Member storyA student uses a laptop in her student accommodation.

How the City of Liverpool College is using technology to provide financial support to those students most in need

By introducing a fully integrated digital platform to manage their student finance applications, the City of Liverpool College have been able to work more sustainably and focus their efforts on providing targeted and quality support to those students most in need of their help.

Spread across five campuses and with more than 10,000 students, the college offers courses from entry level through to graduate level programmes. Each year, thousands of students apply for financial support, ranging from childcare support and bursaries to travel passes and free meals.

Amanda Parker, head of student services at the college, was keen to streamline the finance application process for both staff and students. By using Jisc’s building digital capabilities service as a source of reference and inspiration, Amanda was able to work towards identifying opportunities to make savings in both time and spend.

The college started using Pay My Student in September 2019 and it has so far brought huge benefits both in savings and in the detailed data it provides. Each application can be tracked on Pay My Student, the college can update students on the progress of their application, and payments can be made directly.

Before the introduction of Pay My Student, an application for student finance involved potentially completing six different paper forms for different types of support, all handled by different departments. Amanda says: 

Amanda Parker

“A weekly payment run for our bursary payments involved attendance figures being pulled manually and passed to the finance team to instruct the bank to make payments. Because Pay My Student links to the register system, we can pull the attendance data reports each week in minutes and then finance use the reports to make payments directly to the student.”

Amanda’s aim was to find a way for students to apply for support in one place, to free up the effort required on their part and to create a clearer and more time efficient system for the staff.

“We've gone from a process that took three days a week to one that takes 30 minutes, so we can now give much better quality of support to students, particularly those with very complex financial situations.”

Supporting student wellbeing

The college has a number of vulnerable students, including young carers and asylum seekers. Staff now have more time to fully support and advise students and can use Pay My Student to ensure that each student is accessing the full range of financial help available. The data provided by Pay My Student also allows the college to support the wellbeing of its students far beyond the time and effort they save when making their funding applications.

Amanda says: 

“Students are not always fully aware of the financial assistance available to them. Now that Pay My Student is linked to digital enrolment it’s easy for staff to remind them to make an application at the start of their college journey.”

Combined with an upgrade to the college’s smart tills and payment systems in 2021, Pay My Student offers valuable data on the free meals provided to students, such as which meal items are the most popular and which less so. This has impacted positively on sustainability with less food being wasted. It also offers insight into student buying habits, which opens the door to staff being able to offer additional support to those in need.

“We’ve had some students who were clearly using their free meal allocation to buy food to take home to the family.

“We’ve been able to intervene and have a conversation with those students to remind them that they need to look after themselves so they’ve got the best chance of succeeding on their course, but also to see if there is anything else we can do to support them financially.”

Reallocating surplus funds

Using Pay My Student has also changed the way the college spends, as the budget can be tracked live, and any available funds can be reallocated throughout the academic year. With more students living closer to the college campuses and many travelling more cautiously due to the pandemic, the number of travel support applications was much lower in 2021 than in previous years. This allowed an increase from £3.00 to £5.50 per day on meal spend and meant breakfast as well as lunch could be offered to eligible students. Students say this has made a big difference and, for many, has alleviated anxiety around starting their first classes of the day on an empty stomach.

Amanda says: 

“Because we’ve got better budget management now, I can see a couple of months into the academic year if it looks like we’re going to spend all the funds and look at whether there’s something else we could be doing to support students financially. Previously we would only know that at the end of the academic year when it was too late, now we’re able to look at the underspend and reallocate our discretionary funding.”

Reflecting on the success of their digital transformation, Amanda’s advice for anyone preparing to make a similar leap, is to be aware that change always meets some resistance and sometimes it can be overwhelming, but it’s often well worth the effort.

“The payoff for this is so worth it. The biggest benefit for us has been the absolute transparency the system brings. We know who we’re supporting, where they are in the process, how we’ve supported them and how much resource we need to be able to do that.”

So what’s next for Amanda and the team?

“We’ve started using Jisc’s digital experience insights survey to help us identify the key challenges for students so we can plan our next steps, and I have expressed an interest in the Jisc chatbot pilot.

“I’m hoping we can use a chatbot to answer some of the most common student finance queries, which would allow staff to concentrate their expertise on the more complex and challenging aspects of student financial support.

“I’m always aware that at the end of the day, sat in front of us is a student and our job is to meet their needs. What’s great for us here is seeing students come in who’ve arrived seeking asylum, and then you see them go through the college, end up doing a degree and they start their life again. That's just so rewarding.”

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