Do you timetable (i.e. control the times when academic events happen before also assigning rooms) or do you just book rooms (i.e. find rooms for events that were timetabled by someone else)? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Yet it is important to ensure that you - and everyone at your institution - understand the difference and the exact balance, limits, scope, responsibilities and authority each player has when it comes to assigning times and rooms to teaching events on the timetable.

Timetabling and room booking are often conflated or used inconsistently by students, academic staff, support staff, and (most dangerous of all) management. Many institutions have people, departments or teams with the word ‘timetable’ or ‘timetabling’ in their official titles or descriptions. This may give those outside the team the impression that they are responsible for the timing of events in some sense, and therefore able to implement projects aimed at improving timetables for students, for instance.

The problem that I often encounter as consultant on such projects, is that upon further investigation, the people in timetabling teams don’t actually make the timetable! Quite often their roles simply involve taking timetables made by academics, capturing these in CELCAT and assigning rooms to events. They then make incidental changes to timetables and ad-hoc room bookings during the academic year, all based on direct instruction or requests from academic staff. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that approach and many institutions run very efficiently on that model, but only if everyone knows that is how it works.

Problems arise when management expect the timetable team to address or report on aspects of the timetable that relate to the timing of events (workload, sequences, gaps, lunch breaks, clashes, etc.). Meanwhile academics expect timetablers to just find rooms for events that happen at times they think are set in stone or that they can change without being challenged or expected to justify the change. Timetablers end up being trapped in the middle, with insufficient data on events in the system to allow them to run reports or change event times with confidence that it won’t cause problems or clashes. At the same time, management expect to be able to do exactly those things, whilst academic staff either feel unhappy that they are suddenly being asked for a lot more information than they had to share before (like agreed working hours, to pick one contentious example), or threatened by the prospect of an outsider prescribing their daily work schedule with no consideration of more subtle aspects of pedagogy or local staff requirements.

The point here is that it is to everyone’s benefit to have an institution-wide policy that spells out exactly who does what, with a business process that spells out the timing and responsibilities for academics and timetablers. Having such a policy removes confusion and uncertainty for both timetablers and academics, and ensures that any project aimed at improving or changing timetabling can be appropriately staffed and planned with no nasty surprises.