Shared services in the higher education sector

Like most large organisations, universities use a great number of IT systems and services that add nothing in the way of differentiation. There is therefore ample opportunity for institutions to share computer systems with one another, saving money through economies of scale.

“There are 42 different higher education institutions in London alone,” explains Andrew Abboud, CIO of London’s City University. “Each one has their own internal or external data centre or both, their own student records systems and their own finance and HR systems. That infrastructure doesn’t add any value to research or education.”

But although they are publicly funded, universities are not subject to the public sector shared services drive currently being spearheaded by government CIO John Suffolk. The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) is currently working on a set of resources to help universities plan shared services projects, but beyond that it is up to the institutions themselves to take the initiative.

According to Peter Tinson, executive secretary of the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (UCISA), university shared services projects are being held back by cultural, rather than technological, challenges. “I think there’s a fear of loss of control, to be honest,” he says.

Despite this, some organisations have set the ball rolling. “I’ve started conversations with other universities in London,” says Abboud. “We all have data centre requirements, so we’ve agreed to sit down to understand what those needs are and see if we can work together, whether it is to build our own facility or use our procurement power to get a cheaper price from someone else’s facility.”

There are complications when it comes to coordinating the procurement plans of such large organisations. “It takes time,” says Abboud. “Institutions have different requirements and have to move at different times.”

He believes that the budget cuts will provide some extra impetus for the shared services agenda, but adds that many universities, including City, have plenty of cash in their coffers. In fact, Abboud – who joined the sector only recently,
having previously worked for various professional services firms – believes that higher education institutions have been overfunded in the past.

Nevertheless, he argues that there is an “unbelievable amount” of duplicated effort in the sector that needs to be addressed. “The current costs are just not sustainable,” he says. 

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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