Thoughts on current issues

It is the UCISA Corporate Information Systems Group conference this week and, in order to help our exhibitors get the most out of the conference, we prepare a briefing for them on current issues. I thought it would be interesting to publish the briefing here…

Government thinking

The higher education sector is clearly heading for a period of upheaval and change as the impacts of the Browne report and the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) are felt. Browne made a number of recommendations but they are only recommendations at this point in time and further consultation will take place on a number of aspects of the report. However, as the Universities and Science Minister David Willetts noted in his recent speech to HEFCE, some decisions cannot wait and it is the Government’s intention to bring proposals to Parliament to raise (or possibly remove) the cap on student fees before Christmas. The short timescale is necessary in order for universities to be able to include the new fee information for 2012 entry in their prospectuses. The likely change will not, however, realise a significant increase in income for English institutions. The announcement in the CSR of a reduction in the teaching grant means that overall the proposals are essentially neutral. What impact changes to the fee structure in England will have on the rest of the UK is dependent on the response of the devolved administrations. Student expectations though are likely to increase – with higher fee levels there will be greater demands made of services and a much higher expectation of quality.

The spending review contained several assumptions about efficiency. The development of shared services continues to be high on the Government’s agenda; in a recent speech at the Universities UK conference, David Willetts identified “increased sharing of back office systems” as offering potential for universities to deliver efficiencies.

The impact on the sector

So what are the issues for heads of CIS services in universities and what impact will the proposed changes have? Many universities have already made substantial cuts to budgets and so IT departments are investigating more cost effective ways of delivering their services. Significant numbers have moved their student email and storage to the Cloud; the potential to move other services out is being examined. Clearly suppliers need to ensure that their models for managed or shared services are cost effective for institutions but there is also a need for a strong partnership between the supplier and the customer in order for outsourced models to be successful. Partnership is not just restricted to outsourced services. In the spirit of we’re all in this together universities and colleges are placing increased emphasis on effective relationships with their suppliers, looking to work together to address the challenges facing the sector.

The business cases for outsourcing student email have not just been based on cost; in many instances the main driver was the improvement in service that the outsourced provision offered to the student. Institutions will continue to seek ways to improve the student experience and there will continue to be the need to facilitate easy access to information, both internal and external to the organisation, and to teaching material on an increasing range of devices. This will require real time integration of systems and the ability to render information to portals and mobile applications. Improvements to services are not just restricted to the development of applications. Business processes will need to be reviewed to ensure that they are as efficient and effective as possible and making best use of the underpinning systems.

The Government are placing great emphasis on increased competition. We have already seen some universities commission software developments as part of their drive to gain competitive advantage by offering a better service than their rivals. This trend is likely to continue and has a couple of implications – institutions will endeavour to achieve a best of breed approach at the module level of applications and easy and effective integration will be required. Alternatively consideration may be given to outsourcing entire processes, bringing in data from external systems as and when it is needed.

Competition and stringent financial times demand that senior management have easy access to accurate business information in order to inform decisions and planning. The need to ensure single, verified sources of data for business information has never been greater. Further, institutions are striving to improve their level of customer care and look at a wide variety of information in order to identify at an early stage the students that may need additional support or be at risk of dropping out.

The role of CIS and IT departments

There are plenty of opportunities for IT departments as a whole and CIS sections in particular to play a prominent role in helping their institutions through what will be a challenging few years. The systems and services companies provide will play their part.

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