The student [e]xperience in higher education

Last year in March, ERP Today editor Paul Esherwood wrote a critical article on the dismal attempts at digital transformation in higher education (HE) facilities. Who was to know that a few days after that was published in ERP Today, that the world would be sent into varying degrees of lockdown because of the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that lightning fast digital transformation would be a necessity for most businesses across the globe?

Much like schools and businesses, many universities had to move from in-person to online learning in a matter of days. This happened via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, like it did in every organisation in the world, including those universities that had not historically promoted or prioritised digital transformation. But for some, however, online learning, student support, and cloud-based back office functions are actually the norm and the student learning experience was largely uninterrupted. 

But it’s worth defining what exactly is seen as the ‘student experience’ because it can be viewed in two ways. By and large, the student experience is campus life. It is the way students interact with each other, play sports, have parties and learn. For all intents and purposes then, the student experience of the last year was non-existent. However, considering that the generation of students (customers, in fact) live their lives through mobile devices online, a large part of the student experience has to be about a student’s digital experience. 

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has been an accelerator for digital growth, but many highly ranked universities were still teaching in lecture halls with digital learning a mere afterthought. Those universities with commitments to academia and research (often top ranking HE institutions) had little commercial interest in digital transformation – their commitment is to research, not the student experience. 

The arrival of COVID-19 though has served to accelerate the transformation of back office systems and purpose-designed curriculums in those facilities that had already begun their transformation implementations; and for those who have been caught holding the bag. It’s also cracked open the vendor competition because now HE facilities are jumping on the transformation band wagon because of the obvious commercial opportunities digital transformation can bring to the institution.  

But the focus here really should be on those universities that have taken great strides in transforming the outdated and clumsy systems that take manpower away from serving actual customers – the students. 

One such university is the University of Greenwich. Well-known for being a World Heritage Site and housing architecture by Christopher Wren, Greenwich should now be known for their partnership with Namos Solutions and implementing Oracle’s Human Capital Management system in 11 months – on time and on budget. With 2,900 members of staff and 40,000 students, Greenwich prides itself on being forward thinking and ambitious. As we know, many ERP projects have been plagued with high costs, missed deadlines and some even complete implementation failure. Higher education digital transformations have also fallen victim to old school legacy leadership that have neither the inclination nor the know-how to stand up technical systems. But not Greenwich. They had buy-in from the top, where it counts, and believed that the key success factors were simple: a trusted implementation partner in Namos Solutions that shared the same values of professionalism and expertise, and a ‘one team’ approach to overcoming challenges together. 

“Like many organisations, The University of Greenwich had developed their existing HR payroll system over a number of years. The existing system, Oracle E-Business Suite had a wealth of data, a plethora of customisations and a host of dependent systems. However, unlike the maritime wonders that Greenwich is so associated with, this system had become a ‘creaky ship’ under the weight of that history,” said Richard Clayton, Namos managed services director. 

They had buy-in from the top, where it counts, and believed that the key success factors were simple: a trusted implementation partner that shared the same values of professionalism”, Richard Clayton, Namos Solutions

What Greenwich really needed was a complete HR solution that would provide a manageable and intuitive user experience that would streamline and systemise to eliminate time-consuming manual processes and one that would increase insights into the workings of the university and its business. The benefits of the project were aligned to the mission of the university, and that was to transform staff and student lives through inspired teaching and research. 

By migrating its current HR systems to Oracle HCM Cloud, Greenwich believed it would be able to transform processes and in doing so, inspire enhanced employee and student experience and empower its human resources team. Slicker systems equal faster administration processes. 

But how do enhanced HR and payroll systems better the student experience? The indirect link here is that a more streamlined back office system frees up the time and energy of support staff and allots more time to the service of their customers – the students – instead of fumbling through data and manual registration, application and financial systems.

There is a direct link too. Sponsored students who work for the university are managed through the student worker/job portal and the new HR implementation underpins the management thereof, including UK visa laws. The HR system has streamlined this process and ensures that students are paid on time and that they are legally allowed to live, work and study in the UK. 

What seems to be a major drive for digital transformations here in the UK is their commercial value – not what they cost, but how much revenue they can bring into the institution. Vendors aren’t making a beeline to HE institutions because here there are only around 160 institutions to target whereas across the pond in the United States there are more universities than you can shake a stick at. America is always bigger and better and while Barton Community College in rural Kansas isn’t huge (they have around 7,000 students) their digital footprint is enormous! 

