At a time when higher education institutions (HEIs) worldwide must ensure they offer an exceptional student experience to continue to attract students, they are presented with a dichotomy. In order to compete with other institutions, it has never been more beneficial for them to collaborate to ensure cost savings and efficiencies.
Institutions in Ireland are already aware of the advantages of shared services – a formal co-operation whereby the implementation and cost of ICT developments – and improvements in other areas – are shared between institutions.
A successful example of shared services is An Cheim, founded and funded by the Irish Department of Education and Science with a remit to establish a set of sector-wide standards, and implement connected information systems at all the Institutes of Technology in the country. An Cheim provides a common platform for applications including the student information system, Banner by Ellucian, and supports shared services in 13 Irish Institutes.
Other European countries also have centralised systems agencies that follow some form of shared services model within their higher education sectors. France has AMUE, Spain has Sigma, Italy has CINECA, Sweden has Ladok and Germany has HIS, all fulfilling a similar function and providing structure for collaborative ventures.
Shared services are not, therefore, a new or uniquely Irish idea but the Europe-wide trend leaves us in no doubt that collaboration is the way forward. There are significant financial benefits of outsourcing services to the private sector: it enables collaborating institutions to build stronger joint business cases to bring to potential funders. The concept of shared services has therefore become increasingly crucial to the rapid development of HEI back office functions in this age of austerity.
It was certainly a hot topic at the recent HEAnet Conference in Athlone with HEAnet announcing plans for provision of new services and the showcasing by universities of the new Shared Services Framework which is coordinated through the Irish Universities Association (IUA). The framework has the support of the Higher Education Authority and seems likely to offer Collaborative applications a more successful route to funding than would be the case for stand alone projects.In spite of this level of official support, it is important, however, to be clear that in this context the use of the word ‘sharing’ does not mean that all Universities must participate. Rather it conveys a collaborative and optional partnership which delivers the maximum benefit to participants in a way that makes sense and does not mean duplication of effort where investment has already been made by an institution in a particular area.
The shared services arrangements that will fall under the framework are anticipated to be fluid and sophisticated, made only between institutions with specific requirements and on a case by case basis. Working with like-minded institutions can be beneficial in terms of negotiating shared service deals on software, reducing licensing costs through bulk buying and shared implementations and providing universities with a much more flexible approach to managing IT software across their estate.
However, the bigger picture is that this is all part of a process of modernisation, facilitated by a move towards Cloud computing. It will ultimately see students and institutions benefitting from the ability to orchestrate services that see bureaucratic back office activities being replaced by services that are not only well designed, but are initiated by students or tutors – or the occurrence of events – and work effectively. The efficiencies this modernisation brings means that students will not feel that their own administrative burden has increased, but rather that they will benefit from improved student experience.
For its part, Ellucian is investing heavily in Banner and other solutions to facilitate this move that will see the demand for more sophistication being met with fewer resources, much of it from the Cloud.
The message from the HEAnet Conference was clear: shared services is the way forward. It will be increasingly important as institutions prepare for the future because a structured sharing arrangement takes advantage of technologies that deliver excellent student experience; but, by building upon advanced student information systems, technologies are implemented with the capacity to be updated whenever they have outlived their purpose – or as better approaches become apparent – and supported by a clear view of business benefit. Through shared services, Irish universities and institutes will be able to deliver an outstanding experience and continue to attract students from around the world.