application, might find out later on that an email had also been submitted with more documentation.”


Mobilising the Project

After experiencing the above issues (as well as others), Debra and her colleagues across the various colleges in the University, with the support of the Directors of College and School Offices Group submitted a case for change which comprised multiple enhancements to the Extenuating Circumstances system . This proposal was then included in the work plan for the POST programme last year and in turn, equipped Debra with support and tools needed to mobilise the project. “Engaging the services of POST from the outset of the project meant that for me, I had a supportive framework of key personnel to tap into at various stages of the project. We encountered challenges along the way. Not only did POST provide me with a sounding board when needed but also helped me navigate the stumbling blocks which were difficult but surmountable.” explains Debra.

Through initial consultations with POST and IT Services, a cross functional steering group was established. This group, which represented all 6 Colleges across the University, played a central role in informing the proposed enhancements and in ensuring all changes met the requirements of their respective College/ School. This group was carefully designed to capture the voices of professional staff, the academic community and of key support functions such as IT Services and UCD Agile.  “I felt that my perspectives were important to provide across all three parts of my role (module coordinator/lecturer/programme director). This includes some nuanced aspects that may otherwise have gone undetected. I felt my opinions were listened to and valued and my feedback incorporated in the actions taken by the Steering Committee,” says  Dr. Adrian O’Hagan, Assistant Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics. 

Including academic voices and colleagues from IT’s Enterprise Applications Group brought a richness to the steering group, ensuring the nuances were not overlooked,” says Jeremy Britton, the POST Service Lead for Teaching. The Service Lead is a newly established role in UCD and is one that is central to POST’s people-centric approach to transformation. Each Service Lead represents one of four service segments across the University; Teaching, Researching, University Living and Enabling Services. Over the course of the POST programme, the Service Leads will work closely with the users and providers of the associated services to ensure that projects mobilised under the programme address their needs whilst also ensuring the necessary tools and skills are in place to support locally-driven change.

Implementing Change 

A total of 13 enhancements were made to the Extenuating Circumstances system over the course of this project. The enhanced functionality includes the ability for students  to upload multiple files along with their applications and also enables School/ College offices to refer applications back to students when further information is required. In addition, more information is now available on the Extenuating Circumstances system and reports, eliminating the requirement to access other reports. Several changes have also been made to enhance communication and collaboration between Professional staff and module coordinators when processing applications. Collectively, these enhancements have reduced the administrative burden for Professional and Academic Staff associated with the Extenuating Circumstances process, contributing to an improved student experience. “They [the system enhancements] will definitely help in this area for the coming academic year,” says John Buckley, Director, School of Veterinary Medicine Office.  


Navigating Challenges  

Now that the enhancements have been implemented, the project team can reflect on the process of implementing change and on the challenges encountered along the way. The Extenuating Circumstances project is one of the first projects to be delivered under POST.  Analysing, capturing, and documenting the lessons learned will be invaluable to the planning and implementation of future projects. Some of the lessons gained from this experience has been the importance of clear business ownership and full stakeholder representation on the steering group . “This project presented a scenario where the process and system were dispersed across various colleges and schools, leading to an unclear directive of business ownership,” explains Jeremy Britton. “It was a learning curve, navigating multiple delays due to this. One way we’re tackling this, moving forward, is through the use of the PM2 project management methodology, which ascribes and requires clear roles and responsibilities.”This project also identified challenges associated with fulfilling the role of project manager amidst core responsibilities. “It has been a testament to Debra and the team’s drive and resilience, but a clear articulation of the need for dedicated resources, urging us to ensure adequate backing for staff leading similar future projects,”says Jeremy. 


A Forward-Looking Perspective

However, amidst the challenges, it is clear that the defining cornerstone of this project was its user-centric approach. Debra and the steering group, supported by inputs from across the Schools and Colleges, created a platform where users’ voices were not just heard but became the driving force behind the solutions implemented. “The success of any project that wants to review and improve central UCD systems, policies, or processes depends on having an inclusive representation of users with their different viewpoints,” says steering group member Ulrike Mosig, Programme and Operations Manager College of Arts and Humanities. 


For more information on this project and others like it, visit the POST website. Additionally, if you have identified an opportunity for improvement in your area, you can contact the Service Leads at UCD POST Service via

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