Might chatbots transform the university offers process?

Industry expert, Tim Deeson, explains how AI could improve the quality of student intake

Another year, another set of A-Level results and another batch of students preparing to set off for university. For many, where they’re headed may well not have been first choice; instead, it’s the product of an unexpected grade, which set off the process of clearing or adjustment.

That element of the unexpected brings with it a lot of operational strain. As anyone who has been involved answering phones or emails on a clearing day will be aware, it’s a frantic period of discussion and negotiation which demands a lot of empathy, paperwork, and cups of tea.

The sudden peak of inbound communications is currently handled mainly by admissions teams and temporary workers, often working around the clock. Could AI improve the traditional approach and take away some of this strain? There’s growing potential for chatbots and conversational interfaces to help those in higher ed meet the clearing challenge, and some seats of higher learning are already experimenting.

Making the path of the student as easy as possible is certainly in a university’s best interests.

Same old, same old…

The key questions that students need to answer in clearing are pretty uniform. What grades have they achieved? What are they interested in studying if not their chosen subject? What other activities are they interested in?

When someone has to spend their time compiling the answers to these questions right at the start of the process, the efficiency of everything that follows suffers. While it’s unlikely that we’ll see robots making students uni offers in the immediate future, empowering admissions tutors to have a much fuller picture of a student before final discussions is certainly an area where chatbots can shine. A student providing the basic building blocks of their application to a conversational interface is quick, straightforward and intuitive, especially for a demographic which has grown up entirely at ease with messaging technology.

This sort of AI also helps with workload, because clearing can be a horrible scaling problem, with universities requiring vast teams of people for a very short period. Chatbots can allow higher education institutions to provide a better experience to more students, without having to plan for every phone call requiring a member of staff.

Click here to see just such an example in action at Brunel University.

“There’s growing potential for chatbots and conversational interfaces to help those in higher ed meet the clearing challenge”

Clearing the student path

Today, making the path of the student as easy as possible is certainly in a university’s best interests; institutions want to differentiate themselves and provide better services costs, if they can. With course fees at record levels, higher education has become a competitive marketplace.

Without being cynical, clearing can be looked at as a normal retail transaction. Today’s retailer will know how available their information is, and how easy and friction free it was for customers to access has a huge impact on results. Clearing is the kind of market where people are making decisions very quickly and keen to get the places they want.

Chatbots doing the mundane work allows clearing advisors and admissions tutors to focus on the more important things, including getting to know students and making offers. You can see how you could end up with higher quality students thanks to converting more people quickly.


In related news: How chatbots are changing HE more broadly


What next?

Having launched some live tools that are helping students and universities, I’m now really excited about the future. They are deliberately simple at this point and we’re currently mapping future issues, such as processing personally identifiable information. That said, I can see a future where the process is much more sophisticated, and students could say “here’s my UCAS code” before a conversational interface takes them on a tour through what is eligible.

Tim Deeson is CEO of GreenShoot Labs