Current challenges for Higher Ed Corporate Information Services

I circulate a briefing to exhibitors ahead of each of UCISA’s main conferences. As we are approaching CISG14, here’s my take on the current state of the nation…

CIS Services – current issues

It is three years since both the UK and Scottish Governments published White Papers encouraging the sector to put students at the heart of the system. Since then, institutions have focussed on the student experience, streamlining processes and improving facilities. That focus continues. Although some have invested in bespoke applicant environments, there is recognition that institutions need to do more to foster a long term relationship with applicants to ensure that they translate from applicant to student through to graduation and alumnus. IT systems are at the hub of this transition. Institutions are looking to their student information systems to support a greater focus on the student journey. They are also investigating how CRM systems can help engagement with applicants, students and alumni, moving from administering customers, to putting them at the centre of what we do.

There is a growth in the use of analytics to assist in the support of student services. The focus has primarily been on retention, tracking the interactions students make with a variety of systems (e-assessment, online learning, the Library, IT systems login, security systems) to identify those students who are not engaging with the institution and so are at risk of dropping out. However, there is evidence that institutions are making wider use of the data they hold to recommend materials to students to assist in their studies or to recommend modules based on previous performance. The student now gets a much more personalised experience, with tailored information delivered through portals or apps from a variety of systems and benefits from increased automation of processes.

There continues to be pressure on recurrent spending and so it has become increasingly important to know your numbers and for senior management to have accurate and timely information at their fingertips in order to inform business decisions. Knowing the costs of services is vital to demonstrating the effectiveness of efficiency and modernisation initiatives; services are being benchmarked both internally and against the operations of other institutions. Business intelligence systems are being used for much more than management reporting. They are at the heart of scenario planning exercises and are used to monitor critical business processes to identify whether performance is on target or whether remedial measures need to be taken.
IT is embedded in every aspect of an institution’s operations and continues to enhance processes and deliver business benefits. There remain challenges in ensuring that decisions to develop new services and implement new systems are linked to the institution’s strategies and plans, and are founded on strong business cases, backed by sound financial data. Effective business intelligence can assist with the latter but there remains a need to ensure that practices such as Enterprise Architecture are deployed to ensure greater understanding of the impact of change.

The way in which services are delivered is changing with a blend of outsourced and internal provision now prevalent across the sector. The range of services continues to grow and new technologies emerge and are deployed in our institutions. The IT service needs to be agile to respond to both the changes in delivery model and technological advances; both require the workforce to acquire new skill sets.


The student experience has been the focus since fees were increased to £9000. Whilst this has had a positive impact in that institutions have sought to improve facilities, there has also been an increased emphasis on making services more efficient and more appropriate for the modern age. This has been driven by a number of factors. The increase in fees has placed greater emphasis on value for money and the level of spend on administration has been highlighted as evidence that institutions are not investing in their core purpose. There has been a belief that the sector has been awash with cash and initiatives such as there continue to be initiatives to demonstrate that the sector punches above its weight whilst making improvements to aspects of its operation. There is though a declining unit of resource. Undergraduate fees are fixed and are not index linked; their value in real terms continues to decline. There is also pressure on the contributions made to the sector from Government funds. This is a particular challenge in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where a greater proportion of funding is drawn directly from the national governments; a recent article on the situation in Northern Ireland in the Times Higher illustrates the issue.

Whilst the increase in fees has brought attention on the services for students, there has also been attention on the research institutions deliver. There is a growing emphasis on widening access to the outputs from publicly funded research and institutions are considering how open access to both publications and data can be delivered in a cost effective, efficient way. It is important that institutions are able to link publications to the researchers that produced them so that they can be referenced in applications for funding and so that evidence of their citation can be utilised in exercises like the Research Excellence Framework. The requirements of research focussed systems are complex as there are differences in the policies of the individual research councils and other funders as well as significant variations in disciplinary practices. It is an area that will continue to evolve and it is hoped that some standardisation and use of common identifiers can be achieved in order to facilitate the development of integrated systems.

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