From education to employment

How intelligent automation is delivering cost-savings to UK universities


Many universities throughout the UK are experiencing a strain on their finances. The ongoing cost of living crisis has meant many families are opting out of sending their children to university, while the Government has freed up £15 million in funding to assist universities with supporting students, along with a further freeze on tuition fees.

Compounding this, a 50% decline in students from the EU coming to study in UK universities, along with the cap on international students have left the finances of our higher education institutions well and truly shaken.

Universities must ultimately protect their bottom lines to continue operating efficiently and competitively, with many looking at new and innovative ways to save on costs.

One of the biggest drains on both budget and resources for HE institutions is administration. Many struggle with the mountains of paperwork that come with operating within the educational field that are needed to keep both back-office and student-facing functions running smoothly.

It is therefore unsurprising that institutions are increasingly looking at adapting methods of intelligent automation in a bid to streamline functions, save time, and remain financially healthy in the long run.

What is intelligent automation?

It is useful to consider intelligent automation as a “digital worker”, with the primary function of mimicking the output of a human performing repetitive and rule-based tasks.

This may be achieved through a number of different automation technologies including machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotic process automation, among others. These technologies work to create software bots that are able to interface with platforms and applications, boosting the efficiency of many types of time-consuming processes that would otherwise rely on intensive human input.

Crucially, these technologies save human workers immense amounts of time, enabling them to redirect their energies towards higher-value work, while the digital worker takes care of these necessary, but burdensome, tasks.

Below we explore the applications of intelligent automation within the higher education setting, and how they help to deliver cost savings to universities.

Streamlining the back-office

Businesses have already begin adopting automation as a way to stay competitive within their sectors, but many of our higher education institutions lag significantly behind in updating the processes needed to carry out their core administrative and financial functions.

Many tasks that are crucial to the smooth day-to-day running of universities are still predominantly conducted manually. Utilising a digital worker to automate functions such as accounts payable, creating purchasing accounts and dealing with invoices not only frees up the time of a human worker, but increases the time and cost efficiency – not to mention the accuracy – of carrying out these tasks.

The evidence supports this, with Times Higher Education reporting that University College London were able to save over £200,000 as a result of automating just four of these processes, while the University of Plymouth reclaimed 5,000 hours every year through process automation.

Breaking down siloes

Many universities suffer from antiquated systems that have not been updated in decades. The result is departments that are vital for the university to run being unable to effectively communicate with each other, siloing teams and creating unnecessary inter-departmental paperwork that drains yet more time from administrative staff.

This is of particular concern, as a worrying report from the University and College Union found that 87% of university staff reported their workload had increased over the past 3 years, with 68% reporting that increase had been “significant”. The report further clarifying that this was primarily due to the increasing administrative burden placed on university staff.

Intelligent automation technologies are designed to seamlessly interface between various systems, applications, and databases, dramatically cutting the administrative burden that would otherwise fall on to human workers, saving hours of time in the process.

Replacing siloed teams and outdated manual ways of working with a system creates a seamless digital experience that helps to alleviate the busywork of administrative staff and lecturers, enabling them to focus on work that creates value, such as student experience and teaching, while bolstering the bottom line.

Improving student functions

As well as time-consuming back-office functions, there are also plenty of areas that directly affect student experience that are ripe for automation.

Perhaps the most notable of these is the admissions process. This vital function often comes with a huge amount of paperwork including applications and associated documentation, eligibility checks and candidate lists. With parliamentary statistics indicating that 767,000 students applied for undergraduate places in 2022 alone, it quickly becomes apparent how many manhours the applications process entails.

These issues are compounded when other student-facing administrative tasks are also taken into consideration. Managing student accommodation, registrations, scheduling and functions associated with international students all pile on to the administrative burden, costing both the time of faculty staff and the limited resources of universities.

Additionally, grading is a key component of the service universities provide, but grading and managing assessments, coursework and exam results are a huge drain on time and resources, too. Automation can make all of these processes more streamlined, saving hours of human labour and, crucially, allowing lecturers to focus their energy where it matters the most: in the classroom.

Final thoughts

Universities across the UK are under considerable pressure to continue delivering the excellent service they are known for to their students. As institutions that play a crucial role in the development of the next generation, it is vital that they are able to mitigate the financial pressures that pose a threat to their continued operation. Intelligent automation is one cost-effective way of achieving this, holding the key to savings while freeing human workers from the tedium and stress of outdated manual processes and administration.

By Alistair Sergeant, the Founder and CEO of intelligent automation solution, Niico

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