Aiding admin

Cutting-edge administrative tech can help universities differentiate themselves and give the most distinctive of student experiences

By Nicola Yeeles

Good administration underpins universities. While it may not sound like the most fast-moving area, there’s no doubt that it’s crucial. “Back office admin is the heartbeat of institutions and unless that’s done well the interesting strategic stuff is more of a challenge.” So says Jon Baldwin, managing director for market development at Tribal, who provide technology solutions for higher education and other sectors. Revamping administrative processes can make universities more cost efficient, offer a more positive staff and student experience, and give institutions the data they need for fast, effective decision-making.

One challenge universities face in their professional services is when budget for similar services is spread across departments, making exact costs near-invisible. Software licenses, for example, may be paid for by individual teams without the costs being transparent to the IT team. As a result, many more institutions are working with tools that help them understand their precise spend across all systems. Baldwin says, “As universities seek to release as much of their income as possible to concentrate on front-line teaching and student support, financial benchmarking is increasingly important.”

Knowing what you’re spending where can lead to cost saving decisions, like procuring cheaper suppliers, doing things more efficiently, and centralising or outsourcing services. It’s also vital that you know how typical your actual spend is. Potential sources of information include government reports that showcase statistics from across the sector, data from your own past years and cohorts, and information you can glean from competitor institutions. The Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) official data on students, leavers, staff, finances, business interactions and estates can now be analysed for fresh business insights using the Heidi service from Jisc/HESA. It is freely available to HESA-subscribing universities, but non-profit higher education sector bodies can also subscribe.

Knowing what you’re spending where can lead to cost saving decisions, like procuring cheaper suppliers, doing things more efficiently, and centralising or outsourcing services


At Birmingham City University, for example, creating an in-house print function with Canon means work is now completed more quickly than when they had to send it out to external suppliers, and allows the University greater control over the materials being printed. But Andrew Minter, chief information officer at the University of Portsmouth, who used Jisc’s financial X-ray service, adds, “This isn’t just about cutting costs. Knowing where you are not spending enough money is also important. If student experience is your top priority this may help to build the case for services to help you reach your aims.”

So once the true costs of the professional and teaching services are understood, the student experience is a key area for investment. Many higher education institutions are investing in student management systems; that may happen when legacy systems come to the end of their lives, or bespoke ones appear less usable than more up-to-date technology which offers greater insights into the student body. While fundamentally use of such infrastructure is pretty standard across the sector, there are pockets of good practice that shine. For example some universities have student information portals and are getting student appointments joined up with other processes and workflows to give them a more streamlined experience.

Some universities and indeed further education providers are looking at their learner data and piloting projects examining what helps them thrive or causes them to drop out.

Many predict that this will be the year when learner analytics starts to have a major impact on university administration especially in the fallout from the Higher Education Commission’s January 2016 report ‘From Bricks to Clicks – The Potential of Data and Analytics in Higher Education’. With the right consent, positive use of learning analytics helps universities create a sense of belonging within their student body, improving retention, satisfaction and ultimately the institutions’ reputation. ​

Student entrepreneurs from the University of the West of England, George Sanderson and Jamie Rawsthorne, set up Unique Insights, a company that helps universities make the most of their learners’ data, specifically using predictive analytics to highlight learners most at risk of quitting, which allows universities to intervene early enough. Sanderson says, “The biggest barrier for universities making the jump into analytics is actually taking the first step. Universities have all of this data which has been collected, they are just unsure how to use it in order to make a positive impact on their students.”

It’s clear that acquiring the right software is not enough of an investment. Good administration requires time and effort, whether it’s collecting survey results, getting staff to invest time in a user community or training them on the new systems.

‘Reducing administrative burden whilst enhancing the student experience is the ultimate goal for many institutions. And innovation is the key. Our award-winning predictive analytics solution StREAM analyses a student’s digital ‘footprint’ and provides university staff with proactive support to help improve the student experience and alleviate manual processes.There’s a real buzz around using learning analytics and dashboards to harness the value of data to deliver real-time insight and reduce often complex and laborious administration functions.
‘Delivered as a fully managed service and integrated suite of products, StREAM puts the insight directly into the hands of students and tutors. It systematically records student attendance, monitors international students, supports engagement and provides intelligent registers, reports and early warnings.” Richard Gascoigne, Solutionpath Director, DTP Group

One way is to upskill staff on using learner analytics platforms, or create a central team skilled at analysing intelligence. They can use cutting-edge tools, such as Tableau and Pentaho Kettle, to visualise data. Or you can outsource it: procure a solution that will store a variety of data in the cloud and then visualise it for you. Shabaz Mohammed, managing director of Pelican Procurement, says, “All our customers require bespoke reporting. It’s no longer about saying ‘this is the report you’re going to get’ – instead, it’s ‘how do you want it?’ The beauty about processing power in the cloud is that you can do virtually anything with millions of figures.”

Whichever route you go down, ease of access is key and many of the companies on the market pride themselves on user-friendly, non-techy dashboards, customisable reports and sparkling visualisations to make sense of the figures. As a result, technology can play a role in better decision-making and give university senior management the administrative data they need to act decisively on the evidence. Mohammed says, “The ability to make a decision is now much faster. If the head of one department says ‘I need some reports’ he can get the reports within minutes and make a decision that used to take several months. Speed of activity is now improving. The customer experience on data and information is very important.”

 Technology can play a role in better decision-making and give university senior management the administrative data they need

In a climate of uncertainty – from student numbers and income to research funding, and external factors like the impact of rising interest rates– the ground beneath us is constantly shifting. That makes decision-making even more difficult. Speaking at the Association of University Administrators’ annual lecture in November 2016 Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, was positive about the factors that can slow universities down. He said: “We are, and rightly in my view, communities. That’s why I do passionately believe in senates; I passionately believe in consultation and that slows you down compared to a private company. But that doesn’t slow you down so things can’t happen, so you can’t innovate and change if you really want to.”

Universities need to build-in regular opportunities to review the information coming out of their back-end administration, and support management with appropriate strategies for making agile decisions by giving them opportunities to pilot new initiatives, for example.

In an increasingly competitive sector, data can help universities differentiate themselves and give the most distinctive of student experiences. Tribal’s Jon Baldwin says: “Universities have got more business-like. The challenge is how you mesh business savviness with the need to respect the collegium. How do you do that in a complicated world? We still have a way to go.’