Higher Education - it’s time for you to run smarter

26 October 2016

Elliot Howells

Elliot Howells


There are very few weeks that go by where education, and specifically, Higher Education (HE) doesn’t appear in the news. The HE landscape is transforming in terms of delivery, funding and regulation and it’s time for the digital landscape of HE providers to do the same. Here’s how technology can support senior decision makers in running smart and informed institutions in this ever-evolving sector. 

I’ve recently joined Bluefin Solutions having graduated from Cardiff University this summer. In between my studies, I led the Students’ Union as SU President, sat on the University’s Governing Bodies, spent some time as a Student Experience Consultant and worked as a Reviewer for the Quality Assurance Agency for HE. In these roles, I was exposed to some of the most senior decision making environments in institutions and had first-hand experience of the pain points in these complex organisations.

Now, five weeks into learning about the world of SAP and having attended Bluefin’s DigitalCONNECT 2016 event, focusing on digital transformation, I can’t help but draw parallels between the challenges faced in universities and the solutions provided by new technologies, specifically, SAP. Universities haven’t traditionally had these technologies high on their agendas for a number of reasons. Primarily, unlike most organisations, profit doesn’t appear at the top of a list of prioritised KPIs and so realising a return on investment is difficult.  
As we are regularly reminded; customers expect more now than ever before. While I’m usually the first to stop people from referring to students as customers (students should be partners in their education), the financial investments that today’s students are making in their education mean they deserve the same benefits that customers of major companies receive. Tuition fees are at an all-time high and the levels of financial support from the government are certainly not so who can blame students for wanting the very best education with the very best levels of ‘service’? Universities know this and it’s why their KPIs often focus on student satisfaction and league tables. SAP solutions can go a long way to supporting activities contributing to the success of these indicators.  

The student data lifecycle

As we would expect, universities want a way to keep track of their students throughout their engagement with the institution. The focus of this has traditionally been on the modules they are taking and their performance in each of those. This data is useful for discussions around individual progress and also the progress of departments, colleges and faculties. However, there are far greater opportunities to be harnessed by taking this tracking to the next level.  

By using a single system to record a student’s very first interaction with a university (usually attending an Open Day or requesting a prospectus), tracking their progress while they study and then continuing to record data while they become an alumnus, universities can become much smarter in their activities. A single source of truth means that decision makers can get a holistic view of a student’s path through the institution to inform future developments. Additionally, with a method of tracking the activity of alumni, relationships are more likely to be positive ones and these can eventually be used to achieve philanthropic targets. The benefit of having a sophisticated view of the student data lifecycle cannot be underestimated.

Supporting students beyond the lecture theatre 

Focusing more specifically on interactions with students while they’re at university, the opportunities for strategic planning are vast. In my experience, it is very rare for institutions to link academic progress data with non-academic data such as a student’s extra-curricular activity on and off-campus or their pastoral concerns, for example. With appropriate permissions set, this linked data could prove hugely useful in spotting trends in why students may be struggling academically.  
A slip in academic performance may highlight a reason for student support services to intervene before a student becomes unwell or leaves their course altogether. This insight means that support services can focus on a proactive approach instead of a reactive one and genuinely make a difference to students.

“More students? We’ll need a whole new campus.” 

Aside from data on students, universities often manage large and complex estates that have to flex to suit the needs of a huge number of stakeholders. Accurate data on the use and more importantly, the utilisation, of this estate could be genuinely transformative. Instead of spending tens of millions of pounds developing new buildings that appear to be vital, institutions should begin with a thorough understanding of how their current assets are being utilised. The emergence of the Internet of Things and Big Data analytics mean that, with the right software and hardware, universities can get a full view of how, when and by whom their resources are being accessed to determine whether or not new, expensive, facilities are necessary. This data could also support timetabling activities by ensuring both staff and teaching spaces are being used in the most efficient way, ultimately contributing to a more sustainably run organisation.

... and this is just the beginning

Here, I’ve looked at just a few of the challenges I know senior decision makers are facing but there’s plenty of scope for these technologies to provide solutions beyond these discussed. Universities are large, complex, multi-faceted and often, international organisations and software solutions can go a long way to support the running of them.

The sector is ripe for a digital transformation and I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results we’ll see in the organisations that do embrace it. Universities are often seen as leaders in invention, collaboration and innovation and these are some simple examples of how institutions can practice what they preach by implementing new technologies.


About the author

Elliot Howells


Bluefin and SAP S/4HANA - welcome to the one horse race

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