Money makes the world go around, as the old saying goes. That’s as true for higher education as anywhere else. No, it doesn’t mean that universities are only doing what they do for the money or that learners are now simply regarded as customers. Rather, as organisations that are as complex and sprawling as any large business, universities must rely heavily on their finance departments to ensure their easy, seamless operation.
Finance systems are, in some ways, the beating heart that supports many of the university’s operations: making the kind of high-quality teaching and student learning experience they offer possible by supporting it on the back end.
Finance departments must manage the information needed to carry out strategic decision-making, and perform payroll and other transaction services for students, departments, staff and external stakeholders. They must also track and control the frameworks needed to support a university’s financial activities. Furthermore, they must do all of this at a time in which higher education is going through its biggest shift in decades. That’s not an easy task!
Fortunately, technology is here to help. Whether it’s to improve speed of service and efficiency, handle new demands (different payment requirements, for instance), provide superior customer experience or simply to manage myriad, once-siloed databases through integrated systems, today’s progressive financial services tools are more than up to the challenge.
Revolutions like cloud computing and machine learning, two of the most important technological developments in recent history, are helping keep pace with the major changes in HE – and not just survive, but thrive. In doing so, they are ushering in more cohesive, centralised payments services at a time when innovations like hybrid learning mean universities are becoming more diffuse than ever.
What are some of the crucial technologies no modern higher education finance department should be without? Here, University Business rounds up the top ones.
Enterprise resource planning
“Every university will have a finance system,” James Arvin, higher education and public sector industry director at Unit4, told University Business. “Organisations that are of a certain size, particularly in higher education, really can’t operate without a proper, fully fledged system to manage their financial management functions. But how modern and up-to-date these systems are is the big question.
We talk to a lot of organisations that are using legacy technology and legacy platforms that haven’t been updated or evolved for 10 or more years. In that time, the shape of the organisation will be vastly different, but they may still be using technology the same way they used it a decade ago.”
At the heart of any efficient modern finance department is an ERP – or enterprise resource planning system. ERP systems refer to a suite of connected tools that offer an integrated management approach to a range of different, previously siloed areas.
In the case of HE, that means bringing finance and accounting, procurement or purchasing, human resources records of employees and personnel, payroll, and more under one roof.
“In every finance function of every university, there will still be dozens and dozens of spreadsheets,” Arvin said.
“The aim of an ERP platform is deploying all of that into a single online, secure, automated controlled environment to ensure effective financial management and insight for the institution.”
Having been around since the 1980s, Unit4 is one of the most established names in the field of ERP. Its HE-focused ERP solutions have been crafted by experts with knowledge of higher education, and are designed to not just keep all information in one place, but to show how each financial factor impacts others.
Wholesale cloud-driven digital transformation is something most institutions are yet to capitalise on. Making the cloud transformation at this depth opens up a whole new world of connected planning and institutional insights.
But change-averse cultures and downward cost pressures have made many reluctant to explore switching to fully cloud-based ERP systems. That is to their detriment.
An integrated SaaS platform provides the opportunity to connect other key systems’ data for more comprehensive institution-wide planning. One of the strengths of modern SaaS ERP platforms, such as Unit4 ERPx, is their ability to integrate easily and connect the data from other strategic solutions. This single view of all institutional data allows institutions to spot everything from upcoming financial emergencies to opportunities for growth.
Intelligent process automation – powered by AI and machine learning – also makes possible the progressive automation of routine tasks. That means that everyone can focus on higher-value activities and innovation, stepping in only to handle exceptions.
Higher education institutions have no shortage of costs, meaning a continuous stream of money leaving their accounts. But they also take in money from customers – and they need to be able to do this effectively.
This is where the importance of a good (or even great) payments solution comes into play. Elavon is a leading example of a credit card transaction processing company, and has been voted the highest-rated of all payment companies in education in the UK.
Its tools are designed to handle the complexity of accepting many different forms of payment in multiple currencies, with the highest regard for both speed (important for cashflow) and security. They can also frequently integrate with other business software so that organisations can make use of the data that these payments provide to inform inventories and other operations.
