At your service

From residence to refectory, Nicola Yeeles looks at how evolving cloud technology can support exceptional university services

Good food and good accommodation come high up students’ wish lists. Whether it’s new software to help estates get the latest cohort of students checked into their accommodation, or a system to help keep track of the cost of ingredients for campus cafes, the shining stars of a university’s excellent student satisfaction ratings often rely on great digital administration. 

This March at the UCISA18 conference in sunny Bournemouth, there was inspiration from the US on the topic. Sharif Nijim, senior director for IT service delivery at the University of Notre Dame, inspired delegates not just with his on-stage cartwheel, but with news of how the Indiana University has embraced cloud computing. The University’s IT team has dared to move 80% of applications and workloads to the cloud, including core data centre capabilities, by the end of 2018. In this article we look at the ways in which harnessing external solutions which utilise the cloud can support provision of equally flexible services.

One area that traditionally involved a lot of paper is accommodation services. Andrew Tanner from RMS has experience of both the UK and US markets and identifies why there is so much pressure on these departments in UK universities. He said: “I feel like we are seeing a faster growth in private development of student residences in the UK versus North America. The tight turnaround from students getting their results, then offers from the universities, to truly moving onto campus, creates a fair amount of pressure on administrators. Making the offer, having students accept or decline and then checking them into campus is a frantic time of year. In North America the offers are made much earlier, students commit much earlier and therefore the summer (August specifically) is not as frantic.”

With time at such a premium, it’s no wonder that digital solutions have come as a real game changer for those prepared to invest. At the University of Greenwich, paper application forms for student residences used to be the norm, with plenty of cross-checking happening as different student information was stored in different places. Now, a new one-stop system gives staff more time. Since procuring their solution from RMS, Lisa Winter, accommodation services manager, said: “We have a record of all of the information we need in one place. This has obvious time-saving benefits. And we have reduced our reliance on IT staff, giving them more time to work on other projects.” 

What should universities look for when procuring such systems? Andrew believes that the ability to customise “is incredibly important. Students are demanding better service including more and more self-service and universities are competing more and more for students and funding. The ability to cater to their needs using fully customisable content, to create custom staff pages that enables distribution of work within a defined/efficient process flow is delivering greater service, cutting costs and so on.” 

By way of example, in the future, universities will need to respond to the growing trend for self-service style accommodation allocation by students, something that has been popular in the US for over 10 years. This means that students truly select their own room, pull in their preferred roommates, sign a contract and pay a fee all in a single space, online. This gives them the ultimate in a flexible consumer-style experience. The right systems will allow universities to add this capability when they are ready.

But the university itself needs to commit to upholding its own end of the deal if it wants to future-proof its investment in such a system. Andrew says that the right supplier can actually help them to do this: “Staff are often bogged down in their day-to-day work and have little time to think about how process changes might actually benefit the organisation. Our customer success team helps them do this, by forcing focused time on their business processes, identifying where the software could save them time and making the necessary changes to increase efficiency.”

A second area that universities are currently investing in is in bespoke food-procurement services to support catering – often an area of priority thanks to income from commercial hospitality. Queen Mary University of London is one of the largest of the London colleges and has an annual turnover of £300m, of which £2.5m comes from its commercial hospitality. Graham Brundle is in charge of this. In order to get a closer view of operations, Graham sought a one-stop shop to manage the College’s complete purchasing process, financial management and service delivery. He chose Pelican Procurement, and as a result his team claim to have realised financial savings of over £117,000. This is partly due to direct cost savings from a more competitive tendering process, and partly due to staff time saved because they no longer have to do time-consuming processes like inputting supplier invoices or managing overpayments. 

“In the future, universities will need to respond to the growing trend for self-service style accommodation allocation by students.”

As a result, Graham said: “We have far more insight into the financial elements of the business than ever before. We find ourselves spending less time dealing with supply chain, which creates significant time savings all round enabling us to focus more on front-of-house tasks and development.” As well as improved cost visibility, Pelican Procurement’s product architect Matt Ferris also points to increased control. He said: “In a lot of catering operations, chefs become powerful but senior management staff can’t see what’s happening. When orders are placed on the system, it gives them higher order control about what they’re buying.” Matt also points to numerous other benefits of automating procurement when it comes to catering, for example, “So-called ‘purchase to pay’ processes record the quantities of goods the university has received and then automatically work out if they’ve been invoiced for the right items.” 

It’s clear that an ability to view and share data previously held in different silos is proving invaluable in saving time and allowing a greater range of staff to make data-driven decisions. But what if the sharing could go beyond the university walls? Jisc and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) have been working to allow universities to use a series of dashboards to review comparative data from a number of sources. Currently 95 higher education institutions are comparing their performance with peer organisations, identifying trends and gaining insights. These insights cover the full spectrum of university services: from estates, finance and staffing data to information on student recruitment, graduate employability, course provision and research, 

As universities estates teams grow confident about sharing their knowledge and cultivating a spirit of shared competitiveness and pride in UK plc, that journey is set to continue. Getting the back-end systems right can save time, money and drive ever-greater student satisfaction.