Universities rise to the efficiency challenge


There is no shortage of people in HE who are willing to talk passionately about their research or most promising student. But do people get excited about efficiency? Well yes actually, says Sarah Jackson of the N8 Research Partnership who has published a report commissioned by BIS with a wealth of evidence on how universities are achieving efficiencies.

Sitting on the Pendalino, whizzing into Euston for the first day of my BIS secondment looking at efficiency, I had two burning questions. Would I be able to get people in the sector excited about efficiency and willing to tell their stories? And would being in the Department feel like becoming an extra in the Thick of It, the much loved Westminster satire programme?

Six months on I have found many people willing to explain new more efficient ways in which their University is working. And perhaps most importantly how the money they save is making a difference to research and to students.

It is not hard to find academics who will talk passionately about their latest idea, or a promising student. It was a happy surprise to discover that many were equally animated about efficiencies.

A team at Swansea have focused on improving the student experience from the same staff baseline- and seen the University shoot up 38 places in the National Student Survey. The University of Manchester has an exciting new podcast lecture capture system – that is a breeze for all academics to use. University of Oxford is investing small sums to ensure that more people from different disciplines are using important kit. Clusters of universities like N8 and M5 are sharing expensive equipment that no one could afford or fully use alone. Newcastle University is saving £1.7m a year through procurement. North of the border, the universities and FE Colleges in Scotland are saving around £12m per year by clubbing together and buying goods and services collectively. Efficiency Exchange will be featuring some of these case studies in the coming weeks.

The really interesting bit for me was to understand the benefits from these efficiencies. These are very clear. Savings have been ploughed into student services such as 24-7 library openings, more placement opportunities and improving careers advice, while greater sharing of research equipment is supporting new sciences and strong relationships with industry. I also saw how prudent financial management is building strong balance sheets and supporting new investment in research and teaching facilities – £8bn being spent over the next 3 years. Surplus but certainly not surplus to requirements.

While I was at BIS it was revealing to see how in just a few weeks the “efficiency” question shot up the agenda – the questions were coming in from Treasury thick and fast. So it’s a long term challenge for the sector to demonstrate what we are doing, and also to do more of it.

As for the Thick of It? Well, not a bit of it – I was made to feel very welcome by a great group of colleagues in BIS who spend every day making the case for the value of the Higher Education sector in the UK. I feel confident that British universities are working incredibly efficiently. Now we need to celebrate it.

Read the report

Sarah Jackson is Director of the N8 Research Partnership, a collaboration of the eight most research intensive universities in the North of England: Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York.