The new normal for higher education payments in the UK

Thomas Marsh
Thomas Marsh is the Relationship Management Director for EMEA at Flywire.

Over the past few months I’ve found that as a result of COVID-19, I’m spending more time with my friends online to connect and catch up. During these sessions, weekly online quizzes on Kahoot eventually morphed into us attempting a version of Would I Lie To You? My confession is that the last session was as fun as some of the in-person get-togethers we’ve had, certainly on a laughs per minute count.

With that as a backdrop, we at Flywire have been thinking not only about how university finance teams maintain interaction and engagement with students during these times, but also how they are using this as an opportunity to further enhance these relationships and the overall payment experience.

After all, as more and more students turn to online learning, online payments are more essential than ever. Universities are currently faced with three potential scenarios when it comes to starting the 2020-2021 academic year:

  • September start with students on campus
  • September start with students commencing online and returning to campus later, when safe to do so
  • A later start date with condensed courses, potentially anywhere from October-January

All of these options have significant impacts on how universities collect payments and handle refunds for incoming tuition, accommodation and other receivable items.

So how do we evolve? Here are three areas where a secure online payment process is becoming even more important for higher education payments in the UK:

1. Direct Debits

For many universities, an attractive way to collect tuition payments from international students has been to encourage them to set up a UK bank account with direct debit once they arrive into the UK. Universities have leaned towards this method due to the lower cost of accepting such payments.

However, if new EU and international students commence studies online, then they likely won’t be able to remotely set up a UK bank account.

Similarly, returning international students who previously paid via Direct Debit may be more at risk of failure during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of:

  • Financial uncertainty due to overall global economic impact
  • Difficulty for overseas students or family members to maintain a GBP sterling bank account whilst out of the country

These challenges reinforce the importance of UK institutions having a proven, secure online way to facilitate international payments from numerous international students’ home countries more than ever before.

2. Payments at the Cash Office or at Enrolment Events

Many universities still collect tuition payments from their overseas students in person. These transactions are often made at Cash Offices or at payment stations during enrolment events. Many of these payments are made either directly on PDQ machines or processed by a staff member using a secure virtual terminal.

These payment methods become challenging with many enrolment events taking place virtually and staff members working from home. How, for example, will the Cash Office guide a Chinese-speaking payer to provide their UnionPay card details over the phone in a safe and secure manner?

Communication barriers and security not only prove troublesome in instances like these, but may also open the door for payment scams. Equally important, are concerns about successful transactions when many overseas cards may fail to process on UK originating card platforms.

3. Refunds

Refunds also need to be considered in today’s “new” reality. What Is your university’s policy on deposits and refunds? Are you relaxing guidelines to make deposit payments more refundable if course delivery differs or if visas are not granted?

With finance teams potentially having to do more with less, processing refunds can be an increasingly time-intensive process for staff. Awaiting the return of funds is also emotionally draining for the families and students, often resulting in increased inbound call volumes.

For all payments a university receives directly to their bank account and not through a payment provider, there are a number of tasks the university has to perform to ensure they comply with anti-money laundering regulations. In addition with those funds needing to be returned back to the originating source, significant time is required to obtain the necessary documentation from each international student.

Amid all the uncertainty of what the future may hold, one thing remains the same: digital transformation is here to stay. Whatever plans and measures a university puts in place for the next intake of students, it is clear that many parts of the process - such as enrolment and payments - are likely to be delivered online, creating a new normal compared to previous years.

There is no reason, however, that this must mean a less engaged, less effective experience for the student, nor university staff. Just like virtual hangouts with friends, online experiences can sometimes be even better than the physical alternative.

Check out the following resources to discover why millions of students and more than 2,000 institutions worldwide rely on Flywire and our comprehensive receivables solution to securely process online payments: