Broken Codes & Keys

how campus IT systems are failing students.

by colm cahalane for motley magazine

There’s a certain theme uniting many of students’ common concerns on campus; but no easy solution.

It’s unfortunate how universities are structured; their maintenance and operation is an incredibly difficult balancing act that takes into account all sorts of stakeholders. However, it seems so often that the interests of students are shelved during the search for stability, and often this places the whole purpose of the university in doubt.

However, when we look at campus IT services, we must face the facts and admit that many of them are broken. And in many cases, it’s the students who are suffering because of it.

Careers Service woes

In the current academic year, there’s been an increase in complaints about the Careers Service, in particular in how they handle work placement in some courses. Students were concerned about errors such as lost CVs and company selections, inconsistent communications, and a general sense of mismanagement within the Careers Service. Early in the year it felt like every day a new issue would crop up; a new email from a new name and a new representative of the service relaying conflicting information.

As class representative for the 3rd year Computer Science class, my job was to help ensure that these issues were resolved cleanly. Yet new issues would keep coming to light. It was always some sort of miscommunication; lost emails, an ever-changing number of companies listed as the minimum, incorrect locations being listed on job descriptions, and occasionally, job descriptions being stored in password-protected files that we did not have access to.

In October a unanimously-passed motion was brought to the Students Union, mandating them to work with the Careers Service to identify sources of error and seek their future prevention. Soon thereafter, the Careers Service issued a rather surprising statement, outlining a strong cause for these issues.

“We are increasingly challenged by the lack of resources allocated to placement administration, in the last number of years and specifically this current year we have seen drastic cutbacks. We are dependent on UCC management to address this. [...] we have been as frustrated as students with some of the errors made which have impacted negatively on the student experience and which are as a direct result of these cutbacks.

We have been asked to assist with the introduction of placement in other programmes and whilst we would be keen to support and to expand Work Placement in UCC, we urgently need to address the issue of administration resources and to acquire or build an automated system to support placement.”

– Statement issued by Careers Service to UCC Students Union

This statement indicates a strong inconsistency in the university administration’s behaviour. Signs appear to point to UCC intending to extend Work Placement to all courses on campus, as is the approach in University of Limerick and a number of other institutions. UCC has outlined this as a specific goal within the Sustaining Excellence Strategic Plan for 2013 to 2017, according to a press release from the Cork Chamber of Commerce released in 2013. The same press release made note of the fact that in a survey of 238 universities globally, UCC’s work placement scheme ranked in the top three globally.

We can see that there is a shocking duality that exists between UCC’s intentions and the values that it places in the Work Placement scheme and their continued cuts to resources available to the placement staff.

Why then, would UCC be actively making significant funding cuts to a vital part of student experience? In particular, why would UCC introduce cutbacks to a specific program which it wishes to make available to the entire student body?

A pattern in UCC systems

These mixed signals seem to follow a common pattern in UCC’s “student experience” programs, however. We can see it more clearly through the lens of the campus IT systems which support them.

For instance, the statement given indicates that the Careers Service seeks to build or acquire an automated system to support placement. This feels like an unusual statement given that such a system already exists on some level - there’s an online submission form for company selections. Yet CVs have to be submitted by email, there’s record of these submissions going missing, and every other move seems to be placed entirely on the part of a rushed and increasingly understaffed Careers Service.

This is a common trend throughout campus.

Where we may roam

There isn’t a day that goes by without another complaint about eduroam. It feels slow and unreliable, particularly in parts of the campus that have high demand on the system such as libraries. Complaints about eduroam have been around for as long as the system itself, but have intensified since semesterisation increased demand on the libraries and other study spaces, increasing demand on the WiFi at the same time.

Eduroam was designed by TERENA as a solution allowing visiting students and faculty access to internet in institutions that are not their own, by providing a secondary WiFi system with which to do so.

However, due to the load generated by authenticating larger numbers of students to this network at once, it’s not recommended to have this as the primary WiFi system on campus. In NUI Maynooth, 70% of all campus internet bandwidth is carried by WiFi, and due to the demand, they provide eduroam alongside the NUIM Wireless network.

At a 2013 panel discussion chaired by HEAnet, the organisation that manages network connectivity for higher education in Ireland, an ongoing commitment to improving campus WiFi was acknowledged by all present. The goal is to provide access to more campus services, such as printing and student file-sharing, over campus WiFi. However, it’s not clear if these sort of extensions will be compatible with eduroam’s availability.

UCC isn’t the only campus in Ireland where eduroam is the only WiFi network for students, but it would still appear from the Irish eduroam policy that the goal of the system is to provide access to visitors and not to replace all wifi infrastructure on campus.

Growing worries over eduroam’s implementation paint a picture for what follows.


The MyStudentAdmin system feels clunky and outdated, and doesn’t work on many phones, meaning that the system is simply unsuitable for how many students browse the internet. The UCC website handles itself reasonably well presenting its content for mobile, but navigating the content can be messy; navigating endless loops of pages all looking the same, many of which seem to be serving the same content.

Of course, the college is aware that mobile browsing is important, which is why the newly-introduced UCC Connect App was developed. But this rushed, useless-feeling first version doesn’t inspire much hope, given the large-scale testing-in-production that’s ongoing. It’s hard to feel confident in an application designed to help you contact your department if it’s offering departments with names like Department Name and <!-- Piwik --> <script type="text/javascript"> var _paq = _paq || [];... _paq.push(['trackPageView'] );, or events organised by null.

The overload

E-mail seems to be the only way to reliably reach large numbers of students. This means that a horribly large number of organisations will fight for attention by sending as many emails as possible. Getting five emails about the Student Experience Survey might mean that more students will fill out the survey, but it also means they're likely to tune out, and stop paying attention to the emails they receive. Which in turn means that in order for college organisations to reach you, they'll need to send more emails. This is a terrible cycle.

