Higher Education spending cuts have created challenging operating conditions for modern universities. By 2014-15 Government subsidies are expected to fall to £4.2bn, down from £7.2bn in 2010. In many cases, universities are raising tuition fees to bridge the funding gap. Recent figures from the Office for Fair Access show that almost-two thirds of universities are charging the full amount allowed (£9,000) for some or all of their courses.

While there is still strong demand for places, UCAS has reported a 7.7% fall in the total number of applicants to British universities this year, with an 8.9% drop in UK-born students. The rise in fees, along with closer scrutiny and restrictions on visas, is also deterring many foreign candidates from coming into the UK. Ultimately, this could result in £5.66bn in lost fees, according to the research consultancy London Economics, and will naturally have a big impact on UK institutions that rely heavily on foreign students for funding.

Great expectations

Coupled with the fact that, this year, universities were given more flexibility over the numbers of high-achieving students they can recruit, this changing financial structure will inevitably create greater competition for candidates. For this reason, it is becoming more important than ever that decision letters get to applicants as quickly as possible. If a rival offer is sent out prior to this letter being received, the university risks its first-choice candidates choosing another institution.

For this reason, moving from time-intensive, paper-based processes to an enterprise content management (ECM) or complementing a legacy administration system with the comprehensive functionality contained within an ECM system can be extremely valuable – especially in the admissions process.

With the cost of annual fees currently averaging £8,414, today’s students will also expect a good return on their investment, putting tuition and student services under the spotlight. Here too, ECM can provide a distinct advantage by enabling administration staff to spend more time supporting students and academic service providers throughout the year.

Fast, accurate processing

Applications must typically go through a review and approvals process before an admissions decision is made. ECM can prove to be an important support mechanism in this process of selecting students for several reasons. When integrated with the student information system (SIS) and higher education software, the ECM system effectively creates a central repository for essential documents so that files can be accessed quickly, without having to access multiple systems or wade through paper records.

ECM also enables a clear processing structure or ‘workflow’ to be implemented, ensuring that the correct evaluation procedure is followed. This, in turn, speeds the turnaround of documents between the registrar and academic departments and reduces the time needed between receiving the documents and sending the decision letter.

From a resource perspective, the automation of admissions can, in some cases, help to conserve budget by avoiding the need to employ additional temporary staff. Saving the documents in one central location also reduces the likelihood of lost applications and the damage to reputation that can result.

Smarter service

In the US, where fee-paying students and their families have high expectations of education providers, many universities and colleges have already turned to ECM technology not only to reduce processing times but also to ease the administrative burden of carrying out manual tasks such as file searches, enabling staff to deliver better customer service.

By replacing paper processes with ECM, these institutions commonly report reductions in the applications processing cycle from a month or more to a week or less, enabling them to get decisions into the hands of their applicants much earlier. In addition, admissions teams no longer need to manually create applicant files. Instead, files are automatically generated by the ECM system.

When supporting documents come in, they are scanned by staff and then automatically associated by the system with the appropriate student file. The ECM system automatically tracks incoming documents and completes the file for review, which means administrators do not have to spend time matching supporting documents with applications, and accuracy is greatly increased. Once complete, applications are sent automatically to the appropriate staff member for review.

Rather than passing around paper files, reviewers perform their evaluations on electronic review sheets (known as e-forms), which are completed and routed automatically, along with the supporting documents. As a result, staff can be confident that the applications are up-to-date and, unlike paper files, there is no risk of loss or damage. Having the files stored in a single, central repository also makes it possible for more than one person to have access to the complete file, increasing flexibility.

Campus-wide document management

ECM workflow ‘rules’ can also be applied to records management, which in turn can aid compliance by ensuring that guidelines on retention and destruction of files are followed. With closer scrutiny now being placed on the legitimacy of foreign students living in the UK, the ability to process essential documents such as passports at the time of enrolment and retrieve a copy quickly and easily when needed could also prove to be extremely important for the university – and its students. In addition, rules can be added that highlight expired documents or other anomalies with the data stored in the student information system.

A further advantage of the ability to quickly retrieve files as needed is that it becomes possible for admin staff to answer queries from students or their families straight away, rather than having to spend time chasing-up the paperwork and responding later. If document checklists are presented on a secure portal, students can also benefit from back-end ECM records management by accessing an up-to-date status report on their university application or student record – freeing-up even more time for staff.

The comprehensive functionality contained in ECM systems also brings similar time-savings and process accuracy when used in other departments and processes across the university and its sites. In addition to student admissions, admin teams can deploy automated document management processes and workflows to enrolment, student records, alumni and grants as well as finance and procurement, facilities, human resources, IT and estates management.

Emma Sandford is an education industry manager at Hyland Software

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