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Oxford’s £108,000 low-income student cost raises three bigger questions

Posted by  Austin Laird

News that Oxford University spends more than £100,000 to recruit each low-income student raises questions about institutional purpose, the impact on the student experience and the lack of efficiency and transparency in the recruitment and admissions process, writes Unit4’s education sales director, Matt Searles.

According to figures published in Prospect magazine, Oxford University’s “cost of acquisition” for each student from a low-income neighborhood since 2009 is a whopping £108,000. Quoting Prospect, The Guardian says the figure includes costs for outreach activities, staff and bursaries for students recruited from Acorn postcodes 4 and 5, areas defined as “financially stretched” or regions of “urban adversity.”

Oxford have been criticized over the years about being an exclusive institution, and that they don’t have a robust admissions policy that makes sure they are inclusive in terms of the different demographics of students. So, being accused of elitism is something that has been leveled at them before.

But what this story does raise are three important questions around the efficiency, transparency and robustness of the recruitment and admissions process.

One: what does this say about institutional purpose?

First, at a high level, this plays into the role of higher education institutions (HEIs) in society; their purpose, their mission.

The majority of universities are here to make the world better by making students the best they can be. They’re trying to reach out to the communities which they serve; their purpose and role is in supporting local and wider communities, to give people in those communities opportunity to reach their full potential and support their economies. All universities have an equal responsibility to all potential students, regardless of which in postcode they live in.

The Guardian reports that Oxford is aiming to increase the proportion of students from deprived areas to 9.5 percent of its undergraduate admissions by 2019-20, which equates to 23 students, as part of higher education regulations on widening participation. That’s only half a point increase from its previous target, but the importance for Oxford here, I think, is that, being a top institution, they are trying to demonstrate this responsibility.

Two: how will this affect the student experience?

I don’t know how Oxford can possibly be spending over £100k on each student. Clearly, tuition fees are not the big earner. According to Oxford University, they earn income from five main sources, the largest being external research funding. Academic fees is their fourth largest revenue stream.

Either way, spending over £100k on each low-income student is clearly not an effective way of doing things. Obviously, bursaries and outreach is a fair part of this cost, but still, how can this be justified? There must be a better way.

Which begs the question, how does that impact on the student experience and organizational strategy at a time when universities are already struggling to plug the funding-cost gap? HEIs need to invest in upgrading their student experience. Also, if Oxford is spending such extraordinary amounts on meeting higher education regulations on widening participation, how many others are doing the same?

With this Oxford story, the numbers just don’t add up. Based on the average annual tuition fee of £9,250, if Oxford does recruit their quota of 23 extra students at this cost per customer, that’s a negative impact equating to £1.8million.

Surely, there should be a streamlining of the admin-heavy recruitment and admissions process? Then this money can be better spent on improving the student experience and ensuring every student becomes the best they can be, and that no-one gets left behind.

Three: how can HEIs improve transparency and efficiency?

Try as we might not to make this about technology, in the end, that’s where this story takes us. Especially when you talk about efficiencies within this early stage of the student lifecycle, and the rest of the lifecycle, beyond recruitment and admissions, for that matter.

The third question this story raises, at a deeper level, is: do tertiary education providers have the digital tools that tap into all demographics? Furthermore, have they flexible technology that improves efficiency of their recruitment and admissions, and the transparency to understand their data?

Technology can reduce the cost of recruitment and admissions, not just by reducing the armies of administration staff. It also helps make sense of the mountains of data which can be used for analytics and reporting while measuring key performance indicators (KPIs). Without that data and some standardization an institution won’t be able to make data-driven decisions on, for example, the type and pattern of communication that gives them the biggest impact in reaching students of a particular segmentation. The crucial element point here is what we do with the data; to get to the data we first need systems and processes in place.

I’m digressing a little. But, ultimately, technology formalizes the recruitment process to make it fairer.

Our place in all this is that we happen to be the ones providing the tools to make it more effective and efficient in how they are reaching out to students to make sure that each one goes through a fair and formalized process. So, we’d certainly be saying to universities to formalize that process. There are CRM-type tools to help universities do that, to make sure it’s robust and that they have specific KPIs in place to measure outreach or widening participation activities.

Beyond recruitment, there are tools to automate the admissions process and move it online — where today’s non-traditional student are — with workflow making sure it’s simple, timely and streamlined. That would reduce the cost of these activities significantly.

There is the capability to manage that whole early part in the lifecycle (recruitment, enquiries managements, admissions and registration) through automation and do it in a pretty efficient way so that they’re properly adhering to their admissions policies to make sure there’s an audit trail behind it. This makes sure it is the same for every student across the board.

Answering all three questions, and then some

London School of Business and Management (LSBM) managed to answer all three of these questions when they implemented one of our solutions in July this year. As part of their purpose to provide “equal and fair access” to higher education for anyone who can demonstrate the ability to succeed, “no matter what their background,” they are creating programs that take into account the diverse characteristics of their students, says John Fairhurst, managing director and academic principal.

“Unit4 Student Management will provide a single technology platform which supports all aspects of this aim,” he says. “Notably it will also significantly reduce administration so that our highly skilled staff can focus on delivering a high-quality educational experience to students.”

For LSBM, U4SM will manage the administration of campus life, providing staff with the information they need across the student journey to make evidence-based decisions that progress both the strategy and student experience. From application to graduation, it will also provide data on the student journey. It will be easier for the school to identify trends, such as why individual or groups of students might be at risk of withdrawing or not reaching their full potential.

I should point out that, while LSBM is not comparable with Oxford, in many ways they are more representative of the type of organization that depends on recruiting students from diverse backgrounds.

Beyond the access route

Government targets are set to increase the number of students from disadvantaged and black and ethnic minority groups to HE. Luckily, technology can be used as a key enabler to support the outreach activities and reach targets. A university’s digital strategy is vital to underpinning effective inclusive outreach and admissions strategy. Marketing, analytics, engagement, tracking and automation are all important. 

Beyond the ‘access route’ of recruitment and admissions, the university then has to ensure they focus on student success for this group by using the data available to track engagement and putting in place appropriate intervention strategies to ensure they stay engaged and maximize their potential. 

Self-driving software using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and analytics will all be used to underpin this engagement.

We’ll be at EDUCAUSE 2018. Come and visit us at Booth #741.

Austin Laird

Product Director Higher Education