“We’re in the middle of nowhere and we really have to be creative in terms of how we draw in our students!” says Michelle Kaiser, assistant dean of information services.

Barton Community College is the poster child for digital transformation and student experience in that they were business as usual in the harshest of COVID-19 restrictions. Because of the layout of their state-of-the-art tech-infused classrooms, in-person learning was able to continue throughout the pandemic in the active learning classrooms, and learning pods because of their fusion learning ideology. Barton, and their chosen cloud infrastructure partner Ellucian, based in Reston, Virginia, has had a long-standing and fruitful partnership for 27 years. Ellucian cloud solutions for HE introduce new innovations regularly and believe in walking side by side with their partners. 

“Ellucian pulls us along in terms of digital innovations, but they’re also willing to collaborate with us. For example, we needed to run important updates to the online learning portal and Ellucian informed us that they’d run the updates on a Friday afternoon. Based on data we have been able to gather from cloud analytics we were able to tell them that the best time to run updates is when students aren’t online – and that’s a Saturday night and early hours of a Sunday morning!” says Kaiser. 

Barton’s custom-designed self-service banner on their desktop and mobile apps epitomise the digital student experience. The dashboard includes access to check exam and test results, class schedules, quick educational videos, and provides the ability to communicate with lecturers and instructors through an online portal. 

“Based on data we have been able to gather from cloud analytics we were able to tell them that the best time to run updates is when students aren’t online – and that’s a Saturday night”, Michelle Kaiser, Barton Community College

This is the kind of mutually beneficial partnership that all ERP vendors should have with their customers. It will certainly contribute to the success of difficult and often traumatic digital transformations. 

Mid-market sized business is HE business 

Universities are commercially considered mid-market ERP enterprises and for this reason Unit4’s next-generation intelligent ERP solution that is built specifically for mid-market, people-centric organisations, suits HE institutions. The complete product suite, including ERPx supports organisational growth and delivers automation and control across the entire student lifecycle. It’s purpose-built and agile; it’s a responsive cloud platform that promises to optimise the flow of information throughout the institution, enabling staff to spend more time focussed on delivering high quality education and student services. 

As mentioned previously, there are universities that are academically committed and not commercially committed to the student experience. In a world where Generation Zs live almost completely digitally, one has to wonder if old, stuffy institutions whose degrees some covet are truly committed to education. How are they connecting to their students if they don’t give them access to a digital experience on campus? Global Banking School (GBS) is not one of those schools. GBS is a higher education provider offering a range of industry-focussed courses across six campuses in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. They work in partnership with several leading UK universities to deliver vocational, undergraduate, and postgraduate programmes. In April of this year GBS selected Unit4’s complete product suite, including ERPx to digitally transform their existing solutions. 

GBS needed a new digital platform with industry-native functionality and the ability to reflect changes quickly and effectively to future-proof (pandemic-proof) the school while catering for their expected large increase in students.

Education is a right for all who seek to learn, and now more than ever it is important that institutions are enabled with the tools they need for student success”, Chris Richards, Unit4

By implementing Unit4’s modern ERP and integrated systems, GBS will benefit from a wealth of modern, future-proofed and purpose-built solutions that will span the entire institution. The suite will include the opportunity to greater personalise and digitise student and teacher services and what’s more, the entire student lifecycle from admissions to academics and finance and billing, will be automated and improved. 

“Education is a right for all who seek to learn a new skill or specialist trade, and now more than ever it is important that institutions are enabled with the tools they need for student success,” said Chris Richards, regional president, UK&I, Unit4. “We live in a fast-changing world, and higher education organisations such as GBS are under pressure to deliver everything from a seamless student experience to demonstrating value and providing transparency, at the same time as reducing administration. With a purpose-built higher education solution, Unit4 is the ideal partner to help GBS transform and modernise their operations, add strength and agility to their planning processes and help them to grow and be successful.”

More good news 

There is suddenly an uptick in online programme management companies that assist universities to produce quality online content, help them take it to market and therefore increase commercial potential for their partners. 

The arrival of COVID-19 has lit a fire under those HE institutions who are behind the curve – and there are a lot of them. But the intent is there and whether they’re only one step into the journey of transforming their digital student experiences, they’re one step closer to success.