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How can automation improve the student experience?

Technology has transformed our society in many ways and one of the most important is enabling instant access to information and services, regardless of the time of day. So students, who are largely digital natives, expect their college experience to adhere to the efficiencies they encounter in their daily lives.

However, the higher education (HE) industry is lagging behind in its ability to serve its students in a way that reflects these technological advancements, which in some cases can lead to a frustrating student experience. While access to effective technology has long been introduced to enhance people’s educational experience, the administrative arm of many universities is still struggling to keep pace.

Day-to-day administrative activities that support registration, inductions, exams, graduations, and general student inquiries are still handled manually for the most part. This not only slows communication with students who demand quick responses, but also means that university staff are stuck performing low-value, monotonous tasks. Instead, they could focus on exciting initiatives that can improve the student experience, contributing to positive outcomes and growth.

Intelligent platforms, such as those using robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, have the power to transform the workflow in universities, which will enable ultimately saving time and resources, while enabling a better experience for staff and students alike.

Why is the digital transition important?

Universities can benefit from a business approach. Successful results rely on treating the student as a client. Like consumers, students invest in a company’s economic future and are potential brand and service advocates – the best publicity you could ask for. Also, as with business ventures, institutions compete globally to attract prospective students. Therefore, they should follow in the footsteps of successful companies by improving their technology offering.

Forrester – a global market research organization – reports that 40% of companies expect to increase customer interactions through digital platforms, and 15% prioritize digital transformation entirely.

With this in mind, there is a growing need for universities to give the student what they want, i.e. better, more intuitive processes to stay relevant within higher education and ensure commitment of future students. This is especially important given their average age and expectations.

Generation Z, the one around the typical student age, is the first generation born with 24-hour access to the internet and social media. This influence means they are used to using the web to solve problems and expect to be efficient. For example, 85% of Gen Zers would rather deal with chat or automated online customer services than make a phone call, according to Hootsuite.

However, at present, higher education institutions are struggling to adapt to these demands, with most universities being held back by outdated and inefficient legacy systems.

How the digital transition benefits students and staff

Through the use of intelligent platforms, including chatbots and automation, repetitive tasks can be taken care of quickly without human intervention. Not only does this save on administrative costs, but in many circumstances it provides the student with faster service. This means they won’t have to wait to contact their university during office hours for basic enquiries. Instead, they can rely on bots and automation tools that will immediately act on their instructions.

The University of East London recently tested an intelligent automation solution to undertake its annual clearing process. Previously, this process took 435 hours and involved hiring 50 temporary staff to manually transfer 1,300 records from its internal systems to UCAS. The automation feature was implemented in just two weeks and reduced transfer time by 93% without any human intervention. Student files were processed in two minutes compared to the previous 20 minutes, ensuring a quick response for applicants and a considerable saving for the university.

Not only can the introduction of intelligent automation do wonders for a university’s help desk, but it can also increase staff engagement and productivity, taking on mundane and repetitive tasks, all allowing employees to focus on areas where they can add real value to students.

How can it be implemented?

With more than a third of tertiary students saying they are unhappy with their university experience, according to last year’s ONS survey, now is the time to improve support that they receive. Digitized services can offer this in abundance, which means they need to be executed as soon as possible to attract forward-thinking students.

These changes can seem daunting for universities that have been using the same systems for years. However, digital transition rather than rapid transformation may provide the perfect antidote to inefficiency right now. Using the example of the University of East London, the system took just two weeks to implement and required no changes to the systems already in place.

“Intelligent automation services can be layered on top of current legacy systems so that transformation can be introduced at a comfortable pace.”

This is not something that needs to happen overnight, it can take between two and five years to introduce a fully robust system. However, a delay in optimization decision-making will leave universities upset and open to defeating their competitors.

That said, it is critical that supply challenges are addressed to allow greater freedom for innovation. Of course, procurement is critical given the way universities are funded. However, it should be a more agile process to ensure cost-effective technology, as opposed to being an obstacle for higher education institutions to provide quality services to students, while saving costs and resources.

As things stand, funds are usually limited for implementing updated services before a full tender is completed. These types of delays can prevent a student’s access to long-term services, which could make the difference between choosing one institution over another.

Universities must act now

Over time, universities run a real risk of falling behind as technology continues to advance beyond what is already on offer.

Those who choose to adopt smart services as early as possible are likely to appeal to students who appreciate the quick responses and support offered outside of traditional office hours. Additionally, as higher education options become more diverse and online learning is now the first choice for many – having grown by 900% since 2000 – it is imperative that universities can effectively deliver courses remotely. , without outdated and inefficient technologies holding them and their students back.

Ultimately, with experts on hand to help universities save money by determining which processes should be automated first, there should be no deterrent to improving the student experience while reducing costs – which could be used to invest in better practices that will make the establishment’s offer even more attractive for the long term.

By Alistair Sergeant, Founder and CEO of digital consulting firm, Equantiis

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