With universities coming under growing pressure to justify how they use their resources, efficiency is back in the spotlight. But, as Simon Perks explains, the focus will increasingly be on how well institutions meet the needs of their students, while accommodating growing cost pressures.
Our universities operate in a challenging environment. Expectations of funders and fee-paying students are rising. Competition from traditional and alternative providers is becoming more intense. And costs continue to increase. All of which mean that institutions need to do ever more with the resources at their disposal.
When it comes to improving efficiency, our universities have already made great strides. They have streamlined processes and eliminated waste. They have improved space utilisation and reduced energy consumption. They have shared services, pooled assets and co-located professional services staff. And they have become lean, mean procurement machines.
This is all great news, but it is no longer enough.
The student’s perspective
Because while it used to be all about efficiency and value for money, the focus of the government and the funding bodies – and the media – is increasingly on efficiency and value for money as seen from the student perspective. And I guess I can see where they’re coming from. After all, teaching students is part of what universities are all about. So there’s little point in having the world’s slickest finance function if half of your students drop out at the end of their first year.
This means that institutions are going to need to take a much more strategic approach to efficiency and value for money. They need not just to be efficient, but to be efficient at the things that matter. So what is it that you seek to provide for your students? What do you want them to get out of their time studying with you? And how can you best use your resources to make this happen?
Our universities need to choose what they want to be good at. And then they need to be efficient at doing precisely that.
The student experience
From a student perspective, we’re no doubt looking at things like high quality teaching, a supportive learning environment and a stimulating and engaging student experience. So where institutions are currently talking about space usage, virtual servers and procurement maturity assessments, we’re going to need to see a lot more mention of things like student retention, attainment, employability and satisfaction.
This isn’t to say that the other things aren’t important, of course. It’s just that we need to make sure it’s not the tail wagging the dog. Institutions are about teaching students – as well as undertaking research and engaging with wider society – and so it’s how efficient we are at doing that that is important. We also need, crucially, to be able to demonstrate to our students that we are spending their tuition fees efficiently and wisely.
The increasing focus on the student perspective is probably the most significant change to the way the sector thinks about efficiency and value for money since the Diamond Review. And it is essential that institutions take action now to meet the expectations of Government, funders and students alike. Because that spotlight isn’t moving away any time soon.
Simon Perks is the author of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s guide ‘Getting to Grips with Efficiency’, which provides a primer for university governors on the efficiency agenda in the higher education sector and offers insight into the challenges that they and their institutions will face.