Why choice is the new currency for higher education

In higher education, a university's reputation is tied to student experience.

The pandemic has forced the higher education sector to rethink learning options and experiences for students both locally and abroad. It’s also underscored a critical factor in driving increased value and sustainable returns: A university’s hard-earned reputation is intrinsically tied to its student experience.

By providing physical and virtual access, effective tools, and technology, institutions can empower students to personalize their educational experiences and unlock how they learn best.

When learning transitioned overnight from predominantly in-person to entirely online, universities quickly adapted, and learning continued. The shift also put the student experience in sharp focus—along with the multiple friction points caused by traditional education systems, processes, and organizational structures.

Although increasing efficiency was a survival strategy in 2020, the urgent priority is retaining existing students and attracting new enrollments. And that relies on reputation.

Before the pandemic, many of Australia’s universities had been investing in digital transformation (DX) at breakneck speed, embracing DX as the enabler of innovation, competitive advantage, and survival.

Now, against a backdrop of sector-wide financial strain, how do education leaders create the business case for a truly connected student experience?

Building workflows to learn from anywhere

Before the pandemic, several of Australia’s leading higher education institutes were already well on their way to reimagining the entire student experience. According to Dr. Stephen Weller, chief operating officer at Australian Catholic University, COVID-19 has only served to strengthen this commitment.

“When physical distancing restrictions were made mandatory, there was no time to ask students what they wanted before they moved to online learning,” Weller recalls. “We didn’t start from a point of defining the ideal SX [student experience] and responding to what they’d asked for.

“What we’ve learned over the past year is that investment in the online experience will unquestionably enhance the on-campus experience. And, at the heart of that ecosystem is the individual student. Our goal is to deeply personalize their journey by knowing who they are, what they’re interested in, and what they do. Automation and intelligent workflows are fundamental to achieving that.”

"What we've learned over the past year is that investment in the online experience will unquestionably enhance the on-campus experience." Dr. Stephen Weller, Chief Operating Officer, Australian Catholic University

Likewise, at Western Sydney University, the lightbulb moment came in the dismantling of departmental silos that previously served either students or staff. It’s a cultural shift that has rapidly accelerated digitization efforts.

“COVID served as a circuit breaker to our traditional structures. For the first time, we’ve organized according to specialty or focus, not audience,” explains an executive at Western Sydney.

“We now have portfolios serving staff, faculty, and students—and it’s proving revolutionary at every level of the institute. No longer do we have 14 separate schools administering the exact same process in dozens of different ways, often to the same student.”

Transforming the student experience

Removing silos to organize around the customer in a commercial enterprise may sound obvious, but that ignores the entrenched frameworks in which most universities operate. What these Australian higher education institutes are doing is akin to throwing out the rule book—and it’s working.

“The crisis has challenged our thinking around digital workflows and the interoperability between different areas of the university,” the Western Sydney executive continues. “We’re using the Now Platform to collaborate and develop shared practices, which is reducing the number of processes dramatically.

“Being able to deliver frequent pulse surveys via a mobile app allows us to iterate and pivot. We’re also using AI and machine learning to harness data about the employee experience that, up until now, we hadn’t been tapping into.”

When work, works better for employees, efficiency soars, productivity increases, and the student experience transforms.

A new era requires a new rulebook

In the scramble to embrace modern ways of working, technology can be used to fill a gap. But those who do it best use technology in the service of people to deliver better experiences. Leading education providers often ask, “How can I connect directly to the student, or employee, without friction and add value in a meaningful way?” 

People think of historic sandstone campuses as a “real” university experience, but if students can’t self-serve to access everything they need or do so via single sign-on, it impacts their everyday experience. Expectations are higher when reputation is higher.

As students move through the lifecycle from prospect to alum, there are numerous friction points traversing faculties and departments. These are high-risk moments when vital data is often lost, the source of truth is compromised, and the experience can be negatively impacted.

No amount of investment can remedy this; universities must first change how they view the student experience.  As in-person learning becomes the norm again, institutes can’t afford to see online and on-campus as two separate experiences.  Like retail, the student experience is a connected ecosystem.

When technology is used in service of people, students and employees connect seamlessly across systems and departments. Mundane, repetitive tasks are removed from overburdened workloads, so employees can focus on more strategic work. Digitization unleashes productivity and offers new ways to deliver personalized, differentiated experiences.

"We're using the Now Platform to collaborate and develop shared practices, which is reducing the number of processes dramatically." Executive, Western Sydney University

Consumerizing the student experience

At ServiceNow, we work with our higher education customers to map the best possible student experience. We do that by asking three key questions:

  1. How are you delivering interactions—for example, triggering automated actions to complete tasks before classes commence or serving up appointment scheduling for advisers or support services?
  2. How are you measuring the success of those experiences?
  3. What data do you draw on to create and improve upon that experience?

As Weller notes, “Whether you have an unassailable reputation or an emerging reputation, the challenge is the same.” Universities must increasingly deliver intuitive, consumer-grade student experiences to stay in the game.

What we’re seeing with bold leadership at institutes like the Australian Catholic University and Western Sydney University is that once the organizational chart is off the table, digital transformation efforts are supercharged. It’s less about the size of the transformation budget than it is about mindset.

Only then can higher education providers start unlocking powerful high-touch experiences, automating menial tasks for their employees, and harnessing data to create intuitive, multichannel moments that matter for their students.

Learn more about Western Sydney University’s digital transformation journey in its on-demand Knowledge 2021 session. Registration is free.

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