IT Brief UK - Technology news for CIOs & IT decision-makers
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IWD 2024: Transformative tech key to supporting student wellbeing
Mon, 11th Mar 2024

The UK’s higher education industry is facing the perfect storm: funding pressures, socioeconomic uncertainty and a pressing need to modernise and digitally transform. The challenges are complex. Students are increasingly at risk of dropping out as the cost of living continues to spiral, and inflation pressure weighs down on universities.

While we have some of the finest academic institutions, the stark reality is that the technology that a large majority of Higher Education institutions in the UK currently rely upon is archaic.

Take student administration systems, for example. The majority of universities continue to manage their student services through on-premise systems or, at most, through cloud-based replicas of on-premise solutions. These options often lack the flexibility, scalability, and security that true Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) architecture provides, putting institutions at risk and missing out on its many benefits.

With many universities in the UK running on ageing systems no longer fit for purpose, productivity gains are hard to find. Silos of information bring about huge internal and external inefficiencies. For hackers, universities are seen as attractive targets that might not have the internal resources to defend themselves against cyberattacks, bringing in unacceptable financial and reputational risk. 

Perhaps more importantly, the impact on student wellbeing and therefore retention is significant. Students are looking for high teaching standards, value for money and an overall compelling student experience. The cohorts coming into higher education today are digital natives using platforms like Amazon, Netflix and Apple Pay to effortlessly integrate into their lives. There are increasing expectations for the wider digital experience to be as good as the academic one. 

We know attracting and retaining students remains a top priority amid the evolving dynamics of domestic and international enrolments. Undoubtedly, the competition for international and other sought-after students has intensified post-Brexit and COVID, underscoring the importance of managing profitability amid these changes.  

While the marketing engine of a university may be great at attracting students, too often, when students get to campus, their expectations may clash with reality. Advance HE and HEPI’s data suggests only one in nine students say their university experience is exactly as they expected it to be. 

This can lead to student attrition – a wasted opportunity for the individual who loses the chance to pursue their interests and goals. For the institution, the problem is compounded by losses of pre-committed revenue. And it affects a university’s reputation, too. Overall, the economics of investing in students’ engagement and well-being add up. 

But measuring wellbeing is complex and must be done on multiple levels. How is the student’s progress trending based on current and previous semesters, have they transferred to another program, are they at-risk academically and have been given warnings for failing grades, have they sought other support services, are they a distance learner and engaged in online delivery?

Likewise, predicting student attrition requires analysing multiple data sources but unfortunately, a university’s financial, enrolment and student management datasets are rarely connected, instead information is captured in disparate software systems. This departmental, siloed approach is failing students. Multiple systems stuck together with gaffer tape and glue create barriers that limit a university’s ability to spot patterns or behaviours that, if caught early, could change the trajectory for a student.

The ability to proactively spot potential problems could be a game-changer for universities. Specific activities such as missing classes, minimal engagement or failing to turn in assignments are clear indicators of potential issues, but no university has enough staff on hand to keep watch on every student and every behaviour. 

We know that investing in smarter SaaS technology and analysing the right timely data can be transformative in helping universities identify and intervene when students are struggling academically, financially and emotionally, and ultimately helping them stay the course.

Recent years have been turbulent for higher education, and while the sector has responded pragmatically and remained competitive, now is the time for our universities to embrace innovative technologies to deliver an exemplary student experience. 

University operations and student well-being are complex. Managing them shouldn’t be.