Universities around the world are experiencing a decline and composition shift in undergraduate course enrolments, drops in satisfaction and engagement rates and increased competition from non-traditional institutions offering affordable, accessible online education pathways.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Centre, there was a 10 per cent decrease in university enrolments in the USA from 2018 to 2022, and this trend was appearing pre-pandemic. And while universities scrambled to implement remote teaching models during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Government's TEQSA Annual Report for 2020-21 reported that up to 50 per cent of students were dissatisfied with online classes.
The Australian tertiary sector's reliance on overseas students also came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic. Closing Australian borders resulted in the pipeline of international students dropping significantly, with 300,000 fewer visas issued from October 2019 to 2021.
Universities Australia research found that in 2020, total operating revenue for Australian universities fell 5.9% (or $2.1 billion) from the previous year in real terms. Most of the decline was driven by the $1.2 billion reduction in fees and charges, including international student fees.
Although Australian Bureau of Statistics figures reveal a 111% increase in international student numbers from January 2022 to January 2023, universities continue to face intense financial and organisational pressure.
Institutional reputations are no longer enough to ensure universities remain competitive. To thrive, they must adopt new learning models and embrace emerging technology that helps meet the complex demands of their students.
Evolving student expectations
The pandemic accelerated people's use of digital technology, and 47% of students now view technology as ingrained in almost all aspects of their lives. Accenture Learners Mindset Study 2021 revealed that 96% of students find a high-quality digital experience important to their satisfaction.
Students demand a meaningful, connected hybrid learning experience. They want the convenience and flexibility of digital curriculum delivery without losing the sense of connection to other students, teachers and the broader university community offered by a campus-based experience.
They expect flexible, affordable episodic or lifetime learning through alternative credentials, digital badges, and industry-recognised certificates. They embrace self-curated learning and expect their university to provide career guidance. In 2020, 36 out of 42 Australian universities were developing or offering micro-credentials.
How digital delivery provides a competitive edge
Universities are increasingly deploying digital technologies to transform their business operations and deliver an enhanced multi-modal student experience.
"We're seeing many institutions working hard to serve students, faculty, alumni and various other stakeholders while struggling to bridge the gap between their current technology infrastructure with growing digital demands and increasing rates of innovation," says Catherine Grummer, Managing Director of Accenture. Every University in the country is grappling with the need to reduce costs and the need to redirect resources from transactional, administrative and manual activity to the 'core business' of the institution.
As well as redesigning and personalising the student learning experience, Grummer believes digital technology will increasingly help universities to optimise operations, security, and data management and leverage revolutionary technology like virtual and augmented reality.
"There is always an opportunity for optimising operations, taking repetitive and labour-intensive business processes which are time-consuming and prone to human error that can be digitally streamlined."
How process automation and low-code can improve the operational efficiencies of universities
Institutional budgets are under unprecedented pressure, not just from falling enrolments but inflationary pressures, underperforming endowments and workforce tightening.
Many universities are burdened by inefficient manual systems that not only frustrate students and staff but increase operational costs. Automation tools and AI can improve business processes. This reduces the time staff spend on repetitive administration work and allows them to focus on research and teaching.
A modern platform for process automation provides an ability to connect and secure data, a historical challenge for universities that have operated in faculty silos.
"Many of our customers are focusing on their tech modernisation where it most visibly improves the student experience," Ms Grummer says. "This often involves user interfaces integrated with core systems and applications (SIS, LMS etc.) coming together for a cohesive experience across all digital interfaces a student uses daily."
Data fabrics are also used to centralise data without time-intensive and costly data migrations, meaning valuable data is no longer hidden in different departments.
A low-code platform provides flexibility to build and prototype apps internally, and pre-built apps offer speed and responsiveness. It also provides a modern, clean customer interface that works on desktop, laptop and mobile. Importantly, low-code facilitates a seamless student experience that starts with enrolment and can last a lifetime.
This puts humans—students and employees—at the heart of a university's operations. It provides a nuanced, real-time view of a student's behaviours and preferences and is responsive to changing student preferences over time.
Expected outcomes of Intelligent Automation
Adopting an Intelligent Automation approach that integrates business and technology elements to elevate automation enterprise-wide, extending beyond isolated teams, can profoundly impact organisations. Reflecting on Accenture's engagements, it is evident that digital transformation initiatives such as Intelligent Automation offer a multitude of potential business outcomes.
Notably, three outcomes emerge from these endeavours: the widespread availability of general intelligence, a deeper comprehension of automation within the broader business context, and significant cost reductions through hyper-automation and process redesign. As universities contemplate embarking on their intelligent automation journey, it's crucial to recognise that the path is not strictly linear. By directing attention towards essential areas like scaling automation, validating user inputs, training systems to understand user behaviour, leveraging data analytics, implementing OCR and ICR technologies, and embracing AI and ML, universities can unlock the remarkable benefits of intelligent automation.