Process Automation in Higher Ed: Hype or Reality?

Principal Analyst

Top of MInd: Process Automation in Higher Ed
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Hype. Whether scrolling through Twitter, LinkedIn, or your email, you cannot escape the hype around low code and robotic process automation (RPA). So, as you hear the hype, you may be inclined to read a little, then continue to scroll past it, given everything else on your plate. We’ve always dealt with the latest hyped technology, and it can be difficult to cut through the marketing to get to what is real and useful today.

Low Code

What is low code, and why are so many institutions excited about it? Low code refers to the ability to develop applications without programming in a traditional language, like Java. Existing products of all sorts (e.g., Mulesoft) are adding low-code interfaces. Many development platforms (e.g., Mendix) are also building low-code options, and there are some low-code-only platforms (e.g., KissFlow) that have deep markets. The right product for your campus depends on the problem you’re trying to solve and the existing inventory of tools you have.

Why should you consider low code? Let’s look at your backlog of development requests. It is likely a long list including things that may never get done, especially given all the sidetracks you’ve had to take in 2020. Then, let’s also consider the items that are not on your backlog. If your institutional partners believe something will never get done, you may never even see the request!

So the answer to “why?” is agility. Low code allows you to develop solutions faster than coding from scratch and allows more staff to participate in the process. That’s a pretty simple formula to digitize, automate, and integrate process components that have slowed down your institution for years.

Low-code platforms can provide benefits to institutions for a variety of usage patterns.

Low-code-only platforms: These platforms provide the ultimate quick development for simple applications. Though IT support is strongly recommended for data access and integration, security setup, monitoring, etc., tech-savvy analysts can accomplish most development on these platforms. These tools can enable quick digitization efforts for institutions with a backlog of processes based on spreadsheets, PDF, email, and paper.

Low-code add-ons: If you are invested in a platform that offers a low-code solution for application extensions (e.g., Salesforce), there may be a good argument to take advantage of that platform. Institutions should be cautious, however, about vendor lock-in. If you build unrelated applications on the platform, you make the eventual exit from that platform significantly more difficult. This is not a decision to take lightly.

Development platforms: There are a handful of full-fledged development platforms that can be used by IT developers and citizen developers as standard platforms for small-, medium-, and high-complexity applications. We have seen several campuses take this approach, moving large portions of their development to a platform that provides both low-code and standard development (“pro code”) interfaces. These platforms provide a host of benefits to institutions, in addition to the benefits of low code alone. Adopting these platforms can replace a large portion of custom development, simplifying the technology’s management for application development and speeding the process.


Robotic process automation (RPA) is the use of automated processes (bots) that can perform the work of people and computers to simplify and speed up work that humans have had to do in the past. Today, the use of RPA in higher education is much more isolated than low code. Most robust RPA platforms are stand-alone platforms, though the merger and acquisition cycle for RPA technology is underway (e.g., SAP and Appian have acquired RPA products), so they may be combined with other development technologies in the coming years.

RPA provides an organization with the ability to automate high-volume, repetitive, and mature processes. However, not every institution may be ready to benefit from RPA. Why?

  • High volume: You need to automate many transactions to provide enough savings to justify the investment.
  • Repetitive: Bots that perform the actions are doing so based on simple rules.
  • Mature: Automating an unproven process with unknown errors is very difficult.

Given these characteristics, RPA does not readily apply to higher education on an enterprise scale, except in the largest institutions with shared services functions. In smaller institutions, you may be able to implement RPA on a smaller scale (e.g., in an individual unit for a small number of high-volume processes) without a lot of complexity, but this is likely not a long-term solution to an inefficient process.  The real winners in RPA are very large organizations (e.g., large banks) with long-standing investments in older technology (e.g., mainframes) with very high volumes.

We do not expect a significant uplift in RPA investments in higher education. In institutions or systems in which there is significant consolidation or service center activity, RPA may be a viable solution on an enterprise scale. Still, as one institution put it, “RPA is not for the faint of heart.”


RPA and low code are technologies that not only speak directly to many 2020 problems (e.g., budget constraints, remote work) but also align well to the changes already happening in most markets before this year. Efficiency, agility, and cost savings are all relevant, and with the current economic climate, these are all the more critical. The real question is, how well do they apply to higher education?

Low-code platforms hold great promise for higher education, given consistently increasing expectations and decreasing staffing and budgets. Remote work is not likely to go away, even after the pandemic has passed, so using low code to digitize processes will remain an essential tool. Expect to continue to see adoption in 2021.

RPA is less likely to make a quick impact in higher ed but will continue to make slow gains in large institutions and systems where the ROI can be achieved.

Access more insights and examples on how to use low-code to balance long-term goals with urgent day-to-day needs.

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Principal Analyst
Dave Kieffer spearheads research focused on finance, and HCM applications, data management and other critical higher education technologies at Tambellini Group. He brings more than 30 years of creating, implementing, and managing enterprise-class applications in higher education. His experience includes all levels of applications development and management in higher education. Among other things, he has been responsible for ERP implementations, mobile, and web development, application architecture and integration technologies.

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