Creating a better experience for students applying for financial support

Background

The University of Essex chose to use the Blackbullion Funds Management System to improve the student experience of applying for hardship and other financial support funds. The FMS has enabled the Funding Team to improve efficiency and make the process much quicker and more sustainable for both students and staff.

Location

Essex, England

Capacity

17,800

Funding

Multiple

Team size

11

The challenge

When the Funding Team at the University of Essex reviewed their existing application process, they agreed it was not a sustainable or efficient way of helping students through the application process for financial support funds. 

Previously, students had been asked to complete a paper application form and submit it in person, along with their supporting evidence, to the university’s Student Information Desk. The front team would check to make sure all required documents were there, before passing the file onto the Funding Team. 

Then the pandemic hit, resulting in the university opening up its hardship fund to all its students. The Funding Team quickly realised that the paper-based process that had previously supported an average of 150 applications per year would no longer be possible with the sudden influx of more applications (900 in April 2020 alone).

The team was quick to respond and shifted the entire process to email to ensure that all students were able to apply for necessary funding. But this came with a fresh set of challenges.

The university’s main concern was that, while the move to email had made the process slightly more modern than before, it was still inefficient and was resulting in a bad experience for students that were applying for hardship funding. For many, this was an added stressor at a time when they were already struggling.

“We needed to make applying for hardship funds a much smoother process for students who are struggling financially, especially as they also tend to be struggling with mental health issues and other stressors too. We wanted to make the application process as easy as possible for them by replacing an outdated, drawn-out process with a more efficient one.”

rachel leighton-jones university of essex
Rachel Leighton-Jones Financial Support Officer
University of Essex

The objectives

  • Create a better student experience and ease stress at what is a challenging time for many students
  • Scale the university’s hardship fund application process to be able to handle the increased volume of applications following the Covid pandemic (from 150 per year to 900 in one month!)
  • Establish a sustainable way to handle applications, collaborate with colleagues and make reporting and record-keeping easier and more efficient

The solution

The University of Essex has been a Blackbullion partner for a number of years, using Blackbullion’s Financial Wellbeing Platform to offer financial education to its students. Through conversations with the Customer Success Team at Blackbullion, it became apparent that the platform can do much more than what the university was using it for. 

The team decided to implement the Funds Management System (FMS) to help the university achieve its goals of scaling funding support operations (to meet increased demand) and giving students a better experience when applying for funding.

“The Funds Management System presented us with an exciting opportunity to make the financial support process much better for our students.”

rachel leighton-jones university of essex
Rachel Leighton-Jones Financial Support Officer
University of Essex

The impact

8

funds currently managed through Blackbullion

3,254

applications received in 2020/21 for one fund

3-4x

quicker (at least!) for staff to process applications using the Funds Management System

A better experience for all students

A big focus for the University of Essex is giving students the best experience possible. When it comes to applying for funding, it’s about making sure that the process is easy, quick and simple for a student in financial difficulty to access funds. 

The Funds Management System has played a big part in making this possible. In particular, students have provided feedback on how user-friendly they find applying for funds through the Blackbullion platform.

“We’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from students.”

rachel leighton-jones university of essex
Rachel Leighton-Jones Financial Support Officer
University of Essex

Improved scalability and efficiency

Staff at the university are in agreement that there’s no way they would have been able to keep up with the increase in applications without the Funds Management System; the old process was “barely manageable” even when application numbers were a lot lower.

Using the Funds Management System, staff are now able to process applications at least 3-4x quicker. Improving efficiency has also helped to make the student experience better by reducing the time students have to wait for a decision on their application.

“We had a review after the first year of using the system to see how it was going and without exception, every single member of staff said they couldn’t have coped without the Funds Management System. It’s so easy and makes processing applications so much quicker, enabling us to do our job as best we can for the benefit of our students.”

rachel leighton-jones university of essex
Rachel Leighton-Jones Financial Support Officer
University of Essex

Sustainable process and collaboration

Another benefit of using the Funds Management System for the University of Essex Funding Team is that, if they are ever to struggle with the number of applications coming in from students, they can easily pull in temporary help from other teams. 

These staff members don’t even need to be from a funding background to be able to drop in and offer support, since they can be assigned set tasks through use of the Funds Management System’s workload management tools – making collaboration really simple. 

For example, if a member of staff lacks experience in making a decision about whether or not to grant an award to a student, they can still add capacity by completing the initial check (making sure the student has provided all necessary evidence and information), then assigning the case to someone else to make the decision.

“The most impactful thing for me about using the Funds Management System is that we have been able to process the sheer volume of applications that we have done and still improve the student experience, making it easier for students to have access to money when they really need it.”

rachel leighton-jones university of essex
Rachel Leighton-Jones Financial Support Officer,
University of Essex

Easier reporting and record-keeping

Another issue with the university’s previous paper-based process was that it made keeping an audit trail for the purposes of reporting very difficult. Even when the process shifted to email, emails would sometimes be misfiled and go astray. 

Having everything in one place, online, has had a meaningful impact on the record-keeping processes, while the analytics available for staff in the Funds Management System have helped with reporting and made it more accessible for everyone. The FMS automates reporting and presents all data in an easily digestible format, removing the need for lengthy, manual Excel analysis.

“My weekly reporting used to take 1-2 hours. Now I can do it in 15 minutes. Being able to download my own reports immediately from the Blackbullion platform is amazing.”

rachel leighton-jones university of essex
Rachel Leighton-Jones Financial Support Officer
University of Essex

Plans for the future

The Funding Team at the University of Essex will continue using the Funds Management System to further increase the efficiency of managing funds.

In fact, the team is already looking into what else they can add to the FMS, such as scholarships and bursaries, in order to streamline processes for other aspects of the team’s work too.

“Our long-term goal is to continue to improve the student experience, carry on supporting our students as best we can and improve their financial wellbeing in general.”

rachel leighton-jones university of essex
Rachel Leighton-Jones Financial Support Officer
University of Essex

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University info

Background

The University of Essex chose to use the Blackbullion Funds Management System to improve the student experience of applying for hardship and other financial support funds. The FMS has enabled the Funding Team to improve efficiency and make the process much quicker and more sustainable for both students and staff.

Location

Essex, England

Capacity

17,800

Funding

Multiple

Team size

11