Streamlining applicant and student communications with UNIT-e

With a wide range of courses catering for school leavers through to experienced managers, and to reduce its paper burden, CAFRE needed to develop its student management and communications systems. With the support of UNIT-e specialist consultancy, a business process review has been the catalyst needed to realise its vision for change.

The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) delivers education and training programmes to Northern Ireland’s next generation of land-based professionals, offering courses in Agriculture (including Veterinary Nursing), Food Technology, Horticulture (including Floristry) and Equine Management. CAFRE has over 1,700 further and higher education students across its three campuses studying a range of courses from Level 2 through to Level 6.

The college also delivers training to over 8,000 people employed in the Northern Ireland agri-food industry whereby farmers, family members and farm workers can undertake courses in technical and business skills to help them develop their businesses. With such a wide range of courses catering for school leavers through to experienced managers, CAFRE needed to develop its student management and communications systems.

Reducing the paper burden

CAFRE had already started down the journey of electronic recording many years ago using the UNIT-e management information system (MIS) but were not getting optimum benefit from it. It was time to take the next step towards digital transformation by enabling current and prospective students to interact with the college using the technology at their fingertips.

Karl Redmond, MIS Enhancement Manager explains “CAFRE operates a largely paper-based recording system. Traditionally, further and higher education applicants could apply online; the application details were then printed out by college staff and all communications after this point, including feedback and progress information, were conducted by letter. Letters cost time and resources to create, print and mail and risk getting lost in the post or in the applicant’s home which could result in students missing interviews.

Similarly, interview outcomes were also kept on paper and stored separately from our MIS, so applicants could not track the progress of their application. This meant staff having to repeatedly answer telephone enquiries which distracted them from carrying out other key tasks.”

 Need for flexibility

The reliance on paper also impacted on CAFRE’s industry training courses, as Karl explains “When a farmer enrolled on a course, we would send them a hard copy letter with a time and date to attend, but field activities are weather dependent and unpredictable and it’s difficult to confirm that you can attend a course that has been booked months in advance. We found that hours of training were missed and funding unused because farmers did not have any easy option to change the time of their courses.

Group bookings were difficult to administer also. Sometimes an employer or farm agent wanted to make a group booking but our online application function would not let them do that – they had to phone in and individually book each learner onto the course. These details then had to be rekeyed into the MIS.” Karl knew that the answer to a more flexible, digital approach lay in the college’s existing technology, so he turned to the FE community for advice.

The transformation journey

Attending regional UNIT-e user groups gave Karl the opportunity to share experiences and views with colleagues in FE and see how other colleges had transformed their student record Management Information Systems with the support of specialist consultancy.

CAFRE secured the expertise of UNIT-e Consultant, Francis McLaughlan to carry out a full business process review (BPR) which involved three days of on-site consultancy. Francis interviewed a number of key members of staff, from the Administration Manager to the Head of Education at the college. From this, he gained an understanding of the processes the college followed, identified the skills gaps and assessed which software was being underused.

Most importantly, the time spent with the CAFRE team provided Francis with a valuable insight into how the college wanted to develop and future-proof its Education Management Information System. “I like to think of the business process review as a kind of satnav for colleges to help drive forward business improvements,” says Karl.

Personalised communications

The BPR recommended that CAFRE streamlined its admissions process by communicating with prospective students via email and text, uploading all supporting information onto UNIT-e and revamping its website.

To ensure a smooth transition, Francis suggested that CAFRE trialled the new admissions process with its industry training applicants. “We started by sending course joining instructions to farmers by email and followed this with a start date reminder by text,” explains Karl. This practice has now been applied across CAFRE’s entire application process.

“We then focused on SMS to set up broadcast text messaging to communicate information to students,” adds Karl. “With the digital channels we can tailor messages via email or SMS to make them more personal and engaging and this has resulted in increased interview attendance rates by applicants.”

Self-service booking system

Another focus of the review was to improve the course booking system, as Karl explains. “We have developed a self-service model for our industry trainees as well as for our more traditional Further and Higher education students. All students can now access their course details online and industry trainees can choose their particular course at a time and date which suits them.”

Alongside individual applications and bookings, CAFRE invested in UNIT-e Online Services for organisations to provide a new group booking function to allow an employer, contractor or farm agent to book a place on behalf of someone else. The next piece of the jigsaw was to introduce an online payment facility to enable trainees to pay their fees at the same time as applying for the course. Working with the consultant, CAFRE put in place a payment system which fully integrates with UNIT-e. In the last year since the system went live, over £175,000 in course fees has been collected.