Achieving optimal efficiencies in business has never been more important, as every industry continues to grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and what it means for their future operations.

We have already seen the huge impact on the education sector, which has had to swiftly adapt its approach to teaching and traditional campus life, to provide students, teachers and support staff with the necessary resources to learn and teach – whether that’s in the classroom or remotely.

With resources and budgets stretched to their limits, the nature of operational overheads within the education sector is changing. Real estate costs are high, and the evolving role of technology has been accelerated by the pandemic. Innovation is fast becoming a necessity rather than a nice to have within the campus environment, as universities strive to remain centres of excellence and continue to attract the highest calibre of students and staff.

Visibility and cost control are critical

With so many demands and pressures on universities to stay innovative and competitive, ensuring the smooth running and efficiency of day-to-day operations plays a key part in helping institutions to keep up with the pace of change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen many university campuses close their physical doors and move to online teaching as the norm. But this doesn’t mean that buildings and infrastructures have also shut down, with IT systems, rooms and accommodation still needing to be operational and meet local and remote needs. The current crisis has however re-affirmed which areas of the campus are most costly to run, identifying a need for improved visibility of operational effectiveness across the board.

For example, energy and power consumption typically forms a significant part of operational spend, with lighting, ventilation and cooling systems consuming the most electricity. Estimates from the US suggest that a typical higher-education building of around 50,000 ft² consumes more than $100,000 worth of energy each year[1]. The type of buildings and campus set-up can also be a challenge for optimising operational efficiency, with space not necessarily being utilised in the most effective way.

The rise of ‘smart’ campuses has shown how technology can make processes much more effective and efficient, but not every institution has the funds or resources to make that happen. The first step needs to be to keep control over operational spending, in a bid to remain agile and responsive to changing demands. By reducing running costs, the education sector can focus on improving budgets and facilities in other areas of university life, increasing ROI and the attractiveness for students and staff alike.

The role of technology in driving operational efficiency

With technology forming the backbone of university life, it can also play a vital role in helping to drive and maintain operational efficiency, ensuring that universities have the capabilities and budgets to invest in state-of-the-art technology to support students in the lecture theatre and beyond.

There are three main areas where the right application of technology can make a difference: building efficiency, process efficiency and learning efficiency.

Despite many buildings remaining unused on campuses across the world, optimising space and the associated energy used is crucial and could save vast sums of money. Removing manual tasks and processes can help free up time for the IT department to focus on innovation rather than just ‘keeping the lights on’. Streamlining and improving the security for remote learning and exams is a crucial part of enabling students and teachers to work effectively and provide the right tools and environment needed for every eventuality.

Underpinning all of these scenarios and the most effective way to optimise operational efficiency is through automation.

Elevating automation    

It is clear that the scope and ownership of operational efficiency is changing and today falls under the remit of both the estates and IT teams. Whereas traditionally, the estates manager would be responsible for heating and lighting, an automated approach means that this can be controlled and optimised through IoT devices managed by the IT team. Having accurate insights and data around usage can help significantly reduce costs.

Congestion around campus and attendance monitoring is another area that can be automated, using sensors to provide insightful data about peak usage, rather than relying on manual processes. This will become even more crucial as students descend on campuses again in the months to come, when universities fully open their doors once more.

Every area of campus life that has an impact on cost and resource can be automated – from signage and library systems, to exams and lecture attendance – and all can lead to operational efficiency gains and provide scope for innovation.

But despite the numerous opportunities, universities need to start small and review the best fit areas to reap the benefits. Where are staff spending unnecessary time and resources? Where could automation add value? We have worked with a University in the Netherlands to streamline its exam process, for example. The ‘Exam-as-a-Service’ offer has removed the complexity of providing paper-based exams and identifying fraud, by providing a platform where teachers can build, create and host exams online.

This is just one example of how automation can be applied in a university setting but change management is the key to making it a success and accelerating the possible efficiency gains. IT and estates teams need to work together to ensure the best outcomes and that the necessary steps are put in place to automate key facets of campus life. Only then will universities have the necessary resources to focus on increasing innovation and attractiveness of their offering for students and staff, for years to come.