Managing student records

The Transform project is looking at how records are managed in six key areas and, in February, the focus was on student records.  We talked to four teams working with student data and learned a lot from hearing about their frustrations and triumphs. We also identified some areas where efficiency could be improved through using technology.

The Student Conduct and Appeals team manages about 600 case files each year. The combination of an impending office move, and a new manager, created a great opportunity to review records management. Routines that had previously worked well had gradually broken down over a long period when a succession of temporary staff handled records inconsistently, and systems that involved organising files by case type went wrong when cases crossed boundaries – eg when a complaint also involved an appeal. Case files are in paper format and born-digital documents are printed and filed. Exploring the reasons why taught us something about resistance to going digital: people are unsure about the legal status of digital versions of important documents, especially if the signature is significant, and they also fear losing information in digital format if routine backup procedures fail.  This is useful in helping us understand and manage the culture change required to ease the transition to more digital ways of managing records. Happily, our visit also created an opportunity to discuss housekeeping electronic records prior to a planned migration to a new server – staff wanted advice about managing information received via email so it gets attached to the case files, rather than remaining in desktop mail folders.

The Exams and Awards Office services around 100 committees involved in student assessment, generating “masses” of paper. Thousands of exam record documents are printed for committees over the course of a year – around 75% of which are subsequently destroyed.  Previous efforts to reduce the volume of paper documents circulated to committee members have not been very successful: large volume emails caused system crashes and the number of recipients is limited; and security concerns surround the use of drop box.  SharePoint offers the promise of improved document sharing in future, but it will be critical to ensure the correct structures are in place first.

Committee members need access to statistics in meetings, but efforts to project live data onto a wall instead of providing information on paper stalled when the system performed slowly. Members have suggested using individual tablet devices to view data, a proposal that might justify a cost-benefit analysis – do other institutions have any experience of this?

 Another potential improvement area concerns the 1,500 students who each year complete a form on paper requesting special exam arrangements – a good candidate for an online web form with the added bonus that the digital record created could subsequently be stored against the student’s online record.

The team readily identified some other bonuses of digital records management: freeing up valuable office space by reducing the number of paper-filled filing cabinets, and improving the image of a service occasionally perceived as bureaucratic and inefficient, raising both institutional reputation and staff morale.

The Assessment and Records Centre for Arts and Sciences has already been using technology to improve efficiency. It used to take four full-time staff three weeks to manually enter 40-50,000 exam marks, but this has been halved using Excel – equivalent to six working weeks for one person, or one and a half weeks for each of the four team members. This has eliminated the large backlog that used to accumulate during the summer peak, enabling them to monitor progress and stay on top of other tasks, such as running reports for boards ratifying marks, which streamlines progression procedures. The team say the main benefit is not even the time saved, but the improvements in data accuracy – rectifying mistakes used to involve time-consuming manual checking, but the new automated process instantly identifies errors by revealing exceptions.

Completing a Change of Registration form used to require manually entering data into multiple fields on the student system – not only laborious, but also the cause of inconsistencies and errors. The team was frequently asked to retrospectively complete fields left blank (eg ethnicity codes, reasons for withdrawal) because lack of this data prevented the accurate completion of HESA returns.  A new process now updates all these fields in a single action.

Completing a Change of Circumstance form used to be a chore that involved completing a form in Word with data from several different places on the student system, but important as a vital part of the process that enables the College to claim fee income from Student Financing England (SFE).   The improvements made to the Change of Registration form mean a whole batch of Change of Circumstances forms can now be produced at a stroke, AND in a format conforming to SFE standards. 

In a typical year the team used to manually produce up to 18,000 individual results summary documents when results needed to be checked (eg resolving discrepancies, authorising condoned fails, ascertaining student debtor status, borderline results that might affect final degree classification).  The team devised a way to produce a batch of documents for all the students on a single programme in one exercise, described as a “massive boost to productivity” and an improvement attracting praise from exam board committee members.  Progression is another area that has been streamlined, using Excel functionality to generate summaries confirming whether students can progress to the next year or have failed any core modules.

The team has the Registered Student Form in their sights next – plans to generate this form with most fields pre-completed with accurate data from the student system could reduce the reliance on paper forms completed (possibly inaccurately) by students.

Historical student records in the archives originate from a variety of sources, and a series of institutional mergers has resulted in a legacy of different systems. Records are also held in multiple locations which can make life hard for archive staff answering queries. We wondered: if the records can’t be stored together physically, to what extent can they be brought together virtually? Ideas we have come up with so far include digitising location-specific master records that double as finding aids, and creating a new resource by producing guides to student records by department and/or era.

Lots to think about!