Universities behind the automation curve

Universities and Colleges have spent millions on technology over the past 10 years and yet they are still handling their day-to-day operations manually or semi-manually.

Universities and Colleges have spent millions on technology over the past 10 years and yet they are still handling their day-to-day operations manually or semi-manually.

So what has the technology been used for? Mainly for three functions: (a) managing communications, e.g. via email, blogs, web sites, discussion forums, (b) for publishing academic curriculum materials, coursework and tests and (c) for back-office administrative functions as well as a range of self-service functions online for students and staff, e.g. submitting an application for a course, enrolment, payment for goods on campus, updating personal records, viewing grades. There is a wide spread of functions that some institutions have already started to automate for students and staff with positive results in terms of efficiency, accuracy and timeliness. 

However, when we consider the totality of the business operations across an institution, the bulk of it is done in a clunky way, with individuals handling their bit of the process and then passing on a document or spreadsheet or paperwork to someone else in the chain to do their bit.

An important example of a process at the heart of an education institution that has been inefficient all these years is the development and validation of new programmes of study. The preparation of a course for validation and its release into the market usually takes 12 to 18 months where it should take 10 weeks to provide agility, especially in the areas of taught post-graduate courses with market-based fees which are highly market sensitive, serving career needs and being leading edge. The same applies for mid-career professional development courses.    So the penalties for doing this work manually are significant: (a) the cost of all the staff involved in the development and validation process and (b) the opportunity costs of being late to market.  As well as putting new courses through validation, every institution does annual course monitoring and periodic re-validation, which give rise to similar issues as for new courses.

Why has technology not been used to help address these inefficiencies?  The key point here is that institutions should want to take the first step which involves analysing their existing processes and defining how they must be changed in the future to improve operational efficiency – this is a big commitment in effort.  Secondly, the technology has to be examined to see how it can help automate the execution of the improved processes. It is highly likely that institutions already have the necessary technology and that what’s missing is simply the expertise of how to orchestrate workflows among staff, students and external stakeholders in a robust and secure way.

Automating a large activity will also involve handling information stored in disparate administrative systems, which presents additional challenges because today many rely on system-to-system integration using proprietary approaches that are costly to maintain.  Again, it only takes the right expertise to orchestrate the necessary information flows, without the need to invest in additional administrative systems.

What’s really needed is for institutions to commit to revamping their business processes and to seek guidance on executing the desired improvements. 

Dr Demetra Katsifli is director of professional Services UK, Ireland and Europe, at Datatel+SGHE.

This was last published in March 2012

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