By Jenny Oldaker
When it comes to matters of technological innovation in UK universities the headlines tend to be grabbed by the latest flashy development in teaching or research. Yet any institution is only as good as the administration that supports it, and without a cutting-edge back office, the efficiency and success of the university as a whole will be compromised. In the fast-evolving arena of technology, there are a number of ways in which the administrative sectors of higher education institutions are making the most of the latest innovations – and passing on the benefits to staff and students.
One area that has seen significant development over recent years is that of university finance. From library fines to student accommodation fees, payment systems are increasingly being moved online, as evidence points to the fact that payment platforms offer increased efficiency and can maximise revenue on campus transactions. Research conducted by KPMG on behalf of WPM Education found that universities can see annual recurring savings of £13 per transaction and £50 per invoice when some or all of the payment process is moved online. WPM itself handles payments for 160 UK universities and colleges, and its scalable payment platform is dedicated to enhancing efficiency for transactions – and offering savings as a result.
Money saving and improved efficiency underpin many of the technological innovations in university administration – ideally with a view to an end result of improving the staff and student experience. Digital advances can offer benefits before a student even arrives at a university, and the student recruitment process has seen a fascinating overhaul in recent years. One example of this is in Data Harvesting’s student recruitment ‘Student CRM’ software, which helps different departments work together as an individual makes their way from enquiry to enrolment.
Universities in the UK lead the world in embracing technology in innovative ways
Dom Yeadon, managing director at Data Harvesting believes that software such as this can free up more time and energy for staff to concentrate on other vital work. For example, in running a university open day, a software solution that manages the registration process and email notifications, and can deal with all the repetitive complex tasks means that the events team gain extra time to deal with the more ‘human’ elements and challenges of the event.
Such systems offer clear benefits. “Universities in the UK lead the world in embracing technology in innovative ways,” Dom Yeadon asserts. “They do so to deliver quality, consistency and bandwidth in a resource-constrained climate. We enable universities to use some of that freed-up energy for innovating to attract tomorrow’s students.”
Staff energies within library departments are being similarly freed up through innovative technology. Justin Leavesley, Chief Strategy Officer at library management systems company Talis, explains: “Over the last few years, we have worked very closely with libraries in higher education to understand their processes and areas of manual effort that can be automated with technology. Through Talis Aspire, libraries have a solution that enables them to engage their academics directly as part of their teaching and learning process. Faculty members use the system to build and maintain reading lists that are integral to taught courses delivered in UK Higher Education. We also deeply integrate with other institutional systems that manage the library catalogue, subscriptions management, user authentication, etc – removing the need for manual checks for accuracy and consistency.”
It’s easy to see how the university as a whole can benefit from such a set-up: For library staff, tedious, error-prone and expensive manual processes are reduced, while academic staff can feel more supported by and engaged with the library. Students get a far more consistent and connected experience of accessing the resources they need to achieve their learning outcomes in courses.
Peter Tinson, executive director at UCISA is well placed to offer an overview of more ways in which service provision has been enhanced by tech developments in HEIs. He cites the way in which universities communicate with students as one of the main areas of recent change: “Universities are utilising a wide range of social media to deliver information to their student body, and to encourage engagement between applicants and current students so that the former can get a feel for the institution they have applied to and so inform their decision.” Such engagement between applicants and current students is essentially putting marketing in the hands of the students themselves; an interesting emerging trend that looks set to develop still further.
Data accessibility is another area of growth. “This trend began early in the decade with the development of portals,” explains Peter Tinson. “It has continued to evolve with mobile apps, delivering information to staff and students no matter where they are and what device they are using. University apps were quickly enhanced by integrating other services such as Google Maps and local transport information; these services are being further developed by delivering location-aware information and by using augmented reality techniques. In some cases, the university-developed app did not meet the students’ requirements – several institutions developed ways of identifying successful student-developed applications and integrating them into the ‘official’ app.
Universities are utilising a wide range of social media to deliver information to their student body, and to encourage engagement between applicants and current students so that the former can get a feel for the institution they have applied to and so inform their decision
“Although technology is important,” continues Peter Tinson, “the data and processes underpinning technology are as important – if not more so.” The use of data and learner analytics is well established and is beneficial to both students and the institution. Data now underpins many management decisions and allows modelling of scenarios to facilitate effective planning. With this in mind, a new data centre in the north of England looks set to revolutionise university administrative systems by harnessing big data. The shared data centre, procured by Jisc and delivered by aql, provides a solution for UK research and education through the provision of secure housing of digital systems and services.
Through outsourcing high-performance computing (HPC) facility, Jisc members can benefit from specialist skills and emerging trends in big data management, using the capabilities of Jisc’s ‘Janet’ network. Meanwhile, aql’s data centres support the academic community’s need for high-performance IT infrastructure, not only for research, but also for operational infrastructure, such as back office systems. It’s already opening doors to significant benefits for participating institutions.
The north’s major universities have been using the centre to streamline IT functions. For example, it represents a key element in Leeds University’s plan for data hosting and management. Barry Haynes, head of strategy and architecture at the University of Leeds, said: “Our data centre strategy is to consolidate all IT infrastructure hosting into two facilities – one on- and one off-campus. We still need an on-campus facility for services such as telephony, media management and some storage. A detailed business case analysis indicated that by moving as many of our services as possible to either a new converged infrastructure or the public cloud hosting, we could minimise on-site refurbishment cost and maximise operational efficiency over the longer term.
“The opportunity the shared datacentre provides, particularly improved flexibility and resilience alongside the benefit of the Jisc network investments, is ideal in supporting our strategy. As such, Leeds is planning to make use of the new datacentre as part of a significant refresh of its IT infrastructure.”
A detailed business case analysis indicated that by moving as many of our services as possible to either a new converged infrastructure or the public cloud hosting, we could minimise on-site refurbishment cost and maximise operational efficiency over the longer term
Sheffield Hallam University has engaged with the data centre since its inception and also envisages a host of benefits. Saul Freeman, digital technology services project manager at Sheffield Hallam, said: “Leveraging the NDC will support us in flexing our data centre provision in order to rapidly scale new services and systems. Our hybrid cloud, co-located and on-premise approach will help us become more agile and maximise delivery of benefits to the University. As we work to reduce our on-premise datacentre footprint over time, as cloud and co-location grow out, this allows the University to increase the availability of teaching space on our two Sheffield city centre campuses.”
In an increasingly competitive market, keeping up with the latest data, processes and technology is vital for back-office operations in UK universities. When technological innovation is embraced successfully it can help an institution to meet the demands of students, maintain job satisfaction among staff and achieve maximum efficiency and significant cost-saving across departments. Where universities keep in mind that their ultimate aim should always be to improve engagement and experience of staff and students, keeping pace with developments in technology offers the key to achieving this goal.