Returning to the Careers Service issues, I once recorded nine emails received about a single careers event. The amount of focus placed on approaching deadlines and due dates simply paled by comparison.

“We were essentially spammed with nine emails (three within a single hour) to go to a ‘careers exhibition’ that was attended by a very small number of companies. Meanwhile there’s little to no reminder in regards to CV and selection process deadlines. [...] No IT support over the weekend, placement summaries and job descriptions unavailable, unchangeable selections. This is a joke.”

– A frustrated Computer Science student discusses issues with work placement.

It seems to be coming from all sides. For the most part, UCC has been attempting to alleviate this and establish a singular college newsletter, but it’s still got room to improve. There’s a lot of really useful information there, but it’s not obvious as it seems to be mixed up with information that seems irrelevant. For instance, it has events listings which include UCC Societies events, but it’s not entirely clear where this information is sourced from and it’s also just not given enough focus in the email. Indeed, I was part of a team that developed and deployed a new solution for finding out about societies events before we even realised it’d already been done!

On that note, if anyone reading this article is interested in using the technology behind Netsoc Lowdown to include societies events in any other related project, or have other ideas on how to use technology to enhance the student experience, get in touch with Evan, the Netsoc auditor Or you can contact the author of this piece at

And yet it comes across as both too much and not enough. UCC started including student blogs in these emails — why not reach out to Motley or UCC Express to feature some of the hard work students are already putting in? Or why not feature some of our great, yet criminally overlooked student radio content?

It’s the same theme of constant unnecessary duplication.

Dealing with the overload is hard. Hugely important student issues are often lost in the volume. And living within the overload isn’t just an issue for campus administration.

Student disorganisations

On November 23rd & 24th, a referendum was held on campus to determine whether the UCC Students Union would take a stance on repealing the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution. It’s a rather divisive issue, one that does a lot to define the responsibilities of the Students Union.

A dedicated email was sent out the day before. It was not mentioned in the Students Union newsletter on November 23rd. The referendum was not mentioned by the official UCCSU Twitter between the day before and when it was used to announce the result.

A dedicated website was set up for referendum information at but when the SU provided this link on Facebook, they provided a dead link to No post was made on Facebook about the referendum until the 21st, when their cover photo was updated; only one text post was made in social media.

And the subject line of that all-too-late email?

“Free Freddos! Oh, and a referendum”

It’s easy to feel let down by the whole situation. Yes, I’m sure promising free Freddos helps to rise email open rates, but I’m also sure that “SU Election on taking a stance on Abortion — voting tomorrow” would have landed similarly.

Quorum (minimum required number of votes) in a UCCSU referendum is 10% of student population, which seems very low for decisions that effect a body paid for by all students. UCC had roughly 18,000 students in 2010, meaning that approximately 18% of students voted in this year’s referendum if numbers remained the same.

I personally believe that this quorum is too low, as it lowers the pressure on the SU to ensure that a wide range of students engage with the college on important issues. If less than one-in-five students are involved in steering the SU, it may lead to a larger number feeling disenfranchised.

Under the second term of current SU Comms Officer Barry Nevin, we’ve seen massive improvements in how SU Comms are handled, and this deserves to be credited. Even little details like the SU newsletter are far above what they were before. But the fact that remains is that there is still a huge mess to be cleaned up.

Little things need to be sorted out; even things as simple as sorting out the / duality. Or the fact that redirects to a now-dead page on UCCSU’s site, is where the current iteration of UCC Societies should live (but appears to have been suspended at time of writing), and appears to be the home of a new UCC Societies system that’s currently in the works — hopefully to fare better than previous attempts.

The systems in place for managing the UCC Students Union and UCC Societies aren’t holding up well. There’s a web of issues with student organisations and their websites that must be untangled.

For instance, while researching this article, a data security issue was found in the Societies management portal, allowing a student with access to Portal access to information in any society’s account.

Over, beyond.

Rather than fixing these pressing issues with IT services students and staff need on a daily basis, UCC decides to push forward with new systems that too seem doomed to be abandoned. The newly-launched UCC Connect app appears to be next to join the list - though we have to hope it was a premature launch, releasing with an obvious lack of quality assurance leads to a bad forecast for its future.

Perhaps worst of all is UCC’s tactless “smartcard” system that intends to see the college go cashless by replacing it entirely with a system that is far less intuitive than cash. This year, UCC went as far as to completely remove the ability to top up smartcards with coins, deliberately crippling the system and making it less accessible to students. Exactly as was the case with the Careers Service, and every other situation, UCC builds up these systems with one hand and weakens them with the other, leaving students to lose out in the end.

In its rush to innovate, UCC diverts essential funds away from vital services, and neglects to manage and support their underlying systems. This desperately needs to change or the quality of the student experience will continue to deteriorate.

Student-led technology initiatives

As part of the committee of Netsoc, I’ve been invited to collaborate on some ideas that hopefully should improve life on campus for students. I’ve already talked about Lowdown but there’s a lot more to come. We’re working on some new ideas such as a secure verification service that the SU could use for online voting, free web hosting for all students, and even weekly classes for non-technical students to learn how to set up and operate their own personal website or blog - and we’ll be running these for any student journalists, entrepreneurs, fashion bloggers, photographers, musicians, film-makers, graphic designers and other creatives who want to come along. We’re hoping to encourage more students to get creating for the web even if not through code. Keep an eye out for more news about this initiative as it comes along.

It’s not just a Netsoc thing. I’m happy to see the progress that’s been made by projects such as the UCC Book Swap in brightening the student experience too. As more and more interest turns towards computer science, I know more students will want to get involved in building these projects.

Here’s to what’s next.