“Schools, colleges and universities are unique in that they often have complex IT and funding systems,” Dena Boyce, a senior education payments specialist at Elavon, told University Business. “Students from around the world are transacting in multiple currencies and have varied preferences on how to pay. We offer versatile, secure and reliable payment technology that is current with evolving payment trends so students can pay in a way that is easiest for them. We actively seek students’ input on preferences and work with students on new and innovative payment concepts.”
One of the financial tasks any university will be intimately acquainted with is the often-labyrithine process of research funding and grants – a centralised, cloud-based tool can make this process far more manageable and inspectable
Managing grants and research funding
One of the financial tasks any university will be intimately acquainted with is the often-labyrinthine process of research funding and grants. Worktribe provides a higher education research and curriculum management platform that’s used by over 40 universities around the UK. For comprehensive research grants management, Worktribe offers a centralised, cloud-based tool for developing and then costing proposals for research, approving applications, and carrying out post-award financial management of any live awards.
In doing so as an intuitive one-stop-shop for all things research funding, it can make this complex process far more manageable and inspectable, without the kind of headaches that ordinarily accompany this disjointed process.
Worktribe was founded in 2002 by two friends who met while studying computer science, psychology and AI at the University of Nottingham, and since 2011 the company has solely focused on the requirements of the higher education sector. Jon Hackney, account manager at Worktribe, said much of the functionality has been developed based on insights from Worktribe’s active user group, and is constantly evolving to address the latest business and compliance requirements.
“What the system does is to manage the process of putting in an application for funding for research through the various different stages,” Hackney told University Business. “You can do everything from getting the application approved through internal workflow, then exported to be submitted to the funder, and then once you get that funding amount back you’re able to manage the award. It does all of this in a single [web-based] system, with everyone getting the same user interface.”
The tools include Worktribe Pre-Award, which includes research-costing tools, and Worktribe Post-Award, which includes budget management and tracking. Everything follows a clear workflow from bid development and project creation to tracking staff workload allocations. It also makes the research application process easier by including a database with in-built pricing rules for major funders, although users can manually enter their own as well.
“You’re able to put in all the basic details of an application and it will do your costing,” Hackney said. “You can put people into the project, add equipment costs, consumable costs, travel costs etc, and it will automatically be able to help calculate what you need. It will also link to your HR, finance and any other systems via an open API. In addition to calculating the costs, it can also calculate how much the funder will pay you based upon the formula rules.”
Financial compliance and reporting
You need a lot more than a calculator and in/out ledger to run a finance department. Taking that data and presenting it usefully – whether that’s a revealing graph, chart, or visualisation can help provide finance departments with the kind of intelligence they need to highlight improvements or trends across an organisation.
This is very important for an area like compliance, with the need to keep a comprehensive audit trail regarding financial decisions and actions.
Tools like IRIS Financials and its integrated product suite can help to meet every administrative need of a higher education institution, however unique those requirements might be.
“IRIS takes the pain out of managing high-effort, low-value tasks and processes for professionals working in higher education, enabling them to focus on the work they love,” Simon Freeman, managing director of IRIS Education, told University Business. “Its software saves staff time on admin, ensuring compliance is accurate and fast, and [improving] efficiency across colleges and universities.”
Software like IRIS Financials offers finance departments cloud-based access from any device, providing automated workflows and dashboards intended to grant visibility of overall financial statuses, while automating mundane and complex operational tasks to drive success.
“IRIS Financials enables finance teams to configure workflows to automate complex processes, such as bank reconciliation and prepayments,” Freeman explained. “No matter how complex the university’s affairs currently are, or become, IRIS Financials’ dashboard functionality will enable CFOs and finance managers to centralise their finances with ease and view the latest up-to-date information. The latest iteration uses a unified ledger system that automatically consolidates data from all sources across an organisation – overcoming problems that some may have with lack of centralised records, making it easy to rapidly produce accurate and compliant financial statements.”
You might also like: Transforming HE with cloud financial technology