University Bureaucracy

Depending on how I choose to count I am now dealing with my fifth or sixth post-secondary institution in my odyssey to finish my computer science degree. One thing that all of the schools I've dealt with have had in common is a slow and inflexible bureaucracy.

Of course as a younger man I blamed a lot of my own failings on what I perceived then to be a completely fucked up system (University of Manitoba) that was screwing me over. I paid them for a service and yet the treat me as if I should feel lucky to be there! (Can you imagine dealing with thousands of similar minded young punks who couldn't be bothered to actually read the calendar??)

In retrospect though I can see that most of what was going wrong for me was based on my own mistakes and a failure to read the fine print. I did terribly in my first year of university (terrible = D average) and was put on probation at the UofM. In my frustration I simply packed up and took my business down the road to the University of Winnipeg. (Which also happened to be much closer to where I was working and living)

Ahh... I remember being so excited about this fresh start, getting away from the inept and massive machinations at the UofM and getting a much more familiar and friendly experience with the UofW (which was about 1/6 the size of UofM at that time). It only took registration to completely rid me of my naivety. I had gone from a large university with an annoying but efficient phone registration system to one where I was actually standing in lines and dealing with a slow human process full of uncertainty and questions. Worse, my crappy year of courses of course comes along with me; I'm still on probation and not every course I passed at UofM is even transferable to my new program.

It wasn't long before I was grumbling and complaining about the inept staff at UofW. I was a little more on top of things this time around though and was able to get through two solid years of course work having properly navigated the probationary process and meeting requirements from the transfer. It was just as I was settling in that I accepted a transfer with work and moved to Vancouver.

By this time I was much better at being a student, having learned my lessons the hard way and I had a certain expectation that future navigation of the university bureaucracy would be much easier. Had I been starting over that might have been the case, but instead I was now dealing with inter-provincial transfer rules and a struggle to get credit for the years I had already put in. I messed around for a few months trying to get into UBC and finally had someone recommend that I try Langara college as it would give me a simpler route into the BC system and transferring from there to UBC or SFU would become much easier.

Langara was great, and because I wasn't seeking credit with Langara for past work it was basically just a matter of signing up and attending. It all might have worked but ultimately I could no longer afford the time involved in getting to and from school during the work day. And for reasons that are totally beyond me, computer science is still one of those subjects that just does not seem to offer consistent night time access, at least not the universities I've been attending at the times I was there.

Which finally has led me to the wonderful world of distance education. For the last two years or so I've been attending Athabasca University which is based in Alberta and at the time of my starting was the only fully accredited post secondary institution in Canada to offer a computer science degree.

I should say now that I have been pretty happy with my experience with this school for the last couple years. My transfer process was smooth, the course selection/planning process was easy thanks to some good help from an adviser via email and about my only concern right now is how much respect this degree will actually get once I'm done all this work.

Of course anytime you want to do something just a little different then that's when you run into the beuracracy and this school was no different. Here's a timeline of what was involved in challenging a course for credit :

  • Feb 24 - Email to exam unit to get the professor's contact info to gain permission to challenge
  • Feb 25 - Reply with professor name
  • Feb 26 - Email to professor with short summary and request
  • Mar 12 - Email the exam unit again asking for a different contact (still no reply)
  • Mar 13 - Reply requesting I try again and get back to the exam unit if no reply in 3 or 4 days
  • Mar 17 - Email to professor again
  • Mar 16 - Professor reply! (need more background for permission)
  • Mar 20 - Email professor with a customized resume
  • Mar 20 - Approval! Please contact the exam unit again to arrange
  • Mar 20 - Email to exam unit asking for next step
  • Mar 25 - Reply all from exam unit "can someone help Chris?"
  • Mar 31 - Still no reply from anyone so I submit what I assume is the right form and notify the exam unit that I didn't want to continue waiting, let me know if I need to do anything else
  • Apr 5 - the request is approved! course materials are in the mail.
Wow, 42 days from start to finish just to process my request to challenge an exam. That doesn't include shipping time, or the time it will take to schedule and take the actual exam etc.

I think the big difference between this experience and previous more frustrating challenges with getting things done was that on two separate occasions in this one transaction I had to reach out again in order to get the process moving again. At eighteen I probably would have just written this off as no longer on my plate and waited. If nothing happened it wasn't my fault. I no longer have murderous thoughts at other's ineptitude when deadlines pass and I'm stuck in the lurch, I think I just accept that when humans are involved things get slow and error prone. Treat your education like your job and always assume responsibility.

Still, no one enjoys dealing with this kind of crap do they?