Automate universities first… digitally transform them later

Automate universities first… digitally transform them later

Alistair Sergeant, Founder and CEO of Equantiis, tells us how automation plays a key role in offering university students the most seamless educational experience and why it is an important first step in universities’ journey to introducing technologies throughout every facet of their organisation for efficient operations.

The UK’s universities have long been a source of national pride, with many recognised among the finest educational institutions in the world. However, amid a period of great economic turbulence, even these bastions of academic excellence are not immune to financial hardship.

With the cost-of-living crisis squeezing household budgets tightly and government support for students falling to its lowest level in seven years, many families are coming to terms with the harsh reality that they cannot afford to send their children to university. Not only is the decline in domestic admissions impacting universities’ revenues, but if the government limits the number of foreign students in a bid to bring down net migration, many universities could face bankruptcy, according to an adviser on immigration policy.

To exacerbate the economic challenges that UK universities are facing, many of their workers – from researchers, academics and administrators, to caterers, cleaners and other support staff – have recently walked out on strike, citing the significant drop in pay that they have experience since 2009. As universities face off financial pressure from all angles, it is clear that solutions are needed to drive efficiencies and boost revenues. In today’s highly technological business landscape, Digital Transformation is often viewed by universities as a crucial step to achieving these goals. However, with university finances in such dire straits, many are unable to invest the large sums of money required to make Digital Transformation a success.

Fortunately for universities, the general affordability of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation, especially in regards other technologies, means that they can quickly achieve the efficiency and cost savings they need without placing further, undue pressure on their ailing budgets.

Enhancing student experiences

There are a number of ways that automation can be used by universities to create efficiencies, streamline processes, reduce costs and enhance the student experience.

Student record systems, for example, is an area of the student experience where automation can be particularly beneficial. This is because the average student record system is around 15 years old and rely upon many antiquated manual processes in the background. These manual processes often come with siloed teams and outdated ways of working, both of which have a significant impact on operational efficiency. Not only does this mean university staff must spend a considerable amount of time on carrying out processes, but it also undermines the seamless digital experience that students now expect from their institute.

Through automation, universities can provide a 24/7 service to students that is unfettered by inefficient manual processes. This means that they can gain instant access to the information that they need at any time of day, without having to rely on a human member of staff to respond to their query, which can take days, if not weeks.

For example, when Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) decided to utilise automation to improve the daily experience of students, it was able to do so by replacing 12 key processes which also delivered an impressive 240% return on investment.

Automation doesn’t replace workers – it empowers them

It is not only students and those who hold the purse strings at universities who stand to benefit from automation – university workers can also reap the rewards of the technology. This is because many of the high-volume, low-value tasks that staff must carry out act as a barrier to the areas of their work where human engagement can have the most value.

While automation can certainly be revolutionary to university processes, it should not be seen as a silver bullet solution to all the operational challenges that institutions face. In fact, there are certain processes that should never be automated because a human presence can be far more valuable. Although there are many aspects of the student experience that can be automated, it is vital that students are able to communicate with university staff when they need to. For example, if a student is having a problem with their loan, or there is an issue with their accommodation that may be causing them distress, speaking to a human worker can be far more reassuring and helpful than simply relaying their concerns to a digital assistant that cannot comprehend the problems they are facing on an emotional level.

In this sense, the key to successful adoption of AI is identifying the processes where automation can have the most value – i.e., those that are time and cost consuming without meaningfully enhancing the student experience – so that staff can be freed up to focus their efforts on those processes where a human touch is truly irreplaceable.

Automation isn’t a half measure

While total Digital Transformation might be the ultimate aim for universities, the nature of the economic crisis they face means that this is not currently a realistic goal for many. As such, automation can provide the perfect solution for institutions looking to drive efficiencies without causing costs to spiral, given the significant savings and efficiencies that they stand to benefit from the technology.

Despite this, automation should not be seen as a compromise or detour from universities’ aspirations of achieving Digital Transformation. Instead, it should be considered an important first step in their journey to introducing technologies throughout every facet of their organisation that can drive efficiencies and, ultimately, accomplish significant time and cost savings.

Universities have, and always will be, invaluable institutions that play a vital role in empowering and inspiring generations of gifted and talented young people. As such, it is crucial that they are protected from the financial hardships that pose a serious threat to their longevity and continued prosperity. Automation holds the key to achieving this and helps universities bring their services and processes right in line with what students expect, and in the most cost-effective way possible.

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