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Path to success: technology the key to streamlining admin

In any organisation, whether large or small, making efficiencies to standard processes will have a direct benefit on productivity and free up staff time to focus on higher‑level activities.

Universities and higher education facilities are no different, but they often have more obstacles to overcome in order to achieve those efficiencies.

Further to this, the success or failure of a university is more tangible than in many other industries, with key performance indicators standing in plain view: student retention rates, reduced time taken to graduate, lower attrition rates as students move from one course to another, and finding a clear career pathway at the end of a degree. With those metrics in mind, improving the student experience becomes mission critical.

Studies by the Australian government have examined the factors behind student attrition and found much of it to be “unpredictable or inevitable”.

However, the attrition rate for first-year students is much higher than in subsequent years, sitting at around 25 per cent, and attrition rates were fairly stable overall at 15 per cent.

Government reviews taken over the course of many years have consistently reported drivers of attrition to be:

  • The learning environment — not just the change in learning culture from school to higher education but more importantly the mode of learning (off-site, online, part-time)
  • The teaching ability of lecturers — many lecturers are not adequately trained in teaching
  • The lack of student engagement — student-student and student-teacher interaction
  • High student-to-staff ratios — and the availability of lecturers and tutors to students
  • The lack of student support – information and services
  • Personal factors — such as financial, social, emotional, health or other life events.*

Technology can help on nearly all levels of campus life, and one key strategy universities can explore is a content services approach to their information platforms. While technology and information sharing has traditionally been the act of digitising and managing documentation, the role of a content services solution has evolved in recent years, and now encompasses content management and storage, digitisation, workflows, automation and data analysis.

Moving files into digital form makes them searchable, easily managed and, most of all, provides staff with a holistic, 360-degree view of a topic or process. This enables significant streamlining of areas that are typically labour-intensive, such as enrolling new students and administering their academic life on campus.

For example, St Leonard’s College in Victoria reduced the time taken to process each waitlist application from 20 minutes to 1.5 minutes, so a half day of work can now be done in 10 minutes.

A content services solution will have an enterprise content management (ECM) platform at its core, which enables better visibility of all file formats whether they happen to be structured or unstructured data – images from a mobile device, payment records from a banking app, or any other form of documentation. The workflow of managing enrolment or other processes can be organised into any manner of virtual structures and shared across a team, department, faculty, or entire campus workforce. Access controls can be set to protect sensitive information, allowing only those with clearance to access certain files or storage areas.

Automation is rapidly becoming a key part of content services, reducing human intervention and the risk of errors, especially in repetitive manual, data-entry tasks. Like many facets of a content services solution, this leaves staff with more time to focus on higher-level tasks, including more face time with students and faculty, which helps address the issue cited by the government report of a lack of student engagement.

Further improving the student experience, fewer physical documents and faster access to files and student records results in streamlined processes, and therefore less time spent waiting in queues. For a student wanting to change aspects of a course, for example, one quick search can bring up their entire student history, including academic records, payments, course credits, student union membership, borrowing history from the library, and everything related to their student journey. This empowers fast, accurate decision-making from the admin side, and makes life easier for students. Having their entire student record ready and visible at all touchpoints across campus reduces waiting time, and eases frustration at having to explain a situation several times and sign into digital devices across departments.

Improving the student experience overall – increasing student engagement and learning environment, better student support – will result in better retention rates and reduce the likelihood of students changing courses, deferring their education or, indeed, dropping out altogether. Since the university’s success – and in some cases their survival – depends on keeping those students, it is imperative to keep their satisfaction top of mind throughout the process of enrolling, supporting and educating them for their entire time at the institution. Further to the success of the university itself, a large part of keeping students happy comes down to their own success. If a student is being nurtured, their campus life streamlined, their course administration simplified, and their ability to manage and access their student files improved, it is likely to have a positive impact on their academic success.

Looking at the physical spaces that students occupy on campus, there is a push towards open areas, clean lines and modern, high-tech environments. Sitting down with an administrator at a streamlined digital terminal in an open, inviting space is likely to leave a positive impression on that individual, rather than a more traditional experience involving queues, manual forms and filing cabinets. This also plays into the common principle of the ‘paperless environment’, which is often a matter of importance to younger generations who have been brought up in the digital age and are also likely to have a heightened sense of environmental concern. Again, improving the student’s learning environment and engagement will go a long way towards creating a more harmonious campus and reducing attrition rates.

