Birkbeck College provides an education in effective BPM

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman September 3, 2014
The University of London college uses BPM from Bizagi to get its students enrolled, funded and on a fast track to learning.

[sws_grey_box box_size="690"]SUMMARY - The University of London college uses BPM from Bizagi to get its students enrolled, funded and on a fast track to learning.[/sws_grey_box]

In four week’s time, a new academic year begins at Birkbeck College in London. Once again, the college - part of the University of London since 1920 - will open its doors to an intake largely consisting of mature, working Londoners keen on getting a university education, but needing to juggle their studies with the demands of jobs and families.

Birkbeck has always forged its own path in higher education, choosing since its establishment in 1823 to focus on the needs of non-traditional students. Back then, it was the London Mechanics’ Institute, where artisans and craftsmen could learn about science, art and economics - an idea so radical at the time that founder George Birkbeck was accused of “scattering the seeds of evil”. Seven years later, the college became one of the first to admit women as students.

Today, Birkbeck boasts one of the most socially and culturally diverse student bodies in UK higher education and the bulk of its teaching takes place between 6pm and 9pm on weekday evenings, to accommodate their already-busy lives.

What Birkbeck College has in common with other universities, however, is that its administrative staff frequently have to grapple with archaic business processes, says James Smith, its head of systems and process improvement. The run-up to a new academic year can be a particularly testing time as:

Right now, we’re still doing a roaring trade in applications for courses that start in four weeks’ time. There’s a great deal of pressure.

Colleges that cater more to traditional students don’t have this problem - or at least, not to the same extent, he says. After all, eighteen-year-olds who have just completed their exams have typically been planning their path to university for a couple of years, at least. A Birkbeck student, by contrast, may leave it quite late to apply, driven by a sudden impulse to expand their horizons or improve their career prospects. Smith says:

If you’re applying now to come to Birkbeck in four weeks’ time and you haven’t even begun to think about your student loan, that’s not uncommon. But we can’t say to people with kids and a mortgage: ‘By the way, in order to enrol, you’ve got to make a downpayment on your tuition fees.’ We have to have in place a process that allows students to enrol, promise us they’ll apply for a loan and then helps us to track them to a successful conclusion or that loan application.

BI roll out

In the last year or so, all that has become a lot easier, thanks to the deployment of a business process management (BPM) system from Bizagi. The roll-out, Smith explains, is part of a wider College initiative, dubbed ‘Operational Excellence’, which aims to streamline administrative processes - enrolling students, processing fees, chasing student loan applications and so on - in order to focus time and money on offering the best classroom experience and delivering ground-breaking research.

Bizagi helps college staff look at the steps they need to perform in order to get a task completed today, work out a better, faster way of doing it, and then provides the technology layer that coordinates these steps across underlying IT systems in departments such as Finance, Registry and Human Resources, Smith explains.

Enrolling students and overseeing the progress of student loans has been a top priority for the Bizagi project - and the work already done here will reap significant dividends over the busy weeks ahead, says Smith, as Birkbeck staff work to get new students enrolled and their studies underway:

Prior to Bizagi, we had little visibility of whether students were delivering on their promises, so we’d see a lot of debt resulting from students failing to apply to the Student Loan Company. There were also lots of manual updates required to actually get the loans paid to us.

Today, as soon as a student enrolls at Birkbeck, Bizagi creates a case file for that student and monitors whether an application has been made to the Student Loan Company (SLC). Once it’s notified that the submission is made, the case is closed.

Before the implementation of Bizagi, ‘to be confirmed’ debt (tuition fees owed by students who had enrolled on the promise of applying for a loan) represented 18% of overall student debt to the University.

One year on, the figure was down to 1.9%, providing the Finance department, for example, with far greater clarity over Birkbeck’s income position.

That reduction has taken place at a time, moreover, when UK government funding changes have meant that more students need to take out a loan in the first place, driving a 35% year-on-year increase in student debt at Birkbeck.

In fact, as a college that targets non-traditional students, Birkbeck frequently feels the impact of government policy changes more deeply (and more negatively) than others in the higher education sector, says Smith. Against a turbulent backdrop, he says, BPM will at least offer Birkbeck the ability to respond and adapt with minimum disruption:

Right now, we have relatively few processes running with Bizagi, just because the shifting world keeps throwing other things in our way. But we’ve plans to do more. We’re riddled with processes that could do with improvement - but with a few of these cracked now, we’ll soon be flying.