Gerry Webber: ‘under the veneer of conservatism, universities are constantly reinventing themselves’

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Edinburgh Napier University’s secretary tells Rosie Niven about how Lego is providing an inspiration for delivering services to students and reveals his dislike of forms.

  1. You have been in this role for 15 years – how has it evolved?

My role falls into into three main parts. Firstly, good governance, compliance, health and safety, risk management and corporate planning functions. Secondly, property and facilities and finally, information services which includes both our IT infrastructure and services and also library service provision. 

It evolves constantly. Over the years I have had responsibility for leading most of the professional services at various times and in the past I have worked with several different combinations of vice principals and assistant principals.

  1. What are the biggest efficiency challenges at Edinburgh Napier?

We are part way through rethinking the way we do timetabling. The aim is to provide personalised timetabling information for our students in a way we believe will benefit their experience of the university. We want them to feel like they are at the centre of the process, which they should be.

We want to provide greater benefits for our students, mainly by improving our processes. I have been leading a project exploring e-services for students and parallel to this there is a programme of work around the way we deliver services to staff.

There is a tendency to develop processes from the inside out – to take a provider view of the way we are going to deliver them. One of the harder things is to say, “Let’s put ourselves in the position of the consumer. What would make it easier for them and how can we provide that better?”

By reducing barriers, we are reducing waste in the process. I often liken it internally to Lego. It’s an incredibly flexible tool for doing things, not because every bit of Lego is different, but because every bit of Lego is designed to meet certain key standards and they all lock together.

It’s about recognising that there isn’t necessarily a conflict between standardisation and flexibility – in fact there might be a positive correlation. So we are having a good look at how we can standardise more in order to deliver greater flexibility of choice and personalisation. 

  1. Any successes you’d like to talk about?

We have just won a Times Higher Leadership and Management Award for the most outstanding estates team. We have moved from a position where we had very disparate estates spread through many parts of the city. We had far too many buildings with a number that were not fit for purpose.

Through a process of consolidation and rationalisation, through bringing together academic areas that better sat with each other, we have managed to increase student numbers while reducing the overall amount of space. The result was a 25% efficiency gain in the management of our second biggest cost.

Not every university is in a position to achieve those savings. We only did it because we started from a place that you rationally wouldn’t want to get to. Historically we had to grow very fast in the second half of the 1990s so that left us with a large sprawling estate, not all of which was fit for purpose.

We now have 90% of activities on three main sites and we intend to remain as least as concentrated as that. And we’re about to agree a new estates strategy for the next ten years. That is going to have a different focus because we have done the rationalisation. But we will certainly be trying to achieve further efficiencies by looking at the way we deliver teaching and looking at the way we manage our office spaces.

  1. How do you balance the ‘business as usual’ with the need to improve the way things are done?

It’s a bit facile but I think I would say there is no business as usual if by that you mean it is in opposition to improving the way things are done. Improving the way things are done has to become our business as usual.

I think universities have a tendency to think of themselves as very conservative organisations, but under the veneer of conservatism, universities are constantly reinventing themselves and are permanently in a state of flux, change and improvement.

You don’t need to have things in such a state of flux that bog-standard things fall apart, but if there are parts of a university that are sitting there thinking change is for someone else, then they are not going to be thinking that for very long. 

I sometimes think of it as riding a bike. If you are not moving forward, then you are going to fall off. You need to keep a momentum of change.

  1. You play a significant role in organisations including APUC and AHUA and you are a member of the Universities Scotland Efficiency Taskforce. Having had a good overview of universities’ activities, what are the main successes in Scotland when it comes to efficiency?

APUC, the procurement organisation, which looks after colleges as well as universities, is very well established. In Scotland have more than 30% of purchasing through collaborative or framework agreements. By 2018 we hope to have that up to 40% by working smarter. Even by the harshest measurement, that’s up to £15m of savings a year, which feeds benefit back into the core business of higher education.

We are increasingly seeing real advances in IT. We are seeing more use of shared data centres, more institutions hosting services for others and I think over the next few years we will see significant improvements. We have also established an IT shared services catalyst. This is Scotland’s first cost sharing group in higher education.

  1. What do you enjoy most about your role?

It’s a very social job. A lot of people assume that working in leadership and management is filling in forms and devising forms for others to fill in. I hate forms, I hate filling in forms and I hate constructing forms for others to fill in. Not a lot of my colleagues might think that but I do. I hate forms.

Most of my time is spent being in meetings, chairing meetings and lots of internal and external networking. As well as being involved in AHUA, I am also involved in HUMANE (Heads of University Management & Administration Network Europe) – I am just back from a couple of days in Berlin looking at the future development of the workforce. It is important that people like myself are active outside of our institution as well as inside.

Higher education changed my life and gave me opportunities that I would never have had if I hadn’t gone to university and the same is probably true one way or another for most people in the sector. It opens so many more prospects not just for society at large but for every individual that comes into contact with it. 

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Rosie Niven
Rosie is the content editor at Efficiency Exchange