Features: August 2nd, 2013

Applications for university places are due to go online from 2014, but over half still rely on processing paper. Mark Harvey explains that online application processing is one option that can improve the overall student experience and raise standards of quality and efficiency.

With A-level results day fast approaching, many students will be shifting their focus to the next stage in their learning journey – either moving into further or higher education (HE), starting an apprenticeship or securing employment.

In the increasingly competitive marketplace, delivering a positive student experience from the outset can make the difference between one institution being chosen over another. But in a recent survey of higher education (HE) staff conducted recently by Capita, 55% of respondents indicated that their organisations still use paper-based processes to manage student applications.

This is despite UCAS’s proposal for all of the two and a half million undergraduate applications they process to be managed completely online from 2014. 

So why is it that more than half of HE staff still rely on paper in processing student applications? And what effect could this have on the success of student recruitment campaigns?

Return on investment

Those HE staff who responded to the Capita survey said factors such as the cost of living (65%), the economic climate (48%) and whether courses gave knowledge and skills relevant to the world of work (39%) had the greatest impact on recruitment.

With university fees, living expenses and the knowledge that up to 160 graduates are chasing every job, for prospective students with a wider range of choices than ever, higher education may no longer seem to add up. Those who are choosing to take the university route now view their course as both a source of knowledge and a financial investment. They have adopted a different role and expect to gain a quantifiable return from the time they spend studying. So what difference would a change in the application process really make in terms of securing more students?

To meet increasing expectations and to attract a high calibre of student from the decreasing pool, commercially astute universities are focusing their attention towards enhancing the student experience. Using online application processing is one option that can do this; it’s a way for universities to step up the quality of their service and do more for less.

Global Gateway

Many universities are looking at how they can simplify and reduce the administration burden of managing university admissions. Prospective students can often apply online, but the admissions team might then print off application forms and manually process the data. It could then go into the internal mail and back and forth between departments and the university’s admissions office. This can take a week or longer, particularly if additional supporting information is required.
By combining a management information system (MIS) with a web-based portal, electronic document and workflow management and business intelligence tools, institutions can empower staff to access and manage applications online. Just by logging in, comprehensive application information can be accessed by staff anywhere in the world and turnaround times are reduced from weeks to days.

As part of a more streamlined system, prospective students apply online and all supplementary documentation is uploaded via the portal on to a secure server. Staff in the central admissions office can then employ workflow processes to check that everything is there. Should additional documentation be required, they can communicate electronically with applicants and request that they upload it online. Electronic documentation can then be routed for the attention of the admissions tutor, who can view the information and make an offer directly to the applicant. Prospective students can accept offers via the portal and upload any relevant documentation in support of their application.

The issues

So what is holding universities back from taking the leap to a paperless environment for processing applications? Changes cost money and require a great deal of planning and resource before they can be implemented. Some of the main issues institutions might face during the transfer from a paper-based to an online applications process are cultural, such as convincing academic staff that technology is the way to go.

Lecturers might not necessarily be aware of the efficiency benefits afforded by an online application process. If paper forms were replaced by logins, they could find that staff have more time to focus on other tasks and courses are filled in half the time. But for every university that has been slow to respond to students’ new and insatiable thirst for mobile devices, social media and the web; there are others that have harnessed powerful management information systems that offer huge advantages in terms of cost savings and efficiencies.

Goldsmiths, University of London has already travelled some distance from the ‘paper trail’ days. No longer do students apply for their courses through UCAS online, only for the university to rely on paper copies of the applications for their own admissions processes.

Today, Goldsmiths manages all of its student applications online and the benefits they report are numerous and varied. Representatives of the university told me that they initiated a significant cultural shift when they took their applications process online. Among the challenges they faced was the undertaking of extensive technical testing ahead of the ‘go live’ date, making changes and enhancements once the system was operational in the live environment to align with their processes and implementing an integrated online system to gather confidential references for candidates from third parties.

However, its online student application system is accelerating decision making, giving full transparency and accuracy of information to lecturers and applicants, and saving time and money on data entry. From the outside looking in, the new process shows that Goldsmiths runs a slick operation. The university has also benefitted from gaining more enriched data from applicants, as all the key information required when applying for a place is now collected from mandatory fields. Crucially, as students can now view the status of their application online at any time, university staff have seen a reduction in the number of telephone enquiries they receive from applicants, thus enhancing the institution’s customer service standards. The college has been able to make decisions on candidates much more quickly – in some cases within 24 hours. A lecturer could even log on from a conference overseas to make their decisions on candidates.

These factors can all help to improve the student experience, which in turn helps to ensure an institution becomes the first choice for students.

Meeting the needs of digital natives

As pressure grows for universities to win candidates, I’m in no doubt that we will soon see a greater take up of a paperless student application process. It is vital that universities use all the tools available to them to enhance the student experience, and this will increasingly include lecturers being able to access their whole MIS via mobile devices.

In the fast moving HE sector, quicker student application turnarounds can save time and money. But they are also key to ensuring universities are better placed to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Mark Harvey is UK Sales Manager for Capita’s further and higher education businesses.