Pain of higher education cuts can be mitigated by streamlining services

Swingeing budget cuts due to hit universities, colleges and schools across the higher and further education hard in the Treasury's spending review could be mitigated by streamlining business processes through ICT.

Ian Mechie, managing director of Absoft Limited, one of the largest independent SAP software consultancies in the UK, which focuses on serving the higher education sector, highlighted the issue as the Government's spending review was unveiled.

Increasing financial pressures are coupled with a rise in demand for university places from both domestic and foreign students – UCAS has seen a 44% rise in university applications from UK residents alone over the last 10 years.

The recommendations of the Browne Report mean universities must focus on continuous enhancement of the student experience – while also facing up to the challenge of doing more with fewer resources.

Globally the UK remains the second strongest nation in higher education according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2010-11, however its competitors are investing significant sums in their universities, just when the UK is contemplating massive cuts in funding.

Those funding reductions mean higher education institutions are being forced to re-examine every facet of their operations in order to remain competitive.

Mr Mechie believes the use of technology to deliver streamlined and integrated administrative systems is a potential key cost-saving measure, and could provide an alternative approach to cutting teaching and administrative staff and courses.

"The funding cuts announced today are a huge blow to universities, but there are methods to reducing costs and improving efficiency across the board in these institutions through efficient integration of IT systems," he says.

"Integrated software solutions such as SAP introduce consistency by pulling together data and processes from across the organisation into a user experience that makes sense to employees, managers and students.

"Productivity for those working behind the scenes is increased by automating tasks carried out manually in packages like Microsoft Excel, and decision-making is improved because the same information is visible to everyone."

Customer-facing operations are improved through the use of an integrated solution as it helps universities to focus on students by streamlining the manage­ment of their information, studies, accounts and the aca­demic services the use.

"These solutions can better support the wider strategy of the institution, introducing cost savings and fostering greater efficiency by streamlining processes and reducing investment in disparate systems," continues Mr. Mechie

Those improvements can bring greater support to decision-makers, while increasing the availability of staff and other resources for the purposes they are intended – rather than becoming bogged-down in tasks the integrated, automated system can complete.

Such IT systems need not necessarily be purchased outright to provide maximum productivity, says Mr Mechie – with the increased availability of "shared" services offering a genuine alternative to buying in a raft of major new equipment and software.

"We are seeing interest in delivering integrated systems both on-site and also through shared-service methods from our UK-based data centre, which remove the cost of installing hardware on-campus and also introduce energy savings mandated by the government," adds Mr Mechie.

“The technology is definitely there – in various forms – to support UK higher education institutions of all shapes and sizes and to help them continue to compete on the global stage.”