With universities competing against one another to attract and retain students, the highly competitive market in Australia is driving leaders to capitalise on any advantage available to them, and their reputation is one of their biggest drawcards. Technology is a clear game-changer in assisting to boost a university’s reputation, and a streamlined enrolment process – driven by increased content services – is bound to make a strong, positive impression on new students. A competitive advantage at enrolment time may well make the difference between meeting KPIs and falling short.

While better management of documents and files might seem like an obvious step towards streamlining enrolments, administration and campus life in general, the field has evolved rapidly in recent years. With so many interconnected services across a campus, rolling all applicable information into the one platform and making it visible, searchable and collaborative across multiple devices and faculties will provide a clear pathway towards a more successful university.

Jamie Atherton is country manager, ANZ, at Hyland.

*https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/final_discussion_paper.pdf

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4 comments

  1. I have to say at first glance this is unsubstantiated waffle and does not reflect the experience of most academics I am aware of. Behind it all is cost savings and cost cutting belying the fact that poverty is encroaching its ugly head in Australian Universities as we move to lower cost open office environments whilst previously developing world countries doctrines move towards higher cost appropriately designed office environments. At our universities technology is being used adeptly but the problem is it coincides with support staff reductions, the argument being that with technology you don’t need them. That then leads to an increasing tend to shift the remaining administrative load onto academics who happen to not have the fortune of a strong union that contains work to working hours. The open environments mean you can’t find your students these days and a percentage of already isolated students are more so, especially the shy ones. Why is this constant piddle not balanced with admitting underlying reasons of poverty and the desire to increase income by taking on more and more student and offering less and less to them and the staff that teach them?

  2. Although I completely agree with Mr Atherton’s assessment, there are 2 issues that regularly make implementation of these improvements difficult.
    The first is the (often, but not always) lack of comprehension and support at executive level for these kinds of changes in administration. The lack of comprehension of the technical complexity of implementing University-wide automated processes often leads to the feeling that this ought to be possible within short timeframes and within limited budgets, when, effectively, we are talking about a massive culture change on top of a technological change. When automation projects don’t lead to quick results, we quite often see executives become frustrated, and withdraw support.
    The second is the danger of haphazard automation due to a lack of architecture/lack of overview of business processes/capabilities. Which in turn leads to staff not knowing which information is kept where, redundancy, high storage costs and privacy risks. This is where your records manager becomes your friend 😉

    • In reading Karen Feinstein’s comments, I must say that I agree with those, as well. My previous comment regarding Mr Atherton’s assessment holds true if sufficient support staff is still available to support academic staff. Automation can indeed produce positive outcomes and a reduction in processing time, but not a reduction in workload, and not if it is done at the expense of a large reduction in support staff before or during (and often not even after) an automation project.

  3. This all sounds very plausible and meaningful at first sight. However in my experience in industry and in education technology should be a tool to be used for specific purposes only and not as means of streamlining and used as a measurement and driver of kpis.

    Speaking generally, I have seen an inordinate amount of time used in digitising, often for no purpose at all except to use the technology that has been purchased. Once records are digitised they provide a means for high level reporting and instead of this being used to streamline processes it often allows even more compliance requirements and measurement to take place. And here’s the rub; kpis’s are often set up based on these measurements that have little bearing on the actuality of what is happening at the coalface but require administrative time and effort to provide data to measure them.

    The map is not the terrain, however managers still believe it is and use technology to implement and measure indicators that actually do not measure what is really happening.

    The other issue of course is that there are a good proportion of the population who struggle with online enrolments, computer systems and the like who actually are being precluded from education.

    Education is a service industry, serving students, industry and the nations skills and knowledge reserves. It is actually very difficult to measure how we service these areas. Streamlining is just a part of the equation and I have seen administration increasingly complicated by excessive use of technology. Great for the technology companies but when will we have a computer system that gives you just enough capability instead of forcing users to wait for systems to boot up, blow all it’s whistles, ring it’s bells and then collapse under the weight of it’s own infrastructure?

    Most of the kpis I have seen measure things that can be measured as opposed to what should be measured. I am concerned that the ethos that has beset the banking industry; that of profit before service is now pervading the education system.

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